Jailhouse Religion

Alcatraz Prison Cells

I spend quite a few days in prison every year.

No, I’m not on a work-release program. I go into prisons because I choose to.

Back in the mid nineties, I was invited to do a chalk-art presentation at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the idea. But early-on in my chalk art ministry I promised God that as long as he kept me in chalk and paper, I’d draw wherever he opened a door.

But I never imagined that he would open a door into a prison.

I’m so squeaky clean that after 40 years of driving I’ve only had one ticket. I had no idea of what to expect behind the walls of a medium security prison unit, and quite frankly the prospect of being in one room with a couple of hundred convicts scared me to death. But I had made that promise to God.

And so I went.

And my life was changed forever.

When I went in, I expected to find a couple of hundred angry men just daring me to bless them. What I found were men who were hurting, who were hungry, and who simply wanted someone to care about them.

Two things changed my perspective on prison ministry. First, I didn’t see “prisoners” or “inmates”. I saw men. People just like me. And I realized, perhaps for the first time, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Those men were in prison because of bad choices they had made and bad things that they had done. I could just as easily have made some of those choices, and it’s only by God’s mercy that I didn’t.

Second, I saw that God’s grace was sufficient to change the minds and hearts of even hardened criminals.When those men sang during the worship time, I saw a deep hunger and passion reflected on their faces that I rarely see in churches.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of those men (and women) have deep, serious issues to deal with before God.

But they know that God loves them and that he is a God of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

And they love him.

Some people talk about “jailhouse” religion, and say that these men and women are phonies, that they are just professing faith to somehow weasel into a better position with the parole board. They’re putting on a mask, so to speak, so that people will think better of them.

Granted, some inmates are like that. But to tell you the truth, I believe that the faith of many of these men and women is stronger and more genuine than what I’ve seen in a lot of churches.

You see, their sins are out in the open. In the churches, we prefer to keep ours hidden behind masks of self-righteousness.

Inmates aren’t the only ones who can practice jailhouse religion.

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