Yes. Last Saturday I went to prison, Colorado Territorial Prison to be exact. Fortunately, I went with 5 great friends (might as well serve time with buddies, right?), and they let me out at the end of the day. I told our group that while we were going through security, if the guard made a call to the Baylor Police department and mentioned the phrase "unpaid parking tickets", I was going on the run!
This prison visit was set up by Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. Territorial is Colorado's oldest prison (dating back to 1871), housing around 1,000 inmates. These men committed crimes ranging from drug trafficking, to rape and assault, to murder. I was surprised to find that Territorial also hosts one of the most effective Prison Churches in the country.
Stop. Maybe you just had that moment where your cynical past regurgitated the thought that prisoners accept Christ so that they can accelerate their chances of parole. You may be right, for some. But what I witnessed that day went far beyond the outward show of man's selfish agenda. Read on.
When the worship service began, Chuck, an inmate of 20 years, led the 75 men in the room into one of the most powerful, energetic, Christ-exalting times of worship that I've ever enjoyed. Chuck learned amazing piano skills, along with proficiency in 8 other instruments, while incarcerated. He added a vocal quality that can only be described as a spiritual gift from the Lord. None of us wanted the worship time to end. It carried the desperate edge of believers who cry out to God from a place of brokenness, depravity, and a daily awareness of their need for God's grace. Those of you reading this blog from other parts of the world may better identify with that version of worship. I saw it in Kazakhstan, China, and Azerbaijan. I've seen it in the eyes of international workers, who have walked away from their American Dream to pursue the global agenda of God. These men joined the chorus of believers around the world who cling to God and to each other. It was not a show; it is Life.
Then, once Chuck told us we HAD to stop, Hop stood up to preach the Word. Hop has been in prison for 16 years or more. During this time he has studied Greek and Hebrew, and become proficient enough to teach the other inmates who are hungry to grow in the knowledge of God. He brought a sermon that challenged my theological assumptions, and his teaching carried the kind of holy unction that E.M. Bounds encouraged in his classic book, Power Through Prayer.
Antonio also sat in the room. He is the resident evangelist/intercessor. Antonio spends several hours each day in his cell offering up prayers for other inmates, especially for those who have reached that blessed place of brokenness, that moment where sinful depravity overwhelms a man, and opens his heart to a full-on collision with the forgiveness of God. By the way, Antonio also leads a group of intercessors who lift up prayer requests of believers outside the prison walls. They had been praying diligently for a lady who needed her house to sell. They were glad to pray for her. I was embarrassed for her. Asking men who spend everyday in prison to pray that her house will sell? "Give me a break." I thought. Then I was embarrassed for my own attitude.
Did I mention that Chuck is Black, Hop is White, and Antonio is Hispanic? Did I mention that, for two of them, their crimes were centered on racial hatred? But there you have it - the church, it all it's unrefined, spiritually mature, Christ-embracing glory. These men don't have most of what we call "church" in our current Western expression. They just have an overwhelming need for God, a love that overcomes hatred, a freedom that stands in stark contrast to their imprisonment, a humility that is born out of deep gratitude, and a passion to know Him and to help each other through the most brutal time of life. And they have Jesus; lots of Him.
Church - prison style. Upon leaving the facility, Peter, one of the guys in our group, asked the poignant question, "Who is really free, and who is actually in prison? Them, or us?" Great question, Pete. While I'm motivated to inspire our local church to greater liberty, I can't wait to go back to prison to participate in their freedom. Their church. We have much to learn from these dear brothers. And their expression of church, by the way, is exploding around the world; not always behind bars, but always filled with lots of Jesus.
P.S. This prison church, while led by inmates, has two chaplain overseers. Dan and Ken are both support-raised chaplains placed in Territorial by Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. To learn more about their work, and how you can connect with a prison ministry outreach in your area, go to their website by clicking here.