“Why am I here?”
That’s what I was thinking as heavy iron doors thunked shut behind our group. Pastor JT Burk and I, along with a few other members of Mount Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church, and our neighbors down the street, The United Church, were following Pastor Chris Ode, the pastor of Living Stones Prison Ministry, deeper into the bars and barbed wire of the Washington Corrections Center near Shelton. I’d never been in a prison before; the closest I’d ever been to incarceration was a field trip to the Tacoma Police Department with the Cub Scouts that included a brief look at empty holding cells.
What will I say?
As we trudged past the Solitary Confinement building, a sad, featureless concrete cube with the tiniest of windows, I was anxious about what to expect at a service for inmates. I was imagining the baddest of the bad: hulking prisoners with bulging muscles, angry tattoos, shackles on their legs and sneers on their faces, challenging me to answer why I dared to think I had something to offer them. Was I there to share some relevant piece of Scripture that would somehow turn their life around? Did I somehow possess some great nugget of wisdom or some sort of epiphany that would somehow cure them of whatever it was that landed them there?
I felt ill-equipped and vulnerable as I walked alongside tall fences topped with coils of razor wire.
What I found was nothing like what I had imagined. The inmates that played in the band arrived first, greeted us all warmly, then rehearsed for 20 or 30 minutes before the rest of the inmates arrived. I expected manacled prisoners being escorted in by armed guards, but instead the men walked through the doors, 2 or 3 at a time, seeking each of us out to shake our hands and thank us for joining them. Some were eager to speak, some were withdrawn, but overall they were friendly, welcoming and glad to see us: just about exactly what I encounter every Sunday when I walk into Mount Cross.
I came thinking that I was there to provide something. I came thinking that I was there to provide a ministry, a service or some sort of brief therapy session. I came with the mindset of colonialism – a missionary sent to tame the wayward savages with the Good News of Christ.
I did none of that. I sat with some men and chatted about the music and our shared experiences in the military. I sang along to truly outstanding music from the band. I stood and listened to heartfelt, genuine prayers. I watched men in one of the most broken places on earth lift up and support each other. I humbly received communion from inmates with joyful faces. I was pierced by Pastor Ode repeating the words we hear every Sunday: “come to the table – all are welcome”.
ALL are welcome. ALL. Everybody – without exception. Nobody turned away.
I received far more than I gave. I was humbled. Illusions were cast aside and, once again, I was reminded of how inaccurate labels and preconceived notions can be. Prisoners. Convicts. Inmates. Incarcerated. All these words come with powerful images and emotions, but as we drove away, I knew they were more than their labels; they were just men.
They were just people who need the same things we all need: