For a number of years now our local jail has housed gang-involved inmates in segregated units to avoid run-ins with enemy gang members. At times though the normal stresses of incarceration combine with internal tensions within a gang, leading to fights between fellow homies. For nearly four months this summer and fall inmates from one particular gang where locked down often three to a cell, 24/7 as deterrent and punishment for fighting.
During these months they did not benefit from weekly Bible studies nor daily time out of their cells for recreation and meals. A few weeks ago I was able to meet with this group for Bible studies two Thursday nights in a row. These thirty-minute gatherings have been precious tasters of the Kingdom of God.
The first time we met together nearly the entire inmate population of the lower tier of the pod that housed these men attended. 15 or so guys shuffled in and took their seats on blue plastic chairs around our familiar circle. Many of these men I’d known for years. Matt and I made the rounds shaking everyone’s hand, warmly welcoming them before we formally began our meeting with a prayer.
I talked directly about their official label as an STG (Security Threat Group). I invited them to look at how Jesus and his disciples were also considered an STG.
“Check this out you guys. Jesus himself was rejected and given the death penalty by the authorities, who considered him a security threat. Peter confronts the people about this here in Acts 3:14-15, right when he’s got their full attention after a man lame from birth has just been healed. Can someone read these verses for us?” I ask.
“God glorified his servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered over and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him,” one of the men reads.
“But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. (Acts 3:14-15).
These men who’ve been shelved away in lockdown readily identify with the sting of rejection and the stigma of being an STG. They easily sympathize with Jesus, who Isaiah earlier described as “despised and rejected of men, and man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). They are moved by God’s acceptance of Jesus—the one rejected by the status quo.
I invite the men to go against the current of the world’s ongoing marginalization of Jesus, valuing him instead as the “living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:5). I invite them to choose to receive him who the world did not recognize and his own people didn’t accept—and there’s no resistance. We end with prayers for everyone, focusing special attention on a man who sobbed as he recounted how his 15-year-old daughter had overdosed on heroine five days before.
The following week another colleague Mike and I were able to minister to this same group of inmates in a thirty-minute session that felt like heaven touching earth.
Mike brought his guitar and I offered to pray for the 12-15 men while he sang a worship song over them. Mike sang with great tenderness as I made my way around the circle behind the men, gently placing a hand on their shoulder and praying. As I prayed I sensed an outpouring of divine love for the men that went far beyond words. By the time I made my way around the circle many of the men were wiping tears from their eyes. I sat down and expressed how I was sensing God’s huge heart for each of them.
“Can I say something?” asked a huge guy I didn’t remember ever meeting.
“Yeah go for it,” I said.
Humbly he recounted a violent crime he had committed and confessed that he had even beaten people up for pay. This led one of the gang leaders to share how he and many of the others had lots of people they hadn’t forgiven who they probably should forgive. The kindness of God seemed to be inciting a wave of repentance, which fed right into a few verses from Luke that hit home for me and the men in a fresh way.
I asked someone to read Jesus’ words in Luke 6:26-36.
As a particularly well-known local criminal read Jesus’ words it felt like they were highlighted and struck home with particular authority.
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”
The men were nodding at these most challenging words, and each nod looked like heart doors opening wider as the light of Christ flowed in like liquid medicine. Loving each other was a better alternative to fights and the seclusion of lockdown—but Jesus’ teaching offered more.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same,” the pod’s shot caller continued to a fully attentive audience. The codes of the street and of America’s legal system were being directly challenged.
I explain that “credit” is the word charis, meaning grace, gift, benefit.
“As we move in the opposite spirit of enemy hate—choosing to instead love, bless, do good to and forgive we will receive real benefits from God. And this is something we can do right here, as long as there are still enemies to love and forgive” I continue, before the final verse is read.
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” —an appealing prospect to people being punished, who themselves are desperate for acceptance into a new family and the Father’s embrace regardless of their attitude.
The final words “for he himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” hit us all like a big, warm, unconditional hug for thugs, inviting Jesus’ call to an unheard of but strangely appealing warfare: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
In the remaining five minutes or so before the guards come we lead the men in prayer, confessing our sins, receiving our forgiveness, forgiving ourselves, forgiving our enemies. I leave them with homework to continue the process, and it seems like we all leave having already tasted the grace, the reward for living as sons of the merciful Father… and abundant ongoing provision is available for the receiving.