Several weeks ago I visited my parents in Houston, Texas, and while there I had the pleasure of visiting a local prison. Mind you, this wasn’t just any local prison. For fifteen years or more my father has volunteered as much of his time as possible with InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a Christian program designed to help prisoners develop a relationship with Christ, assist with their re-entry into the community, and reduce the rate of recidivism. The program operates in several states, including Texas, where it is run out of the Carol Vance Unit just outside of Houston. Over the years my father has mentored several men, meeting with them while they are still in prison, then continuing to work with and support them once they are out in the community. He has also assisted with volunteer recruitment, fundraising, program development, and organizing the annual Angel Tree celebration, when the men get to enjoy a Christmas party with their families. Many times I’ve heard my dad say that he works to support his habit, which is volunteering with IFI. His passion for and dedication to the program – and more so to the men involved – has always been evident. I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to tour the prison and see what this program was about.
Upon arrival there wasn’t much to see. The prison was old and, for the most part, institutional looking, although the landscaping and murals offered signs that this wasn’t your average prison. It was also smaller than most, making it the perfect location to house exclusively the IFI program and its 200 or so inmates. But after walking through to the back of the campus and entering an aluminum building we began to see how unusual this prison really is. Our tour guide, Tommie Dorsett, Director of IFI, showed us around. We sat and observed a Toastmasters meeting in progress where the inmates took turns giving speeches. We got there just in time to watch a man named Richard deliver a rapturous speech about the power of God in his life. I understood how the process of communicating their thoughts publicly and confidently could go a long way in building a positive sense of self, something which, I’m sure, many of them had never had.
This newfound self-esteem has had clear benefits. Among others it’s helped the inmates understand that they each possess the capacity to carry out Christ’s ministry. Tommie told us about the various community outreach initiatives the inmates have created. One involves collecting used bicycles, repairing them, and then giving them to kids whose families are too poor to purchase bikes.
Another arose after one IFI participant was released from prison and wrote his fellow inmates about the Houston neighborhood where he returned. He couldn’t believe that the children there had so little to eat that they were forced to scavenge food out of dumpsters. Inspired to help, the inmates began to develop a food bank program of sorts. Because they can’t have money in prison the inmates purchase food from the commissary (using funds placed in an account by their family members) and then “tithe” a percentage of it to their friend’s neighborhood. During their worship services they walk up and fill a giant “offering” box with Ramen noodles, tuna packets, and other items they’ve saved. Every Friday, Tommie is sure to get the food to that local neighborhood, otherwise he has to answer to the inmates who quiz him regularly about whether the food has reached the children. Surely, upon release, these men will be much less likely to commit crimes when they are so focused on ministering to the needs of others.
Although this last story blew me away, what touched my heart more than anything was the prayer room. The nondescript room was decorated with powerful photos of inmates being baptized, praying together, and even washing each other’s feet in the example of Christ. Two of the walls were overpowered by large dry erase boards. Every square inch of the boards was filled with prayer concerns and praises. Tommie explained that the inmates took prayer requests “from the outside,” then carefully recorded them on the boards for everyone to see. It was clear from the notations made on the boards that this was an active room. The inmates were taking the time to pray for the people and situations listed on the boards, even tracking when there was an answer to prayer, a change in status, an update, etc. Richard, who had delivered that passionate speech earlier, assured me that he and his fellow inmates had even been praying for my mom who had recently had surgery. All I could do in response was offer a weak, “thank you.” It was humbling to learn that these men whom society had written off were praying for my family.
In my work with prayer beads I inevitably talk with people about their prayer lives. So often I hear that people don’t pray because they don’t think their prayers are worthy of God’s attention. I get that; I used to use that same reasoning. But in that prayer room in the midst of barbed wire and armed guards I realized the true power of prayer. These men who had committed murder and robbery and drug deals and been locked up to protect society were praying for us. And more so, God was and is listening to their prayers. Their prayers matter just as much as your prayers and my prayers. Do you get that? Do you understand what that means for us? No matter what we have done, no matter who we are, no matter what we have to say, God hears our prayers. That’s the grace of prayer.
I think that’s important for us to understand during this season of Lent. We cannot be prepared for our journey to the cross without a sense of God’s call on our lives, and we cannot have a sense of that call except through prayer. It is in prayer that we listen and hear; it is through prayer that we understand how God created us in His image so that we might reveal God’s love to the world and live out that love, even unto the cross.
That’s why I think that during this first full week of Lent we need to practice praying. Prayer will be the foundation for the remainder of our journey these six weeks. And it will help us to understand that, no matter who we are and what we’ve done, God loves us and wants to offer His only son as a sacrifice so that we all may be forgiven and reconciled to God.
Cross: In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Invitatory Bead: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” (John 14:13 NIV)
1st Cruciform Bead: Lord, I offer my confession . . .
1st set of Week Beads: use each bead to confess your sins to God.
2nd Cruciform Bead: Lord, hear my prayer . . .
2nd set of Week Beads: use each bead to offer the joys and concerns on your heart.
3rd Cruciform Bead: Lord, help me to prepare for the journey to the cross . . .
3rd set of Week Beads: use each bead to consider the ways in which God wants you to prepare for the crucifixion.
4th Cruciform Bead: Lord, help me to hear your will for me . . .
4th set of Week Beads: use each bead to listen for God’s will for you during this season of Lent.
Invitatory Bead: recite The Lord’s Prayer
Cross: In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.
P.S. Dad, I get it.