by Michael Hicks Thompson
For anonymity, we’ll call him Rodney Strong. “He’s the head of the Crips,” our team leader informed me. “Be careful with him. When you first meet him, look him in the eye, offer your hand, and ask if he’d be willing to wear this.” Team leader handed me a 5 x 7 card. On it was the name RODNEY, attached to a string to hang over his neck.
“What do you mean, head of the Crips?” I asked.
“Every prison has gangs. It’s how they survive. He’s the badest of the bad.”
Great, I thought. What have I gotten myself into?
I was going to “sponsor” the meanest, badest gang leader in a Tennessee Federal Prison—from Thursday night through Sunday afternoon. To sponsor an inmate meant I would find him and hang out between meetings and meals. I wasn’t supposed to sit with him. I was to sit with a “lifer”—a young man who’d beat a man to death with a baseball bat. He’d never see freedom again.
But, what else could I do? I’d already spent eight full Saturday mornings in a Memphis church with thirty-five other men, most of whom were four or five-time Kairos team members. Some had done the weekend “soul-saving” trip a dozen or more times.
The prison chaplain would extend invitations to forty or so inmates whom he felt needed to hear the Gospel. But, for this particular weekend, he had chosen all of the gang leaders—the Crips, the Bloods, the Vice Lords, and Aryan Brotherhood (white supremacists), along with their disciples.
“The Kairos method of prison ministry is so well vetted and revised over the years that it works like a well-oiled machine,” our team leader said. “Everything is organized down to the minute. It’s all designed to gradually bring the inmates from complacency, to listening, and finally to conversion. You will agree to follow and never deviate from the Kairos method.”
He went on to say, “One Kairos rule is that you never ever ask an inmate why they’re in prison. And never ask how long they’re in for. If they wish to tell you their life story, just listen. Table leaders, you’re not to do any preaching or teaching. Leave that up to the talks. The Kairos motto is Listen, Love, Listen.”
We would bring 5,000 dozen chocolate chips cookies for the inmates and staff. And meals to serve the chosen forty gang members three meals a day—food they wouldn’t otherwise get in prison.
“Many are of the mind they’ll eat some good food and that’ll be the end of it,” I was told.
Little do they know how the Kairos method will re-shape most of their lives—not all, but enough to celebrate on Sunday.
Kairos is Greek for “God’s special time.” Kairos in the U.S. began in 1976 in Raiford, Florida. The non-profit now has over 40,000 volunteers serving over 3,000,000 hours per year in 472 institutions in the U.S. and ten foreign countries.
But back to Thursday, the day I first met Rodney Strong. Yes, he was the meanest looking dude I’d ever laid eyes on. His left eye looked off in another direction. He was overweight—too many late night snacks his disciples would sacrifice to him.
He didn’t smile at me, but he did shake hands and let me put the name card around his neck. We stood in line for food. He wasn’t a talker. He kept looking around at the other gang leaders, suspicious.
The chaplain arranged it so all the gang leaders sat at the same table, directly behind me. I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder every once in a while and study them. None said a word. It was tense.
I was assigned to sit beside this one inmate, the “lifer,” who was very talkative. He told me how he made money in prison. He used wet flour and some sort of makeshift iron to press other inmate’s shirts for 50 cents apiece. Enough for cigarettes and snacks.
After the Saturday “talks” from our veteran Kairos members (talks on forgiveness, adversity, friendship, etc.) we organized into “Share & Prayer” groups. If they commit to these “Share & Prayer” groups they’re more likely to form their own non-violent groups, and begin to trust their small group members.
That Saturday night, one gang lieutenant talked about leaving, quitting the gang. Said he’d come to know Jesus, and wanted a new life.
“It’ll be a death sentence for him, unless he’s transferred,” a Kairos member told me.
Rodney must have done some serious soul searching in his cell that Saturday night, because Sunday lunch was special. Eventually, he stood up front, wearing sunglasses so others couldn’t see the tears in his eyes. But we did. They rolled down his cheeks. He told the crowd he was stepping down as gang leader of the Crips. That he’d found the love of Jesus. That his life would be different.
I cried, too.
Months later, I heard he’d been transferred.
I’m guessing that about eight of the forty inmates came to Christ that weekend. Extrapolating, I figure that with 472 institutions receiving Kairos twice a year with an average inmate attendance of say, thirty each weekend, and using the same percentage of 20% coming to Christ, that’s easily over 5,000 souls being saved every year in prisons.
I often wonder if today’s churches are bringing in the sheaves in those numbers.
Michael Hicks Thompson, Christian Fiction With Theology writes Christian murder mysteries, softly embedded with Christian symbolism. The Rector was released in 2016; The Actress followed in 2017. Both novels revolve around Parchman Farm Penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta. A hellacious place in the late 50s.
He’s a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, Mystery Writers of America, The International Crime Writers Association, and the Southern Writers Association. You can find Michael at http://www.michaelthompsonauthor.com.