They come with a mask on.
That is how Father Francois Pellissier described the prisoners who participate in the Kairos prison retreat at Calhoun State Prison in Albany, Ga. The men, preselected by the warden, often wait years to participate in the four-day retreat. It is an intense spiritual experience with group discussions, personal reflections, lectures, chapel meditations and talks about spirituality, making good choices, forgiveness, love and spiritual relationships.
But, the men must allow themselves to be vulnerable and open, which is a difficult concept in prison. On the first day, they are reluctant to talk, but by the third night, they are volunteering to share their stories publicly.
“They are there to meet Jesus, to trust and to see that relationships are possible in prison,” Father Francois said.
Prison ministry is an often uncelebrated portion of mission life. It is unglamorous and deals with a population that does not receive much sympathy. But it is a necessary ministry, said Brother Virgil Siefker, who serves as the liaison for the Kairos retreat in Bertie County, N.C., between the Bertie County Correctional Institution and the Kairos team.
“You can see a major transformation in the men from Thursday to Sunday,” Brother Virgil said. “Many come in not knowing about Christ and leave with a deep spiritual connection. We want these men to be good people. They have to serve their time, but they can still have remorse for what they have done and make the best use of their time while they are serving.”
In most areas, prison ministry is welcomed by the prison administration. The Kairos retreat is typically nondenominational, allowing more prisoners to relate to its message.
Kairos retreats take place in nearly 500 prisons in 10 different countries, and wardens have seen the recidivism rates among those who have participated in the program go down.
At Calhoun, the warden allowed Father Francois and Brother Jason Muhlenkamp to bring in a cross and music to set the tone for the weekend. The jail caters in food for the participants and allows former participants to serve the meals.
For most of the prisoners, the biggest draw is the treats. At each table throughout the retreat, the jail provides vending machine treats.
“The inmates love the junk food,” Father Francois said. “It is all gone by the end of the retreat.”
On the last evening, each participant receives letters written by each of the volunteers, and the retreat gets letters from around the world supporting the prisoners on their journey.
“It is a lot of work, because we write the letters by hand, but it is worth it,” Father Francois said. “You can see that it makes a difference to these men.”
The international letters are posted on the wall throughout the retreat, but the inmates can take the personal letters to their cell to read, because often the experience is very emotional.
Father Francois and Brother Jason return every month to the prison for a retreat “reunion” to support the participants. Brother Virgil hosts prayer groups each Tuesday, and many men form their own Bible study and support groups to help each other grow in their faith and to further the work they began at Kairos.
These groups are a chance for the men to discuss what is on their mind in a spiritual sense. Without these meetings, all of the Kairos weekend’s efforts and breakthroughs could be lost in the prison environment.
“They help us as much as we help them,” Brother Virgil said. “They know more about Scripture than I ever will, because they read it every day.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.