My name is Jered Benoit and I attended Kairos number 10 at Sussex II state prison and I sit at the table of St. John.
When I started this journey, I would tell people that I was going to prison but I would always have to caveat my statement with “voluntarily”. They would chuckle, I would smile, but deep on the inside, a little voice would ask “why”?
During my college years, MSNBC would run weekend marathons of “Locked up”, a reality TV show portraying “real prison life”. I won’t lie. These shows were addictive. Circumstances I hoped to never find myself in, a culture I didn’t understand, a system that while seemingly chaotic and cruel, all made sense in a 60 minute television show. Episodes regularly featured cell extractions with corrections officers in riot gear fighting to remove an inmate from his cell. The sense that I had before we entered the prison was stated well by another Kairos team member, “I was afraid. I thought the men would have muscles on their muscles and tattoos on their tattoos.”
Aren’t these men supposed to be locked up, away from society? “They did the crime, they should do the time,” one person told me. Men with muscles on their muscles and tattoos on their tattoos, most of whom I assumed were filled with anger and rage, some of whom were mentally unstable, all of whom I wouldn’t want to be in a room with.
For those who don’t know Sussex II is a level 4 prison, the men in there are serving long sentences; single, multiple, and life plus sentences. A friend of mine works for the Department of Corrections, his monthly staff meetings are held in a facility across the state, and when I told him about what I was doing he told me “they only let us go to Level 3 facilities, so be careful.”
And I was going to minister to the men there. Again, why?
In April of this year, Jim Neff invited me to attend the closing of Kairos number 9. When the group of us outsiders were getting ready to go through the main sally port on our way to the closing, Jim leans over and says in a low voice, we may have a problem. I thought I hadn’t finished some paperwork, but it turns out that my clothing might be the issue. Before the drive to the prison, I was wondering what one wears to prison, I settled on a light blue button down shirt and jeans, casual, but not overly so. Turn out, inmates wear light blue shirts and jeans. This certainly could prove to be a problem.
But, I think it was part of God’s plan.
The corrections officers let me in, I sat through the ceremony and heard men’s testimony. It was moving, but what I was most struck by was when everyone, outsiders and residents, joined hands and sang chorus to “Surely the presence of the Lord”. I am standing, holding hands with men who maybe there for the rest of their life, who had to have committed a serious crime to be here. I am dressed just like they are. I am only a few choices away from being in their situation. If God loves me, he would love them too, right?
This required further investigation.
First question I had was about the sleeping arrangements. Do I get my own cell? Fear not, we didn’t sleep at the prison. After that, the rest was easy.
Jim Neff and I went to Sussex II state prison as part of the Kairos prison ministry for 4 days with 27 other volunteers to bring a message of hope and forgiveness and God’s love to 42 incarcerated men.
When I entered the prison, I was nervous. What am I supposed to talk about? I didn’t want to make the faux pas of asking what they did, or how much time they were serving. What could I possibly have in common with a man behind bars?
During our Kairos team building sessions, team members had told me that the Holy Spirit would speak through me. Not something that I normally believe in, but throughout the weekend, when I didn’t know what to say, the Lord provided me the words I needed.
I was most nervous about how to start up conversation with the man I was sponsoring. What would we have in common?
I met Murray. He was the man I was sponsoring on this Kairos weekend. Murray is young, tall, muscular man, with an electric smile and so filled with God’s spirit that he can barely contain it. We shake hands, embrace and the conversation flows naturally.
So what do I have in common with Murray? Plenty. We both are fathers, we both workout, we both have hopes and dreams, and we both have a love of Christ.
During the weekend, we were broken into table families, three Kairos team members and six to seven residents. The use of the word family is deliberate. Many of these men have been abandoned by their biological family, and Steve Carl, the weekend leader said: “In a gang you get protection, in a family you get help”. This might be a radical change for them, a new opportunity at having a bond with others that is not predicated on fear or power.
The weekend is filled with talks and chapel services focused on making better choices, how to be a friend to Christ, learning how to pray and study our spirituality, forgiveness, and building a Christian community. We stayed with our table family, discussing everything we heard. The men at the Table of St. John discussed the difficulty of choices, how to respond rather than react. We talked about how to deepen our faith, how to seek answers to our questions and how rely on one another for support.
You are probably wondering where the cookies come in. The residents were wondering that too. The first day, many of them were craning their necks trying to find the thousands of dozens of cookies that were baked. The bait was strong, and once the cookies were placed on the table, they flew out of the box, a half dozen or dozen at a time, each man stacking them in front of themselves, worried that their first chance to fish some from the box would be their last. Even after being assured that we had more than enough for the weekend, they still treated them as a scarce resource to be hoarded, an example of the environment that they lived in: If I don’t get mine now, I won’t get any.
The bait worked in drawing men of every type from the prison, some are well on their faith journey, others had only for the cookies, the religion was just a distraction from the next serving. Like Tony.
