Time behind bars: Kairos Prison Ministry works to create Christian fellowship among convicted felons
Sunday, April 30, 2017
MAURY — Few things set Thursday night’s “Prayer-and-Share” apart from any other church men’s group meeting. There is no podium positioned at the front of the room; groups of chairs are arranged in circles. Men pause near the entrance for handshakes and back-pats. Some have crosses around their necks. Most are carrying Bibles. All are wearing prison uniforms.
But waiting for them to walk through the door are people whose time behind bars is strictly voluntary. Twice a month, men from the outside and inmates from Greene County’s Maury Correctional Institution meet together to pray and share scriptures. In this ministry known as Kairos, felony convictions do not stand in the way of Christian fellowship.
“You walk in and there’s all these people standing there, and they’re smiling at you,” said Thad MacMoran, 31, who began attending Kairos meetings two years ago.
“You’re kind of made to feel like you’re not in prison,” he said. “It’s a little bit of being able to take this light that the volunteers have shown us and take it into this sometimes really dark place.”
That is the mission of Kairos Prison Ministry, to spend time with those who are serving time in order to create Christian communities among people who are incarcerated. For more than 40 years, the nonprofit, interdenominational organization has worked to transform the environment inside prisons, serving nearly 500 institutions in three dozen states and 10 countries.
In its nearly 25-year history in North Carolina, Kairos has ministered to 7,000 inmates in 18 prisons, including five facilities in eastern North Carolina. Kairos began in September 2014 at Maury, 18 months after MacMoran began serving his 23-year sentence.
Longtime Kairos volunteers like Ron Capell helped to bring the ministry to Maury after nearby Eastern Correctional, where Kairos had been established for a decade, was converted to a women’s facility in 2014. (Kairos works with both men’s and women’s prisons but does not permit opposite gender volunteers inside the facilities.) At the time, some cautioned Capell to avoid Maury, a close and medium-security prison, that houses nearly 1,500 inmates.
“Initially, I had been told to stay away from Maury because it was too tough of a prison,” the Grifton retiree said. “It was just full of stabbings and crime and drugs and gangs. It was not some place you wanted to go.”
But Dennis Daniels, who had taken over as administrator at Maury a short time earlier, welcomed Kairos’ presence in the prison. Daniels had seen the ministry’s positive effects when he worked at Pasquotank Correctional Institution near Elizabeth City.
“I’m convinced if I can get 40 or 50 of them to participate in Kairos, that’s 40 or 50 that I don’t have to worry about,” Daniels said. “It makes them a better person.
“Everybody can’t do prison ministry,” he said. “Some people, they just don’t feel comfortable inside a prison. ... When we’ve got other volunteers coming in, they’re here for an hour; they’re in and out. But Kairos, they’re here hours at the time. They get good, quality time.”
Launched in Florida in 1976 as “Short Course in Christianity,” the prison ministry was renamed Kairos three years later. A Greek word, Kairos can be translated as “decisive moment” or “opportune time.”
That is what nine volunteers sought to create when they established the first Kairos weekend in 1979. Kairos weekend brings volunteers inside the prison for a three-and-a-half-day retreat that features chapel services, conversations and cookies.
The central focus of many of the discussions is forgiveness, an issue that can be a stumbling block on the cellblock. Some inmates find it hard to forgive fathers who were physically or emotionally absent from their childhoods. Others struggle to forgive themselves for what they did that landed them in prison.
“We don’t ask what someone’s in for; that’s not our point,” Capell said. “Our slogan is ‘Listen, listen, love, love.’ That’s a really important thing.
“Most of those men don’t think they’re worth anything,” he said. “... Many men inside prison have been forgiven by their family, have been forgiven even by their victim’s family, but they can’t forgive themselves.”
One of the exercises the inmates go through is to write down their offenses, along with the names of people they have hurt and of people who have hurt them. At a ceremony during Kairos weekend, they are invited to release past offenses by dropping the list into a bowl of water that dissolves both the ink and the paper.
“The last (Kairos weekend) we did at ECI, a young man stood in front of that bowl, and he would not let go of that paper,” Capell said. “I looked at it. It was just covered with names. He would not let go, but finally he dropped it, and it fell in and disappeared.
“He’s a free man,” Capell said of the inmate, who remains incarcerated. “He’s a different man.”
Kairos weekend talks, meditations and activities are all structured. Volunteers spend hours training and studying the organization’s manual before interacting with inmates.
“You have guidelines you have to go by and it’s all scripted,” said Renada Stroud, part of a group of volunteers working to start a Kairos ministry for women at Eastern Correctional. “But at the end of it, you can’t script what happens. You can’t script someone’s life being changed by God.”
Food for thought
While Kairos weekend volunteers do not stay overnight in the prison, they and the inmates are together for three meals a day. This is not the fare offered in the prison cafeteria.
“Everything in prison is bland, starchy and ugly and colorless,” Capell said. “It’s pretty much grotesque.”
The 30 to 40 inmates selected for Kairos weekend have a different menu, one that includes watermelon and strawberries, spaghetti and tacos. Dozens of volunteers take shifts at nearby Ormondsville Free Will Baptist Church, where they make old-fashioned banana pudding or barbecued chicken. Fast-food favorites, like Krispy Kreme doughnuts or Chick-fil-A sandwiches also are brought in for inmates to enjoy.
“A lot of what draws people to this ministry who’ve just barely heard of it before is the fact that for a whole weekend they eat real food,” said Marla Webb of New Bern, who started helping Kairos about four years ago with her husband, Bill.
At Maury’s Kairos weekend, held annually in May, Webb is in charge of the food item that the ministry is most famous for: cookies. She is responsible for getting more than 21,000 home-baked chocolate chip cookies to the prison.
