The Joy of Christ
There I sat. The choir was singing in harmony as musicians provided our beautiful music. The aroma of incense floated through the air. At the front of the church the Bishop, flanked by two Deacons and surrounded by several altar servers wearing the classic black and white garb, encircled the baptismal font. Standing in line were six men about to become members of the Christian family. I closed my eyes for a moment to drink in the sights and sounds of this event. Lost in thought, it was hard to realize that I was sitting in prison.
Over the last several years I have been blessed to travel around the United States to provide talks and retreats to various gatherings of Christians. I have shared the message the Holy Spirit has placed on my heart about God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness along with a message about the necessity of Christian community and friendships. I have delivered this message in gymnasiums, parish halls, hotel banquet rooms, and churches. I have proclaimed this message to Catholics groups, Protestant groups, ecumenical groups, all men, all woman, and it has been presented in English and in Spanish with live translation……..this particular retreat was about to be a whole new experience. This was to be a three day retreat in Benner Prison just outside of State College, Pennsylvania.
My presentation of the BLESSED, BROKEN and SCARED retreat was scheduled to begin on Friday evening and conclude on Sunday afternoon. Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Altoona Johnstown Diocese was scheduled to follow the retreat with a mass including baptism and confirmation for several of the men in prison.
I was accompanied on this trip by Joseph Galloway who is the author of THE BROKEN DOOR. Thanks to a generous grant from the ValMark Global Gift Fund, we were going to present each of the prisoners attending the retreat a free signed copy of Joe’s book. When we entered the prison on Friday night we had no idea of what to expect. Neither of us had ever been to a prison before; however from the moment the heavy steel door clanged shut behind us as we entered the prison I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Over the course of the next day and a half I poured my heart and my message out to these men. I shared openly and honestly about the struggles I have encountered in my Christian journey. In response, the men shared their stories with me. In addition to the group discussions, I had the opportunity to speak one on one to each of the men.
I know from my personal conversations with these men, that included in our group were men who had committed drug crimes, sex crimes, murder and many other crimes. From my point of view after only a few minutes with these men I saw them as just men. On this weekend they were fellow sojourners on the path of life. They were fellow Christians who had made mistakes. They were sons, brothers, fathers, grandfathers and even great grandfathers.
Some of these men were nearing the end of their incarceration. Some had been there only a few years and while others had been in most of their life. Still others had many more years to go and a few were never getting out.
What do these men have to look forward to? Where do they find hope? Where do they get the strength to go on? The answer to this is simple: they find it in JESUS CHRIST!
The depth of their faith and their knowledge of the Bible inspired me. It became obvious to me very quickly that even though I was the presenter it was my life that was about to be profoundly changed. I encouraged these men to be more open about the struggles and pain in their lives. I encouraged them to take their masks off and to reveal to their closest friends or to the prison chaplains those areas in their life that clouded their relationship with God. They responded with some of the deepest sharing I have witnessed.
The following is written in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” I was witnessing men who have spiritually been set free. Although they are inside the prison walls their spirits were more alive and free than many people on the outside.
During Sunday evening’s mass the Bishop reminded these men that many of Pauls’s epistles were written from his prison cell. Although a prisoner himself, Paul’s evangelical outreach went far beyond his prison bars. These men also have the opportunity to be Christ to one another and on this weekend there was no doubt that they were Christ to me.
The mistakes in the lives of these men may be different than yours or mine but we can never lose sight of the reality that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. I witnessed a joy in these men that comes from being set free by our Lord.
It occurred to me that the spirit of Christian joy present here is often lacking in others outside of prison. During this season of Advent consider these questions: What is it in your life that has you imprisoned? Is there an area of sin in your life that keeps you locked behind the wall of shame and the razor wire of pride? Would opening up about this with a true Christian friend help you to find your own freedom?
I was blessed by this experience. I hope that by sharing the story of the men at Benner and their strong faith in Jesus Christ it has inspired you and your faith as it has inspired mine.