I sat next to Tony. On the first day, I thought to myself “Oh boy, he’s going to be a handful.” He was quick witted and had a wisecrack for everything we discussed. He leaned back in his chair stretched out and seemed more interested in accumulating the largest stack of cookies than putting in work to listen or participate in discussions. During the singing he was more interested in trying to find where his buddies were and what they were doing than singing along.
That was until we sang “Open the eyes of my heart”. He leans over and says to me in a hushed tone “That’s a good song”. I grin back at him and replied I had better hear him singing then, before I continued to belt out the tune. There is something remarkable about 80 men singing a song of praise. I could claim it was the wonderful acoustics of the gym that we were in, but I would be lying. It is a unique sound, the deep, bassey vocals combined with a single guitar. I don’t know that I will ever be able to find a recorded version of the songs we sang that sounds half as good.
Back to Tony. So, he liked that song, which we would sing again throughout the weekend, and each time I would hear him a little more. He started to engage in discussion instead of slinging one liners. At the closing ceremony, in returning from the medication delivery, I caught him singing his new favorite song with the most vigor, and biggest smile, I had seen the entire weekend. The Lord works in mysterious wasy.
I won’t lie and tell you that it was all easy discussion, singing and nothing difficult.
The most emotionally difficult part for me came during cookie delivery. The prison is put into lock down, every man is put in his cell, so that the Kairos team can deliver a dozen cookies to each man in the institution. More than one thousand and two hundred dozen cookies. I was partnered up with Jim. Now, here is something you have to know, Jim has a nice smile, but he is tricky.
As we are standing outside of one of the housing units, known as pods, he grabs the box full of cookies. I wasn’t about to let him carry the box, it was probably heavy. I was going to let him start passing the cookies, and I would swap with him half way through when the box was lighter. A younger man like myself is supposed to do that right? But Jim, in his gentle way, told me that he was just fine. And then the door to the pod opened, so it was time to deliver.
In breaking up into our smaller teams, one of the seasoned Kairos team members told us to make sure that we made eye contact with the men inside each cell, that they are hungry to see a kind face. I can’t speak for all team members who were delivering cookies, but my case, he was right. A majority of the men were at their tray slot, faces close to the small slit window with hungry eyes. Every man got cookies, the prison would be quiet that night.
After handing out the cookies, I stood in the area just outside the pod and had to do everything in my power to choke back tears. I had more cookies to deliver, but I had to take a moment to understand the men that I sat around a table with a few hours previous were living in an area smaller than a parking space, and had to share that area with another person. Their dining room looked nothing like mine, my table and chairs aren’t bolted to the floor. And even with young kids, I am granted at least a little bit of privacy when I shower. Not the case for the men that sat at the table of St. John. It was hard to reconcile seeing the men that I had gotten to know being locked up like an animal. Sure, I had been on the verge of tears most the weekend, I would blame that on the “cookie crumbs”, but this time I couldn’t blame anything except a deep appreciation for these men as human beings who were caged like animals.
In coming to the Kairos 9 closing, and knowing that God loves me, then he would love these men. Even if they were contained by steel, concrete, fences and razor wire. To see my table mates faces behind the thick glass, their smiles in seeing a familiar and friendly face, it was too much.
Later during a team meeting, the new Kairos team members were encouraged to share their impressions of the weekend up to that point. Now that I have had a chance to think about my answer more, this is the answer I would give:
The Kairos weekend isn’t fair. I am supposed to be going into prison to help the men their find the Lord. I am supposed to help them build a Christian community. I am supposed to teach them how to pray and learn more about God. But somehow the tables got flipped, it just isn’t fair. The men at the table of St. John, the residents who attended helped me find the Lord’s. Helped me learn about God’s love. They taught me about building a Christian community. They taught me how to accept the Lord’s forgiveness, how to pray, how to sing, how to be a friend of Christ.
Another new team member talked about he hadn’t been on a mission trip, but that this was just as worthy as any mission that required shots and a passport. And I can only agree.
I know that we Episcopalians aren’t the proselytizing types, frankly that is something that appeals to me, but I have to share a story that was shared at the weekend’s closing. Cameron was robbing a man at knife point. He slit the man’s throat and took off. A nurse, coming home from grocery shopping came across the man bleeding and used her garbage bags to stop the bleeding. The man lived. Cameron avoided the death penalty because of that. Through this weekend, the cookies you baked, the prayers you said, and the support that you gave the Kairos team, Cameron said that he believes that the nurse was put in that place at that time by God, that all of the actions that happened until this weekend has been part of God’s plan. He found Christ and decided to give his life over for the Lord’s purpose.
To conclude, thank you for your support. The cookies are appreciated by the residents, and team members. Your prayers are working in the mysterious way that only God can work. Your financial support is vital to keeping this ministry going. Thank you.
If you have spiritual energy that is drawing you to try and make the world more like God’s kingdom, the next time you see an appeal for Kairos cookies, bake cookies and then bake some more, we can never have too many. Support this ministry financially. But most importantly, consider joining me, Jim and Joe. You don’t have to commit to the weekend, come to a closing, only not dressed in blue jeans, like I was. Check your calendars for late April.