A Book Review by Orissa Arend
How can evil be transformed into something good? If we are all created in the divine image, how can that image disappear entirely, no matter what we have done? Jesus forgives everyone, his killers, ordinary criminals. Can we?
These are the questions explored in the stories told by Kairos Prison Ministry volunteers and inmates at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary, the nation’s largest maximum-security prison. The prison is named for the sugarcane plantation, situated between the Mississippi River and forests near St. Francisville, La., which worked African slaves from Angola to death.
The Kairos weekend is a three-and-a-half day Christian retreat involving about 40 ecumenical volunteers from various backgrounds and about 40 inmates (called residents), including “the worst of the worst.” Gang leaders and lifers are enticed by home-cooked meals, fresh fruit and cookies and a break from their usual boring routine.
Kairos is a Greek New Testament word that means “full-time” or “time pregnant with meaning.” Agape, the New Testament word for unconditional, no-strings-attached love is central to Kairos. The motto of the group is “listen, listen, love, love.” Muslims, an occasional Jew, Buddhists and atheists as well as Christians all participate in Kairos. Begun in 1976, Kairos is active in 400 prisons and juvenile detention centers in the United States and in nine foreign countries.
The retreat is tightly structured with songs, talks, art projects, many conversations and prayers, all centered on “family tables” of three volunteers and six residents each. Volunteers serve the residents in many ways, even bringing them trays of food. They try to model non-judgmental sacred listening. In order to do that, they stay away from knowing why people are locked up. The few times people’s crimes crept into the Kairos stories, my Christianity came up way short. I lost sight of a person’s common humanity and became haunted and swallowed up by the horrible thing this person had done. Many volunteers began with a similar mindset – and then were themselves transformed by the Kairos experience.
Volunteers stay in close contact with inmates for a year. Inmates agree to meet weekly in follow-up groups, a church inside a prison. The church is not a building, but people seeing the good in each other much like the early church in the Book of Acts, which was a little church without walls struggling in a hostile environment. As volunteer Richard Saxer put it, “God became incarnate in the people I was with.”
“The Worst of the Worst”
“Death, destruction, drugs, mayhem, mutilation, rapes, riots, robberies, hate, indifference.” That’s how Carolina Bierman summed up his life before meeting Kairos in May of 2001. Other inmates said that would be an understatement. Legion in the Gospel narratives comes to mind. Filled with 2000 demons, howling and bruising himself with stones, even chains couldn’t restrain him. “Violence was such an intrinsic part of who I was,” Carolina says, “I can’t remember much else.”
“On the day I met Jesus, I was as filled with murderous contempt for humanity as at any time in my life. It was about halfway through the first day of a three-day Kairos retreat, and all I wanted to do was get back to my dormitory and away from anyone talking about God! In the first place, I didn’t even believe in God. Neither was I at all pleased about attending some religious function.”
Something happened during that weekend that stripped Carolina of all he had depended on for 44 years – hate and indifference. “I didn’t ask Christ into my life. I didn’t even believe in him. I only knew I wanted out of that Kairos room as soon as possible . . . I was confused and terribly frightened.” Somehow he knew that God had forgiven him and that it was something he didn’t deserve.
But he still didn’t trust God – or anyone else. So he set up a test that he knew God would fail. (We Episcopalians are taught that it’s not a good idea to test God.) The day after the Kairos weekend Carolina was walking through the prison yard and he heard a voice. It was God welcoming him as one of his children and offering to grant him only one wish. (God doesn’t talk to Episcopalians like me.) Most lifers like Carolina would wish to get out. But Carolina decided “to do my job inside the prison until the day I die.” And then came the wish that he knew God could not fulfill: reconciliation with his mother. Two days later he fell out of bed at four in the morning, made an unauthorized call to his mom, who was waiting by the phone, and the reconciliation happened. Jesus, we are reminded, attacked the demons. But he loved the people who carried them.
Twelve years later Carolina is still at peace and spreading love. Kairos is only a threshold to a transformation, which can be sustained and sometimes remains in evidence decades later, the beginning of a re-connection to the human community.
Carolina still has trouble holding hands with gay inmates in the Kairos prayer circle. But the gay inmates are confident that he’ll come around. Other distinctions matter less. Carolina is white. Race doesn’t seem to make much difference in prison, but here on the outside, we still make assumptions.
Barnwell’s book serves several important purposes: One is that it makes explicit and concrete goals that political liberals and conservatives should be able to agree upon: long prison sentences for drug crimes are expensive and unproductive; it’s not a good idea to try children as adults; people returning from prison should be welcomed and supported, not shackled with further obstacles; the death penalty is expensive and unchristian; vengeance is a heresy within the Christian faith; the victims of crime need more voice, more support, and more help with their healing.
A second purpose of the book is to supply a missing organizing piece as secular and religious groups work for prison reform: first person stories in the voices of victims, offenders, and prison volunteers in order to bring the human dimension to the facts and figures.
A third purpose – paramount in my opinion: Barnwell describes how Kairos is a testing ground for radical Christianity. In the belly of the beast, in the hell that we create for ourselves and each other here on earth, can love and forgiveness sometimes win out against all odds? Miracle of miracles, it does.
Orissa Arend is a mediator and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com.