It’s a journey that can begin from anywhere, but, no matter where it is entered, it always leads to the same place, to the same person. He’s the way, the truth, and the life. I had to go to prison to be reminded of the joy of knowing Jesus. That’s really what I learned from those men there. And I’ll carry that lesson and their memories with me along this path.
He was totally right. Adam, that is. He’s a fellow church member who told me I’d love my time in prison. He should know. He’s spent plenty of time there himself.
Adam served for several years with an organization that offered classes in Ohio prisons. When I told him I had been invited to teach a class at a maximum security prison in Texas, his eyes lit up. “You’re going to receive way more than you give,” he warned me. His infectious enthusiasm about teaching men in this context framed my expectations. And it was even better than he led me to imagine.
So, last week I had the honor of teaching a class of sophomores in an accredited college program in a prison near Houston. I had over thirty students. Several of them were Christians. All of them were amazing. It’s a program that over twenty Texas prisons participate in. Men who are accepted into the program are then transferred into the prison where the college is located, where I was teaching. When they graduate, they are then transferred to another prison where they serve their fellow inmates as “field ministers.” It’s a remarkable program.
“I wouldn’t give up all that Jesus has done in my life for some guy cutting in line,” he said to me. This particular student became a friend during the week whom I’ve prayed for by name several times a day since I left — every time he comes to mind. I had asked him how he keeps from getting angry when other men steal from him or cut in line in the mess hall. He quickly shared that his Christian growth means far more to him than getting even or proving himself right. And he’s not a small guy who couldn’t retaliate. He’s just got bigger priorities.
A lot of the men I met will likely never leave prison. And yet, those who knew the Lord had a settled and undeniable joy that you couldn’t help but quietly celebrate. Standing in the college library with a few hundred men singing at the top of their lungs in our morning meetings is something I’ll not soon forget. Hearing them echo lyrics of how Jesus has set them free does something to you. It did something to me. I won’t be the same. I can’t unsee or unhear that. It was the soul-stirring sound of souls who have found something satisfying at the deepest level.
I’m still processing it all, to be honest. The couple who lead the program followed up with me after I got home and offered some encouragement for reflecting on the things I had seen, heard, and experienced. While I know prison is a dark place, and I know I’m probably prone to romanticize my limited exposure there, I just can’t shake the authentic happiness and humility of men who are at peace with their position, who simply desire to grow, to learn, and to serve.