KOH2RVA: Day 225

jail barsI went to jail last Friday.

It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on this year-long, every-member mission trip. I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” So I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers. I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me.

Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist Church. He’s a young man, a strong man; he works as a personal trainer at a fitness center. I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 service and the next thing I know he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”

So, last Sunday I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field and as I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?” I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to.

I knew I’d found the right man for the job.

Turns out Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond Jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said. “Just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.” So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security, and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend Mike Kelly, “Michael Patrick Kelly,” he reminds me, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do: the Jewish Community Center.

It’s in interesting world we live in.

Mike led us up to a cell block on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior, because they were exceptionally well-behaved. They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.

I didn’t want to be “preachy,” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it. When I was finished I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.

I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love. And then I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions. They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”

And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth. I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved. And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond Jail, because he knew that man was in there, and needed to know God’s love.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

On the way back to church Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but he might. I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there, and in his own way he reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love? I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad.

KOH2RVA: Day 105

The world did not end yesterday.

Walter R. T. Witschey was right: the Maya calendar simply rolled over from one cycle to the next, as smoothly as the odometer on your car.  According to that calendar, yesterday was 13.0.0.0.0 and today is 13.0.0.0.1.

According to the Gregorian calendar today is December 22, 2012, and according to the Christian calendar tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which means that—since the world didn’t end—I need to get busy writing a sermon.

But before I do, let me tell you what happened yesterday, on Day 104 of KOH2RVA (speaking of calendars): our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

I went to jail.

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I told you I was going, and I told you I was going to tell a story.  I did.  I was escorted through a set of iron bars and down a long hallway past the high-security lockdown and the dining hall, up a flight of iron steps and in through another set of iron bars to a room where I found about fifty men in brown jump suits waiting patiently for my arrival.  As I walked in they rose to their feet applauding and, honestly, I looked around to see who they were clapping for.  They didn’t know me.  I hadn’t even been introduced.  Apparently they are so glad to see anybody from the outside that they will clap even for a Baptist preacher.

Father Pruitt, the chaplain, gave a long speech about what a sacrifice I was making, how I was taking time out of my extremely busy schedule to be with them, and how grateful they should be, and then I got to tell my story.

I decided to tell the one about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down the house while making a volcano in the back yard, but I did say at one point, “Friends, please don’t try this at home and especially don’t try it at the Richmond Jail.”

Let the record show.

It was a funny story and they seemed to enjoy it and at the end I said, “My brothers and I have never told my parents what really happened, and if you don’t tell them they will never know.  So, raise your right hands and repeat after me: I promise…never to tell…Dr. Somerville’s parents…who burned down the house!”

They laughed out loud.

It did feel as if heaven came a little closer to earth yesterday afternoon, in an iron-barred room at the Richmond Jail where inmates became—for a little while—children again, listening to a story.  In that moment I was glad that the world hadn’t come to an end.  I even began to feel hopeful that it might become a better place,

One loving act at a time.

KOH2RVA: Day 104

lit matchWell, according to some people, this is the day the world is supposed to end. I’ve got it on my calendar that way: “End of the world—not sure of exact time.” But because I’m not sure of the exact time I’m planning to go on with the other things that are on my (not the Maya) calendar.

For example:

At 1:00 this afternoon I’m supposed to tell a story to the inmates at the Richmond Jail. Chaplain Alonzo Pruitt says one of the greatest problems at the jail is boredom. “These people are here 168 hours a week,” he says. “Any relief they can get is appreciated.” So, I’ve offered to tell them a story, but which one should I tell?

  • I have a story about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house when we tried to build a volcano in the back yard, but I’m not sure that’s a good one to tell people who are in jail.
  • And then there’s the time we gave the family cat an almost-complete ovariohysterectomy on the dining room table while my parents were out for the evening, but again, it might give the inmates ideas.
  • I have that story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was in it, but I’m not sure it sets the right kind of moral example.

I’ll have to sort all that out before I go down there this afternoon, but I’m still hoping to go. I look forward to that opportunity to visit with those who are there, to brighten their day, to see if I can bring a little of the Kingdom of Heaven to one of the darkest corners of Richmond, Virginia.

What are you going to do today to bring the KOH2RVA?

KOH2RVA: Day 81

So…yesterday I was talking about the Richmond Jail, and at the bottom of the post, as a footnote, I put a link to some photographs by Eva Russo taken inside the jail. I warned my readers that the pictures were “graphic” and “disturbing,” and some of them were. This one is not: it’s a picture of a woman visiting her boyfriend at the jail. And when I look at her children, visiting with her, I think, “If they can do it, I can too.”

But let me be clear about this: jail ministry is not for everyone. When I say “there must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth” this is certainly one of the ways. But it may not be your way. Nonetheless, there are ways all of us can take part in this ministry.

I talked with Father Alonzo Pruitt recently, Chief of Chaplains and Director of Social Work at the jail, and asked him how Richmond’s First Baptist Church could help.

He said he could use all the help he could get.

He said there are 33,000 people who pass through the jail each year—“residents”—he called them, not “inmates.” He said they need a lot of things but some of those things are very simple. They need:

  • Soap! He said, “If people in your church who travel could bring home some of those little hotel soaps and shampoos, lotions and conditioners, that would be a great help.”
  • Underwear. Those “3-packs” of men’s briefs you can find in almost any department store would be much appreciated.
  • T-shirts. Medium and Large, but especially the Extra Large and even 2X sizes would be helpful.
  • Bras. Yes, bras, for the female residents, but please, Father Pruitt said, “No underwires.”
  • Books and magazines, but be sure to remove the address labels from any magazines you might donate.

It was that last thing that really got Father Pruitt talking. He said the biggest problem residents face is boredom. “They’re here for 168 hours each week,” he said, “often with nothing to do. If your members could donate books and magazines, that would be great,” he said. “If you had a choir that could come down here and sing, that would be even better.”

“What about storytelling?” I asked. “I’ve got this great story about the time my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house.”

“Accidentally?” he asked (I could almost see him raising his eyebrows).

“Yes,” I said. “Accidentally.”

“Then come tell it,” he said. “That would be great.”

So, one of these days soon I’m going to go down to the Richmond Jail and tell that story. I’d love to bring boxes full of soap, shampoo, underwear, T-shirts, bras, books, and magazines. If you’d like to contribute, just bring your things to my office. And if you’d like to go with me when I tell that story…

…let me know.

KOH2RVA: Day 80

I went to jail yesterday.

I wasn’t sent there, thankfully; I went of my own accord, to see what it’s like, and to see how Richmond’s First Baptist Church might get involved during this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re calling KOH2RVA.

I drove downtown on Broad Street, past City Hall, past VCU Medical Center, down the steep hill into the valley that divides “that” part of Richmond from the rest of the city, and then I turned left on 18th Street, went a few blocks more, and there it was: the Richmond City Jail.

I took this picture from across the street. You can see the razor wire around the perimeter fence, the old jail building, the new construction going up to relieve the severe overcrowding inside (I’ve heard that as many as seven or eight inmates are sleeping in cells built for four). I parked in the parking lot and went in the front door where I was greeted by a friendly security guard and an imposing metal detector.

“Do you have a cell phone?” he said.

“Yes sir.”

“You have to leave it in your car.”

I walked back out to the parking lot thinking, “Next time, leave cell phone in car. Check.” And then I walked back in again. The friendly security guard didn’t make me remove the contents of my pockets. He just waved me through the metal detector and then asked me to stand with my feet apart and my arms outstretched as he “wanded” me. Eventually I was buzzed inside where I waited my turn to talk to the receptionist, who was sitting behind a wall of bulletproof glass.

I looked around. There were heavy iron bars blocking the hallway to my right. To my left was a kind of waiting area, with chairs that looked like molded plastic cubes. Straight ahead was another hallway, more bars, and behind the bars a long line of inmates on their way to lunch. They wore bright yellow jumpsuits. Some wore jumpsuits with broad, horizontal stripes of orange and white like you might see on a highway safety barrel.  Both seemed designed to keep the inmates in their place, literally and figuratively.

When I got to the window I asked for Father Alonzo Pruitt, the Chaplain. He’s really the only person I know at the jail. The receptionist said that he wasn’t in and I didn’t know what else to say. I thanked her, turned, and walked away.

Was my trip to the jail a failure? I don’t think so. I think it was an “orientation tour.” I plan to go back again, maybe many times. You see, I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25, where Jesus says,

“I was in prison, and you didn’t visit me.”

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Click HERE to see Eva Russo’s pictures from inside the jail.  I need to warn you: the pictures are graphic and disturbing, but they also make it clear why some kind of jail or prison ministry is so important.  These people, too, are the children of God, and they might go days or weeks in such a place without being reminded of that.