You are a visitor at a church, a first time attendee at a worship service.
A regular attender walks up to you with a bright warm smile and offers you a handshake.
“Wow. That’s different” you say to yourself, accustomed to the usual chilly reception in far too many of our churches.
Another regular attender walks up and offers you a cheerful smile and a firm handshake. He might even give you a hug.
“Alright. They are asked to do that. They are greeters or ushers or something.”
Five attenders greet you warmly. Then 10. 15. 35. 50. You are made to feel in just a few moments like these are all your dear friends and family, not strangers who you’ve never set eyes on before.
What are these people on?
Well, at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, home to nearly 3,000 male prisoners on the date of our visit, February 25, 2014, you can rule out drugs or alcohol. These people were high on – Jesus Christ!
In all my years of attending church, I have never witnessed a room more full of love for Christ. I’m guessing I’ve been a participant in over 2,000 church services over the last fifty years. Independent. Baptist. Presbyterian. United Methodist. Pentecostal. I’ve never witnessed such a high percentage of the worshipers attending a service so truly joyous about the freedom Christ has brought to them.
I am told there are men in this prison awaiting trial for serious crime, such as murder. Of course, my son Chad and I, guests at the invitation of Bob Sofronski of Christian Life Prison and Recovery Ministry, were told not to ask the men about the charges against them. However, why would we even if we could? They were not downcast. There was genuine light in their eyes, a peace that was beyond understanding. This was a celebration of faith and hope, not a somber accounting of their crimes. During the 90 minute Tuesday evening church service in the chapel, led by Bob and four other men on our team, with nearly every seat occupied by a man in a prison-issued blue shirt and with many more standing, I observed men in deep prayer and I listened to the men shout their praises for Christ. When Bob asked for prayer requests, hands went up like dozens of balloons released on a windy summer day.
When the service was over, the hugs and handshakes resumed as the men, many of whom likely had gang tatoos on their arms and face, emptied from the room, returning to their cells. The goodbyes Chad and I received were as friendly as the greetings we had enjoyed earlier in the evening. One bearded young man asked my son and I to pray for the people of Maldives, a country where worshipping Christ is illegal. His thoughts were on others in need, matching the tone of the prayer requests the prisoners had shared.
In an amazing twist of irony, I felt extraordinarily safe in this group of men – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I could have left my son in that room and known he would have been very safe; not because of the guards but because of the hearts of the men in the room.
I understand. Many of these men have a long road ahead of them. They await their fate in court. Some may have years of imprisonment ahead of them. Others will be challenged to return to the lifestyle that led them to incarceration when they are released. Many will face time in recovery houses, where they must be devoted to the good changes they professed in the service tonight.
A dear female friend of mine summed up what I experienced tonight very well:
When people have no freedom, they really appreciate freedom in Christ. When all is stripped away, we have nowhere else to turn.
Tonight, it became very apparent to me that something is really missing in our churches. We don’t truly appreciate the freedoms we have in Christ. Hence, we are the ones truly imprisoned – by worries, anxieties, guilt, but most of all pride. We’ve got something to lose – our status and social standing. It scares us to death! It turns us chilly when visitor’s trespass across the threshold of our church doors each Sunday.
How can we love others when we are imprisoned by so much pride? May the prisoners teach us all that humility is the source of freedom that can turn our hearts warm with love for God and love for others.