We are in week two of a Workshop at SCI Huntingdon, a maximum security prison in PA. To get to and from the gym where we are working, we walk through two “blocks” where the men live. Similar to the prison photo above, each block has 3 tiers of 37 cells with 1-2 men in each cell. In one of the blocks, tiers line both sides of the center hallway with a row of metal picnic tables down the center. When we arrive, the men are locked in for “count.” As we leave in the evening, the cell doors are open, men are walking around, visiting each other, playing chess, reading, and doing what people do anywhere as the day comes to an end.
Yesterday I had an opportunity to sit and talk with James. He has been incarcerated since he was 15 years old. He is now 64. After all those years, there is a possibility he may, unexpectedly, be released. I asked him how that felt. “Scary,” was his response. He was excited to go live with his brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews, but all the changes in the world were a bit ominous. We reminisced about how life was in the late 60’s, the last time he had been outside those walls. Gas was $.25/gallon, color TV (with 3-4 channels) was new and special, McDonalds had just opened the novel “drive-through” in his town… He has never held a cell phone.
I had heard F.D.’s insight into prison during a sharing time with the vocal team. “A pit bull can be a gentle dog, unless the environment makes him vicious. This environment makes men vicious.” He told me how he had been “out of control” when he was young, and with no hope after being given a life without parole sentence, he was “out of control” for years in prison too. But, sitting on those bleachers was a man who had changed through the years.
Our first few days of the Workshop are focused on just being with the men, listening to them, showing patience as we ask them to do things they didn’t think they would or could do. Ministry of Presence is our first step. They want to know if we are real and really care enough to come back and to tolerate the difficult situations and people they live with.
In many fascinating conversations with men this week it is clear they just want someone to listen to them without judgement. Prison allows plenty of reflection time and beliefs are often open for review. Because of this we have agnostics, a few Muslims (with a lot of Christian background), and men who have explored all kinds of belief systems on our team. But they said they were open to Christianity and willing to share hope through Jesus. We listen to them, but they listen too. We have confidence in Jesus’ words that those who seek will find Him. A man with Christian roots who had drifted into pagan circles (but with an expressed interest in reconnecting to Christianity) looked pretty engaged in singing during our worship time yesterday. When his discipleship small group time got cut a little short, he was the one who reminded the team leader that they needed to close in prayer. Just showing up and listening speaks very loudly, without words, to these men.
The men on our team already have expressed their deep gratitude for this opportunity and asked that we express that to all who make this possible. Thank you from James, all the men, and us!