Making Christmas Dinner for Convicts

Editor's Preface: I embarked on this feature believing in two sides of the mercy coin: justice and grace — one more option than they gave their victims. But mostly I determined not to get sucked into sappy/happy empathy, or place a church band-aid on a social ill that did not fit.

Sandy is a cook at a state penitentiary. Every morning he walks past guards, monitors, and large gates. He picks up a set of keys, attaches a radio and identification to his body and walks in and out successive sally ports. One door clangs shut before the next opens. Sandy enters a large corridor, puts on an apron and there assigns knives, forks and large machinery to inmates. He carries no weapon, but is quick to say he has a body guard, — he points upward.

Sandy is not a psychologist charting relationships, or a clergyman, mapping good behaviors. Sandy measures quantities by the pound, develops candid conversations with criminals and cooks for 1200 inmates — five of which are under his direct supervision.

Are we wasting time and money preaching to inmates? Do inmates play church?

Maybe. But look around you.

I look up and down the beautiful church. Properly dressed members sit around me.

How many of these people play church?

Yes, but these people behave.

These people could suddenly quit behaving.

Aren't there a lot of prisoners attending Bible programs just to get less time and social networks?

Yes, but aren't there people on the outside doing that?

(Okay I give him a fair point.) But these people have done some pretty heinous things. Is change possible?

Have you ever made a decision you regret? Can anyone of us change on our own? No. We need God, who is greater than us, who is willing to do the work in us and has done so. The problem is we don't believe He has done it. It's either we believe the gospel has teeth in it or we deny it.

Do you actually SEE change?

I really do meet people I believe are converted and changed by the power of God. I knew when I went to work; I was going to find Christ on BOTH sides. Jesus came to save the least — including me. Everyone is failing in the same thing — sin.

How does anyone end up there?

There is often a direct recipe. Poor or nonexistent home life plus drugs + alcohol = a way of life + crime. The research shows these factors are almost always present. The life choices made as a result of this lifestyle often widens the search for more excitement.

I've heard the formula usually involves gangs.

Not always. Sometimes a person turns to crime to support addictions. Drugs and gangs are a byproduct. The gang is about finding a family. Rarely do you find an inmate with any type of "father figure." The gang is really is about finding a family — particularly a father.

(Sandy glows.)

And that's the good news, because God the father is the one we all seek. We can offer them a Father who already loves and accepts them!

But these people have proved they can actually "commit awful" acts.

We are all capable of "awful acts." You never know what you are capable of — the human mind is capable of extreme good and extreme bad. They've already reached their low...

Have you ever made a poor decision? What if you or I had to pay for all our decisions? What if our choices were socially inappropriate? What if we could be arrested for hate? What if envy were punishable by death? How many would be on death row for killing with the tongue? We are ALL sinners in need of transformation.

You're saying they can change by a program?

No. I don't think people change by PROGRAMS. Programs make organizations look good. People are transformed by Christ. But they have to see Christ somewhere. Programs, pews, bars, death row. None of these mean anything to God. These lines exist because people have created them.

God's blood is cleansing. It doesn't have boundaries — a watch tower or a prison yard. It is life transforming as we choose to accept it. When a guard says he's a Christian and curses or treats inmates unfairly, the inmates have no use for his religion. Experience trumps words. I've seen inmates lose respect for someone's words when their actions don't match.

When people ram programs down their throats, or teach religion courses — most inmates run. The best example is a real person with a transformed heart — someone whose life has been transformed by Jesus Christ — that has power. I see people desperate for a real Christian to SHOW them the saving blood of Jesus. That is not just for people inside prison walls, it is for all "prisoners" of sin.

That's what transforms? You see it transforming them? (I really want to believe ...)

Yes. I have seen it. I think of one man on my staff — he is converted and he encourages me. Some men I work with will never get out, but they have a hope as I have never seen, because the blood of Christ has compelled them. It no longer matters they are on death row. They have a different power in a new life.

(I'm grateful for a protecting society and I'll likely never demand softer sentencing. However, I can't find a rebuttal to Sandy's argument that Christ's blood is bigger than my human holding tanks.)

(Sandy fairly glows again.)

(I ask one more question.) Are you making them Christmas dinner? (Suddenly Christmas and Sandy's work seem related.)

I'll get you the Christmas menu.

While it's not a happy/sappy solution or band-aid, I will read Sandy's Christmas menu. And I will take a second helping of — the Father God he daily dishes up with an overflowing ladle — it's a commodity he believes there is no scarcity of — even on his buffet.

December 01, 2009 / Feature