This year was the first time in six years that I have signed up to attend We Care’s “Renew Hope” Crusade. It was wonderful to be a part of the team again after taking a long break.
The We Care Program, based in Atmore, Alabama, has been in operation for over 40 years, organizing chaplaincy work in prisons across Alabama, plus a yearly four-day crusade. The program has been renamed as “Renew Hope”, but is still the same program as before, with four days of ministering in 24 prisons in Alabama and northern Florida. It is wonderful to be able to take advantage of the testimony they have built over more than 40 years, which allows us free access to the whole prison complex if we have a We Care badge. All because someone had a vision to make a difference for the Kingdom of God 48 years ago!
During the crusade, we get to eat prison food in the chow hall, which is an experience in itself. The prison I was in fed around 1,800 prisoners three meals a day, six days of the week, and two meals on Sunday—a total of 5,400 meals per day, or about 1,877,400 meals per year. No wonder they have an automatic machine to wash the trays! The whole operation is like a big machine that starts at 4 am and ends around 6 pm. Everyone is trained to eat fast and get it over with so the next person can sit down at your table. Everything is done in big batches; for example, they mix sweet tea in plastic trash cans. All in all, it is a worthwhile experience, and it becomes very clear that this is punishment, not a picnic.
The same is true for all of prison life. It seems those who run the system make a conscious effort to make sure no one forgets where they are. No matter how much We Care has done over the years, and how much respect they have gained with the system, we still felt the stern atmosphere and the need to respect the authority of the place. Even though we have great privileges, we have no rights! At any moment a guard may walk into a dorm and say, “Count time.” The prisoners must sit up on the edge of their beds, and the volunteers must go sit at a table NOW! The guard counts every prisoner in the dorm, and it has to be right every time. I have seen them count the prisoners in the chapel during the church service. One time, it seemed they just could not make it come out right, so they kept recounting, and it was very distracting for the preacher.
How must it feel to be counted and herded around like a bunch of cattle, guarded night and day, and treated with little dignity? The showers and bathroom facilities are lined up for all to see, right out in the open room.
We saw in prison the beauty of the scripture that says God gives grace to the humble; many have found the grace of God is these very humbling times and are walking on holy ground in hard places! The church is alive and well behind bars, and we found it a blessing to be a small part of that world for a few days.
On the other hand, the hardened sinners also find each other quickly in prison. Gangs, drugs, and homosexuality are a way of life for too many in prison, and there is much violence in some places.
I met an old friend of mine from years ago who is serving a 405-year sentence; his release date is 06/08/2400. He is 91 now, and he is still hanging on to a thread of hope for freedom. He knows that even if he ever gets out, life will never be the same. His brothers, his wife, and his one son have all died. Yet he would still like to be free, even if only for a short time before he dies. Somehow he feels cheated out of his retirement years. All I could do was sit and listen to him for 45 minutes as he poured out his heart. After a time of praying for him and with him, I left. As I was walking down the hall, a guard told me, “Thanks so much for coming to see Mr. Money; he never gets any company.”
Our last day at Bullock Correctional Center, in Union Springs, Alabama, was a real inspiration. We were able to get into the mental health center, which is a separate building just behind the main prison, with a connecting alleyway with high fences. This place was much quieter, with most of the guys asleep or at least resting quietly. It seems refreshing, until you realize that it is probably a chemical calm, induced by the medication everyone is on. Still, we had a great turnout for the short service we held there, since this part of the prison is not allowed to participate in the chapel services in the main building. These men are very grateful for anyone who comes to see them.
I really enjoyed setting aside the cares of everyday life for almost a week, and being part of “Renew Hope” again. It was a good way to be inspired and to appreciate the blessings of being free, as well as reconnecting with many of the volunteers I had not seen in years. I’m already looking forward to next January 25th; maybe you should mark your calendar and I’ll see you there.