“One Day With God Kids’ Camps”– in Prison
THE MEN BEHIND THE CURTAIN:
A DAY WITH DAD INSIDE STILES PRISON
A maximum security prison is a closed system, a world o
f tightly drawn curtains behind which are strict regulations and rigid procedures that do not exist in the “free world.” And rarely do we get a look into that world. But, over the second weekend of April, our prison ministry team from Simonton Community Church was given the privilege to join with North Carolina’s Forgiven Ministries at Stiles Prison in Beaumont, Texas. At this all-male, maximum security prison of 3000, we were offered a glimpse behind the curtain. The private world of that closed system was revealed. And what we saw was God at work.
The team of volunteers was made up of David Hanna, Jimmy Means, Jim Keeny, Paul Koby and Grove on Friday, and of Susan Strickland, Paula Means, LeaAnn Keeny on both Friday and Saturday. We were there for “A Day With God,” Forgiven Ministries’ program that unites children of inmates with their dads for a special day of games, crafts, prayer, food, and songs.
A Day With God is the initiative of Scottie Barnes, whose own father was absent from her life because of a pattern of criminal activity. Scottie knows, first hand, what life is like when one’s father is behind bars. She has dedicated her life to making sure that children of inmates have a chance to know their parents, to learn from the adults’ mistakes, and to have a meaningful relationship with them despite forced separation.
Scottie also insists that incarceration does not diminish the responsibility of a parent, and she spends much time reinforcing this point to inmates.
Over 5 million children in the United States have a parent in prison, and eighty-two percent of those children will end up in jail, or in what Scottie refers to as “the family business.”
Out of 3000 men in Stiles, only twelve of those prisoners who had applied a year ago were allowed to participate in the weekend program. Strict rules and behaviors are required for what is, clearly, a unique privilege for inmates under incarceration.
In a day-long session on Friday, volunteers taught the men skills for communicating and blessing their children, gave them opportunities to write out prayer requests, offered testimonies and advice, and enjoyed a few hours of open dialogue and camaraderie.
For the women on this trip, this was the first time in an all-male prison, and the aspects of maximum security were daunting, to say the least. The clank of iron gates that locked us in, cold barbed wire fences, intrusive metal detectors and pat downs, plus the ban on carrying anything but a driver’s license into or out of the institution reminded us of exactly where we were.
Prison is a hard place. Between the monotony of routine and the chronic threat of brutality integral to life behind its walls, inmates exist in survival mode. They have to learn how to make it from one day to the next. Only the intervention of God’s grace can cast a new light on prison life and, for a few hours on this April weekend, the inmates participating in A Day With God received a taste of that grace.
What we women on the team expected to see when we first walked into this maximum security prison is just what we saw. The men who are in Stiles are there because they committed offenses that warranted time in a maximum security prison. We expected criminals. And, when those twelve men walked into the prison chapel on Friday morning, criminals were what we saw.
But by the end of Friday, and especially by the end of Saturday, we no longer saw The Felons. We no longer saw the tattoos, the scars, the racial bitterness, the violent demeanor. Instead, we saw grown men who learned, for the first time in their lives, how to tie a necktie. And we watched them, in turn, teach the same lesson to their sons. We saw fathers, with tears in their eyes, slow dancing with their daughters. We watched adult males hoot and roughhouse with their children like innocent kids in a schoolyard as they played Tug-of-War and Pop-the-Balloon in the prison yard. For those brief moments, in those incarcerated dad’s faces, we saw Joy. Pure joy.
We also watched, in the quieter moments of the day, while fathers prayed with and blessed their children. Hovering over atlases, they planned dream vacations to take together. They crafted bead lampshades for lamps to comfort their children when they grew afraid at night. They ate pizza and colored pictures and scribbled scriptures and messages of love on each others’ t-shirts.
And, when the day was over and the fathers had to return to the reality of their prison life, we saw tears and embraces that will haunt our minds for a long time.
A Day With God gives prisoners something that is missing in their lives. It gives Hope. Inmates are given a sense of what it means to be a parent. They are given purpose. In turn, their children are given the gift of a father.
While each of us women on the trip came away with unique life lessons, we all saw that behind that curtained world at Stiles Prison, God is present and offering hope in what, to many on the outside, may seem like a place with no hope at all.