“Kairos, among the prisoners, is called the cookie ministry; that’s its common name,” Capell said, explaining that Kairos can be difficult to remember.
Unlike the other perks of Kairos weekend, the cookies are for everyone. Guards, custodians, nurses and inmates get a dozen cookies apiece. Prisoners taking part in Kairos weekend get a second dozen, known as “forgiveness cookies,” designed to be given as a peace offering of sorts as they seek to make amends with one another.
Webb recalls how a simple gift of cookies from one inmate to another reduced the former rivals to tears. “(One) said ‘I don’t think I’ve cried that I can remember since I was about 4 or 5 years old,’” she said.
Tears are not uncommon during Kairos weekend, where prison officials like Daniels forsake protocol to serve inmates their food and drinks at the table, rather than cafeteria-style, and every meal comes with a homemade place mat decorated by a child. Contributed by children from area churches or day care centers, these crayon drawings of stick figures and rainbows bear messages like “Jesus loves you and so do I.”
“We don’t go in there just to try and bring salvation,” said Lori Sherrick of Nash County, who has volunteered with Kairos for nearly 15 years. “We hope it happens, but that’s not the end game for us. Salvation comes with love, and then when they find out we’re as real as we are they say, ‘Hey, you do love us.’”
Chains and change
Other signs of love include a colorful paper chain — each link representing a person who has promised to pray for inmates and volunteers during Kairos weekend — and hand-written letters that participating inmates receive from every volunteer inside the prison.
“The mail that you get … it’s such an awesome (thing), especially if you don’t never get no mail from home,” said inmate James Gibson, 55, who has been in prison for nearly 30 years. “I read one and folded it up. I couldn’t read no more.”
Gibson, known as “Chief,” became a Christian in prison in 1998. He attended his first Kairos weekend in 2010.
“It just wasn’t a bunch of guys wanting to come in here and give us a pat on the back and try to be friendly,” he said. “I believe it’s a sincere organization, heartfelt. I love the guys, man, they’ve been so good to me.
“They don’t treat me like a convict. They don’t treat me like I’m a lost nobody.”
Gibson, who now serves as an inmate volunteer for Kairos, said the prison is unusually quiet and incidents of violence practically unheard of during Kairos weekend. He recalls seeing one of the toughest inmates at Eastern Correctional softened by what he had seen.
“He was a very, very large man and pushed every weight on the pile,” Gibson said. “He’d been shot and cut and beat and in and out of prison and when we got to the mail day, seeing that man break down and cry ... it tore me all to pieces.
“On the yard, even a week or two after they were gone, his whole demeanor had changed. When you see that, you know something has happened.”
Capell has seen similar changes in the more than 20 years he has served with Kairos.
“It’s a transformational ministry,” he said. “I’ve seen hundreds of men’s lives change, so I know it’s real.”
Capell said men who attend Kairos are not as likely to return to prison after they are released. Citing a study of 505 inmates released from Florida prisons, Kairos International reports that the recidivism rate of inmates who had attended Kairos was 15.7 percent, compared to 23.4 percent of inmates who had not participated in Kairos. For inmates who had regularly participated in Kairos ministries, the rate of return to prison was 10 percent.
The study and the overall ministry are not without critics. Some are quick to deem Kairos as nothing more than “jailhouse religion,” a comment that Capell finds offensive.
“I get so sick of people on the outside (saying), ‘Well, that boy did his crime; he needs to serve all his time,’” he said. “There are all these catchphrases about convicts.
“Granted, there are really vicious murderers,” Capell acknowledged. “But there are people also who got into an argument with their daddy or their uncle or their cousin and there happened to be a gun nearby. ... Most men that are in prison, and women, too, they made a mistake.”
Tim Stroud of Kinston spent a decade behind bars, taking part in Kairos when he was in incarcerated at Pasquotank. Since his release in 2011, he has been back to prison several occasions — each time as a volunteer for Kairos.
“I don’t think I fought as hard to get out as I did to get back in,” Stroud said of requirements that often prohibit convicted felons from ever volunteering inside a prison.
At Kairos weekend, Stroud is one of the few volunteers who can tell inmates that he has walked in those same prison-issued shoes.
“If you have cancer and you’re going to chemo treatments and you’re seeking therapy, you don’t want to hear me tell you, ‘Just trust in God; everything’s going to be OK,’” Stroud said. “... They recognize I talk about the same things that they know about.”
Stroud, who since getting out of prison has married and started a business, does not dwell on the past. He focuses on the change that started long before his release.
“I can’t change the people that I’ve hurt or anything else,” he said. “But what I can do now is live a life that is pleasing unto God to let them know that the time that I was given and the change that God made in my life, that’s what’s important now.
“It does not take them getting out to make a change,” Stroud said. “The change can happen behind these walls.”
For the closing ceremony of Kairos weekend, inmates are invited to stand and share what the event has meant to them. Many seize the opportunity to step up to the podium.
“I got more letters yesterday than I did in the past 18 years,” one inmate said. “... I’ve slept better at night than I have the past 18 years.”
Another quoted from Matthew 25:36, which reads, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
“Thank you for bringing the love of Jesus Christ in here,” he said. “I haven’t had a visit in 11 years.”
Still another said Kairos made inmates feel “just like we’re normal people.”
“We are normal people,” he said, “but sometimes it’s difficult to remember that in here.”
Visit kairosministry.org or kairosnc.org. For more information about volunteering or contributing financially to Kairos locally, contact Ron Capell at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 524-5446. The local ministry's facebook page is facebook.com/MauryKairos.