Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of Christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament we share here this Holy Week.
I count it a high privilege to know -- at least in a small part -- the writers of the mourning stories I'll be sharing here during Holy Week. Their lives walk the path of celebration, yes, but also suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, the death of loved ones, and the death of dearly-held dreams. Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too.
If you’ve been following the blog for the last year, you’ve met today’s guest more than once. Walter and his wife, Karen, are kindred spirits in our congregation at Church of the Apostles. Walter’s heart for the marginalized is only outmatched by his heart for Jesus. Actually, as Jesus told us, the two are inseparable. You can read here. all of the posts Walter records from his prison visits with Kairos. I’m grateful to him for sharing one of them with us here today.
Would you read Walter's story with me, and listen with an open heart for any words Christ might be speaking to you?
by Walter Wittwer
How does one describe the Holy Spirit’s work? How does one help others understand what happens at a spiritual retreat taken with prisoners, in prison? People doing serious time but freer than many not behind razor wire.
How does one adequately describe the power of 60 men, half free, half not, every age and every color, singing louder than most congregations, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
How do I paint the quiet joy on a person’s face because, “This feels so normal. I don’t feel like I’m in prison. It’s just a bunch of guys havin’ a good time together. I’ve never felt this before.”
Can I do justice to the transformation of hard, suspicious faces into delight? How does this happen? F. said, “Kairos is from the heart of God!” I believe him of course, but how do I tell you what that feels like? When J. said that when he came Thursday night, he was dead, but now, Sunday, “I’m alive.” The same man who hung himself a few years ago, ending up in a coma for 6 months. No one thought he would live, yet now he is truly alive. And I saw him dance to, “I Saw the Light!” Can I really tell you what resurrection looks like? Have you seen it? Come to prison and you always see people come out of their graves.
Stories. Mundane miracles. Simple graces. Transfigurations. Heart transplants. And not just among the prisoners. Does anyone believe it? Would I believe it if I only read about it?
And surprises. O. had a stroke and may still have a tumor. He is not an old man. His conversation is disjointed, rambling, often hard to follow. Sometimes almost poetic, “I know I’m here, but I may not be because I’m also over there and someplace else.” Having experienced much community rejection of individuals with disabilities, I would expect abuse and mocking here in prison. But no. Did I see accurately? Only support and encouragement. An inmate explaining to me, “You have to be patient and listen. He’s doing the best he can.”
The rejected of society, acting civilized, talking intelligently, tackling difficult subjects more maturely than……expected. We talk racism, even politics, and no one yells, no one calls names. I’m sure the atmosphere that’s created helps. I wish we could create this atmosphere everywhere. Sharing deep thoughts, hurts, pains, angers, all listened to with love.
C. told of being from Mississippi and remembering the riots and the mistreatment by…. some of you folk’s color. Friday and Saturday nights he had visions of Joseph and his many-colored coat. He wondered what it meant. Sunday morning he had the vision again and finally he understood. We are all different colors, but we are made into the same coat. For the first time, he said, he was able to forgive us. He had been sullen most of the weekend, but Sunday he shared this story with us and the community that was able to come in and witness the closing, and he smiled.
V. is a peaceful man who struggled with how to evangelize in such a “dark place.”
Ch. is a thoughtful, philosophical man who is searching. He attends Bible study, Buddhist meditation, chapel, takes classes in psychology, reads a lot and asked many questions. He says he was a hard-headed man who is trying to learn how to be teachable.
K. testifies to forgiving the man who killed his son. G. tells how he came close to killing the man who was having an affair with his wife. The crying of the man’s two young boys stopped him. The stories are hard. They are brutal. They are TV stories lived out in real life. They are not what I’m used to. I don’t usually hang out with murderers. But these are different. They are not monsters, they are people. I don’t really understand it. They have done monstrous things…yet Jesus loves them…as much as me and has forgiven…even them.
Can I convince you of the power of the prayer hands? I’ve convinced very few. Only about 10% of the people I ask fill one out. Perhaps many struggle with praying for criminals. I understand. Until I went in, I would have been hard-pressed to do it. But these hands move mountains. M. told V. that he had counted 160 of them on one wall. Given somewhat even distribution, there were at least 500 people out there who hadn’t forgotten them. This was a source of great astonishment. It always is. How do I help people understand this? Many say, I’ll be praying, and I believe they do. But to these men, the fact that people are praying for them is more important than that they are praying. Everywhere they look they see love. They see it. Telling them that people are praying for them means little. They cannot imagine that. Prison kills imagination. It kills hope. Those pieces of paper with names and times on them, along with other posters and pictures, restores hope, enlivens their imaginations, and renews their spirits.
And the prayer! Will you understand the power and depth of prayer, that shakes walls and trembles earth, that these men pour forth? Are there words to successfully recount the gratitude these men express. I always marvel how much there is in prison and how little in churches of free people. The prayer brought me to my knees. “There’s a lot of demons in this place but we’re called to be a light in this dark place!” “Oh Lord, that You would rescue such as me!” “Lord save the young who still have a chance in life. Guide them to safety.” We prayed for our families outside. For the weekend we had that in common.
And the letters! Have I told you about the letters? Each team member writes each Kairos retreatant a letter. Each got 30 letters, sealed and made personal by Holy Spirit. Past Kairos retreatants (this is our fourth year at this prison) can come and be angels (helpers). Each told us they still have everyone of their letters and still read them, over and over. Mail is scarce in prison, and the longer you’re there, the scarcer it gets. V. mentioned that he had not received a letter in over two years, and that one was opened. Now he has 30, all of which were sealed.
Should I tell of the last talk? B. started off by saying, “I’m a murderer in prison for life. I’m 29 years old and they are still investigating me for another murder in Connecticut and the FBI is still looking into my connection with other crimes. I was not a nice man. My uncle testified against me and he’s a free man. I will never be. My homies all deserted me. I still can’t believe I’ve been rescued by a bunch of crusty old white guys. Now, even though I’m not free, I am, and I know where I’m going when this is all over. I smile all the time (he does) and I try to help the younger guys, guys who still have a shot at making something out of their lives (I’ve witnessed him doing this).” His talk shocks some people from the outside. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure exactly what to make of a testimony like this. It is one thing to speak in Christian theory, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to see it face-to-face.
And finally, the team. Sunday mornings tend to be the most segregated time of the week, but not this group. The (very good) worship team consists of three guitarists; a Baptist heavy machinery mechanic (retired), a Methodist CPA and a Catholic aviation inspector, a Pentecostal landscaper plays bass and a Presbyterian chiropractor plays the trumpet. 5 of the 30 are ex-cons, one is recently from Ghana, another from Sweden, and we are multi-colored, from blue collar to white collar, representing every major Christian religion and then some, young and old, united for one purpose, to be ambassadors for Christ to incarcerated men.
It is an honor and privilege to serve these men. As one man told his wife, “Honey, I don’t think I can ever stop doing this!”
Walter Witter is a first-time grandfather, married to lovely Karen, Clinical Team Leader at an agency in Westchester County, NY, responsible to 22 adults in 5 homes, active in Kairos prison ministry, and moving toward vocational diaconate within the Anglican Church through Church of the Apostles in Fairfield, CT. The best way to heal your own wounds is to help others heal theirs.
You can read more about Walter’s journey as a chaplain, prison minister, reader of good books, and writer of poetry at his blog ChainsGone.com
(See all of the Retrieve Lament stories from this year here.)