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Kairos retreats share God’s love with those on the inside

First slide

Past endless green hills, Baptist churches and dollar stores, outside the one-street town of Dillwyn, Virginia, lies a men’s medium security prison: Buckingham Correctional Center. Freshly cut grass and glimmering barbed wire surround the concrete fortress that’s home to 1,100 souls. 

For those locked inside, it’s a place of loneliness, of being forgotten by the world — a reminder of misdeeds, broken relationships and lost futures. But twice a year during the Kairos retreat, 40 or so inmates gather in the prison’s gym to become a community one volunteer likened to the early church — a place where the Holy Spirit is palpably felt, a place of miracles. 

For four days, April 25-28, Kairos retreats were held in prisons around the country. Kairos began in 1976 with men from Cursillo ministering to inmates in a Florida prison. Now, the program has 30,000 volunteers who host the interdenominational Christian gatherings. It’s Buckingham’s 54th.

During the retreat’s Sunday afternoon closing ceremony, inmates clapped and sang along to “When the Saints Go Marching In” as visitors from the outside and inmates who attended past retreats filed into the gym. The inmates were black, white and Latino men of all ages. The only physical hint at their pasts were the tattoos that covered their bodies, sometimes their necks and even faces, and the matching denim pants and light blue shirts they wore. Minutes earlier, each had been given a silver-tone cross, which hung around their necks. 

They gathered as “families” — smalls groups named after a Biblical saint. Each chose a representative to speak to the crowd about how they felt coming to the retreat and what was different now. Each introduction — a man’s name, family name and the name of the retreat, Buckingham 54, — elicited a single choreographed clap of affirmation from the audience. During the speeches, shouts of “Amen,” “That’s right!” and other encouragements were called out by inmates and volunteers alike. When one man broke down in tears, another stood to give him a hug. 

“Some of us felt like walking dead, battered, tattered, stressed and distressed,” said a black inmate. “We found acceptance, love for ourselves and love for God so we can love others. We’re taking a sense of family, of brotherhood.”

A common thread throughout the testimonies was a deep gratitude for the 27 volunteers who led the retreat and the more than 30,000 cookies they brought to share. “We felt no one on the outside cared about us, no one was trying to understand,” said one young black man. “People aren't coming here trying to give us something to look forward to. They don't have people teaching us how to forgive.” He gestured to the cross around his neck. “This costs $30 in the commissary. What we took from this retreat, besides a bag of cookies and a sugar rush, (is) knowledge of love.”

Related: Annandale students bake cookies bound for prisoners

Braulio Guerrero is one of the Kairos volunteers. The parishioner of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax is part of the music ministry team and translates the talks for the handful of Spanish-speaking inmates. In addition to his language and music skills, the 32-year-old is able to share his story with the men. Guerrero was raised Catholic, but after his sister died of cancer, he and his family drifted away from the church. “Before I started doing (prison ministry), I wouldn’t have said I was a very faithful person. I lived my roaring 20s and that’s part of why I can relate so well with some of these residents,” he said.

Eventually, his parents came back to the faith and so did he. “I had a coming to Jesus moment (where) I literally prayed, ‘God, send me to where you want me to go.’ Two days later, my mom said, ‘I think there’s a guy you need to talk to.’ ” 

That guy was Tom Kelly, a fellow St. Leo parishioner who has been involved in the Kairos ministry since the late ’90s. “I told God, ‘Really, you're sending me to jail?’ ” said Guerrero. Now, he loves the ministry. “I could've been on the other side of this (as an inmate), but I have the blessing to do it on this side, and I'll continue to do it as long as God tells me to.”

Kelly’s involvement with the Kairos team at Buckingham also began with an answered prayer. “I said to God, I’ll do whatever you want me to do, just give me a good group of men,” he said. “I walked outside of the Mass and met a guy who smiled at me and said, ‘How would you like to join prison ministry?’ As soon as he said that, I realized my prayer was answered.”

But it wasn’t answered in the way Kelly was expecting. “I was not even close to interested in that. I wanted something for me,” he said. Now, he feels differently. “The ministry has allowed me to see the face of God in so many profound ways. I couldn’t leave prison ministry right now — I love it so much,” he said. 

The most moving part of the ministry is witnessing hardened criminals having their hearts softened by God’s love. “You have souls down there waiting for conversion,” said Kelly. “I don’t know how to describe it but when we have nothing, we’re looking for something. You and I, we have something — we have a nice cup of coffee, we have a nice meal, freedom to move around. But when you’re down to nothing, God’s up to something and that exactly where these men find themselves. Many of them say, ‘Thank God I’m in prison because it’s brought me to God.’ ”

Kelly sees the fruits of the retreats every time he visits the prison. Inmates who have already completed the retreat are called CHAs (Christian hands in action) and they often volunteer to clean or serve food. Typically, wives or fellow churchgoers of the volunteers prepare the meals. 

Some of the CHAs sit in a side room dubbed the chapel and pray throughout the weekend. “There are some prayer warriors down there,” said Kelly. “Some of these prisoners know the Bible inside and out. I’m amazed to see how they can quote it.” 

Toward the end of the weekend, each of the men gets a brown bag filled with letters from each of the team members and sometimes members of the community. On one retreat, a group of men from the MS-13 gang came. “(The head of the gang) was ridiculing the whole weekend, laughing and mocking the whole thing. But at the end, all of them got these personal letters. And the one guy who was the leader of the gang literally starts crying,” said Kelly. “He falls on the table and he’s sobbing. He looked like Christ because his arms were spread out. All the other MS-13 guys are consoling him. It was the most beautiful thing I think I’ve ever seen because he was crushed in love.”

Many inmates spoke about the power of the retreat’s forgiveness ceremony, when they write the names of people they want to forgive and those they want forgiveness from on a piece of rice paper, then watch the page dissolve in a bowl of water. 

One inmate almost didn’t go through with it.  The young man had grown up in the church but met some of the “worst people” he had ever encountered there. A voice in his mind said, “You don’t want to let this go — you want revenge.” But in the end, he was able to forgive. “Watching the names disappear lifted a tremendous weight off of me,” he said. “I’ve never felt so good in my life, so light.” Throughout the retreat, he felt God tugging at his heart and he decided to listen. “This is the first time I haven't felt alone in a long time,” he said. “I've found the true definition of love in a few days and I grew up in the church.” 

During the forgiveness ceremony, a young white inmate with tattoos on his neck asked for the forgiveness of his sister, who still occasionally talks to him, and from the rest of his family, who doesn’t. The next day, his sister came to visit. That kind of thing happens all the time at Kairos, said one volunteer. “Coincidences? I don’t call them that anymore,” said the volunteer. “I call them God sightings.”

“He got his first visit in years — that's the power of God working,” said a white inmate with dark hair, marveling at the grace of God in the life of his fellow inmate. “I always believed in God but temptation led me astray. (Here,) I truly felt the Holy Spirit among us. I don't want to be the person I used to be. I want to show people the light of God.”

The head CHA took the mic at the end, asking the retreatants to continue this transformative experience by meeting weekly in “prayer and share” groups with their “families,” with Bible studies and religious services held at the prison. He called out to them, “Who is the church?” The deep voices of the men chanted back in unison, “We are!”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019