Story by Lyndsey Schley
Kairos Prison Ministry is a volunteer group that uses Christian programming to teach inmates life lessons to help them become better members of the community.
Kairos is an international organization that has programs at 25 correctional institutions in the state of Ohio.
Prisoner involvement starts with a three and a half day weekend program and homemade cookies, Volunteer Ken Schley said.
Bringing Love and Listening
The weekend starts Thursday evening. Each of the 42 participating inmates is greeted with a handshake from every volunteer as he comes into the room. He is then introduced to a sponsor volunteer.
Schley said the sponsor then offers to get the inmate coffee or tea and leads him to the cookie tables. The cookies are made by volunteers across the state and the inmates are allowed to take as many as they want.
“That’s the first thing they see when they come into that area with us that shows that somebody outside cares about them, is thinking about them,” he said. “Because they’re all homemade cookies. We don’t go buy them at the store. So that’s the first sign that they see of God’s grace, I call it.”
Female volunteers bring in all their meals for the weekend. This is part of their program called Agape, a Greek word for charity or unconditional love.
“These women serve this fried chicken, taco salads, all that and they don’t get nothing like that,” Schley said. “Everything they eat is processed. So, when they come in, the women are always saying ‘God loves you and we love you and that’s the way it’s going to be.’”
83-year-old Ken Schley
On the first night, inmates and volunteers are encouraged to introduce themselves to the group. If they do not want to introduce themselves, their sponsor will do it for them, but Schley said, more people take the opportunity to introduce themselves as they go through the group.
The next morning, each man is assigned to a table named after a disciple, with six men to each table. The next few days are filled with talks on various topics. The first talk is on choices.
“That’s a good one because all of those guys know they’re in there because they made bad choices, but it’s about the fact that we all make choices in our life,” Schley said. “We don’t have to pay for them for the rest of our lives.”
After each talk, inmates are given a chance to take notes and then participate in a discussion about the topics.
“The first day, it’s tough to get these guys to open up, but by Friday, Saturday, you see them writing down and they’ve got something to say,” he said. “What’s so great about that [is] when you’re in prison, nobody cares what you think.”
They also will have the groups, called families, work together on posters to present to everyone in the program.
“That breaks it up,” he said. “You get a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding and that’s what the posters are for.”
Along with singing, they have a couple of ceremonies. One is where the people write out lists of people they need to forgive on rice paper, which is dissolved in water.
“We tell them ‘Now when you write this list, put yourself on top,’” Schley said. “’Be number one. Put your name there, because if you don’t forgive yourself, you’ll never forgive anybody else.’”
Another is at the closing ceremony where they can come up to a microphone and express whatever they feel at the end of the weekend.
Inmates also get a chance to sit down one-on-one for a private session with a pastor.
“Now, as a pastor, they’re allowed to confess anything to us they want to,” he said “It never goes outside that room.”
After the weekend, the volunteers come back for weekly Prayer and Share meetings and reunion weekends.
Schley said the men form a community with other Kairos inmates.
“These guys have Bible studies in their cells,” he said. “They’ll get the Kairos guys together and, yeah, they support each other.”
From Inmate to Volunteer
Volunteer Ron Ambrosia knows the community Kairos members form well. He experienced it during a 15-year sentence in prison where he participated in the weekly Prayer and Share meetings.
“We would be in small groups of maybe four to six men, and it’s a recurring meeting with the same people because over time, these people begin to really, really know when you’re holding something back,” he said. “So, in that regular grouping, we all became stronger.”
Ambrosia said he had always been religious, but what he experienced during his first weekend at Kairos was different than what he expected.
“The power of it was that being at the small table settings, after each talk we had the opportunity to take maybe 15 to 20 minutes to share and to comment, if we chose,” he said. “That was a pretty radical concept, because in prison, one of the things you will seldom do is share openly because it puts you in a place of vulnerability. But I saw that happening both with myself and many others.”
Seeing his fellow inmates share, embrace and weep had a lasting effect on Ambrosia. As soon as he left prison, he knew he wanted to become involved in the organization as a volunteer. However, he was not allowed to go back in as a volunteer until five years after he was released.
Ambrosia uses his perspective to help volunteers better interact with inmates.
“Sometimes there is a sense that on both inside and outside that there is something called prison religion and it carried a connotation of being phony or for show,” he said. “So I talk a little bit about some of the things that might cut through that and might allow a volunteer to get a little better grasp about where this person really is coming from.”
Ambrosia now has a career and he said it is important to give former offenders a second chance.
“If you want to label somebody as what they historically were and did, you can do that and I can’t say anything that will dissuade you from that,” he said. “However, if you would accept somebody on their present terms, with their present choices and not minimize anything they did. If that person who did those things takes responsibility, understands there’s consequences, then I would say that person should at least be given an opportunity to be a better person.”
Women on the Inside and Outside
Men are not the only people who go through the Kairos program. Women go through the program, as well.
Women also help with Kairos, both by cooking for the men’s prisons and running programs at women’s prisons. One such Volunteer is Judy Schneider, who started cooking for the prisoners at Trumbull Correctional Institution 15 years ago.
“At the men’s camp, one thing that I remember is I was never, ever afraid,” she said. “The men were always very mannerly and ‘What can I do for you? Let me carry that pan. It’s too heavy for you’ and things like that, because they were in the kitchen cooking. We would sit down, when we had a little downtime and we would talk about Jesus.”
She soon started to be involved with administering the program to female inmates. She said she sees a lot of women who were victims of abuse who fought back or made bad choices about the men in their lives.
“These women were sentenced to life in prison and now they have battered women’s shelters and things like that that you can go to that they didn’t have before many years ago in the 80s,” she said. “Basically that’s what we end up with. A lot of the girls have made the wrong decision about men.”
Drug use is also common. Schneider said Kairos’s religious education gives the women a foundation to keep them out of trouble.
“Many of the girls that make it out have to go back to the same atmosphere that they were in before where they got in trouble,” she said. “So if they’re strong in their religion before they leave, there’s probably a high percentage who don’t go back to any bad things. They get involved in a church and they make new friends and stuff like that and stay straight.”
Kairos also runs a program call Kairos Outside for the female family members of men going through the Kairos program in prison. Schley said it is similar to program inside the prison, but with some small differences. For example, on the last night, each women wears a nice dress and is given a rose from every volunteer.
How to Help
There are many ways to get involved in Kairos. The group is always looking for volunteers, as it can be hard to find someone with the dedication to go through the program, Schley said.
Each volunteer that goes into the prison goes through a five Saturday program to prepare them.
“Really it’s just telling you what to look out for when you go to the prison,” he said. “We put on little skits about what to wear. For example, you’re not allowed to wear red. You’re not allowed to wear blue jeans, denims, because they’re wearing them and you don’t want to look like a prison inmate.”
After they go through the training, they have to commit to spending 3 1/2 days for the Kairos weekends. Schneider said it is worth it to her.
“It’s seeing God right up front, working right in front of your eyes, is what it is to me,” she said. “I see a girl come in on Thursday that doesn’t know anything on Christ and by Sunday, she’s praising God and holding her hands up and just singing love songs to the Lord. That’s why I do prison ministry.”
There are a variety of other ways people can help. This includes baking cookies and making posters to decorate the space. The Ohio Kairos website has a full list of opportunities.
The group also accepts financial support. The program costs $200 per inmate per weekend.
For more information, go to www.Kairosohio.org.