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Yes, there are many different forms of prison. I recently hurt someone deeply with sharp unkind words. It haunted me until I did something about it. I sought forgiveness and
we prayed together. In that prayer time she DID forgive me and asked God to bless me.
Right at that moment I was freed from my own “prison”. What a gift to be able to give to each other! Reconciliation is indeed Good News! Brian, you are an amazing man of God. I always look forward to you 4th day letters!
Love in Jesus, Patty
Thanks for your great example and for your kind words.
[…] for the inmates at Benner Prison in Bellefonte, PA. I wrote about this in a 4thDayLetter last year. Click here to read that letter. At that time, I was struck by the joy of many of the inmates. This past Friday […]
Brian, yesterday was the first day I had an opportunity to go back to Benner with all of our moving. The men talked about the retreat and what it meant to them. They were truly touched. I said you mentioned that you might want to stay in touch with some of them and they were delighted to hear that. One of the men had received your 4th Day Letter “The Joy of Christ” and it was copied and passed among the men..one man came up and said, “Deacon Jack, this is making me cry. I’m reliving the retreat!”
Brian, thank again to you and Joe. I pray that both of you and your families have a very Merry Christmas and a very Blessed New Year. I pray that our paths will cross again, somewhere, where God wants them to.
Dear Brian,after attending two closing ceremonies at Marion NC, Prison,part of a Kairos weekend my husband attended, I have to thank you very much for your gift of testimony and time! I think this is exactly what these men are hungry for people that show them that we are all sinners inside and outside of prison walls. God bless you! Annemarie
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. These were men who know they need JESUS. Too often on the outside we try to make it without Him. We are all sinner in need of our Savior! May God continue to bless all you do for His kingdom.
What a wonderful weekend. It was an honor to be with Fr. John, Deacon Jack, and the team. And it was a privilege to be with the men at Benner.
Thanks for your friendship and willingness to drive us to and from these retreats. I have no doubt that the men will really enjoy your book.
Brian, I found your letter today just as inspiring as the retreat. I know that the men who participated were touched very deeply by your message. As I have engaged in prison ministry during the past year, it has become very clear to me that the one who is truly blessed by that experience is me. Many of the men we work with are so deeply committed to Jesus and to spreading the good news. I have also been extremely impressed by the ability of some of the men, who will spend the rest of their lives or a very large portion of it in prison, to move beyond themselves, to find new ways to be a door for other prisoners and for those of us who visit from the outside to encounter Christ. God Bless You. Jim
My prayer is for the Lord to surround you with peace during this time of grief. You will continue to remain in my prayers.
Thank you for your kind words but more importantly thank you for the work you are doing with the men in Benner. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to serve theses men along side of you and the others who volunteer in the prison. May you have a blessed Advent Season.
The Isaiah quote touched me today, thank you. I recognized the new things the Lord is doing in me as He keeps my heart open to share with Him my grief from my mothers death. The Lord has also put upon my heart the thought that to honor my grief as a tribute to my mom.
Thank you for the letter! My throat has a huge lump after reading your mail! I enjoyed your time seeing you at St. Patrick’s Andalusia, IL. You are blessed and gifted and thank you for sharing your gift with us! I pray for my daughters who are now young middle aged adults, they do not attend mass and neither do my grandkids! I only pray that some time soon they will see you and hear your words! Thank you again for all you do for God’s people!
P.s. If you have a video of your retreat, I could purchase, please let me know!
Thank you for your kind words. Currently I do not have any videos of the retreat. It is something we are discussing. When we do we will have then up on the website. God bless!
Brian, thank you and thank Joe for taking time out of your schedules to come into Benner prison to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the men. You were truly an inspiration to the men with your total openness of your life. They sensed your genuineness which allowed them to truly engage with you and with your message. There were many men over the course of those few days after hearing your story who had tears in their eyes when they felt their need to share their painful memories.
We both didn’t know where this retreat was going to lead us but the one person who did, Jesus Christ, made our paths cross by your presence on Gus Lloyd’s radio show “Seize the Day.” Thank you on behalf of all of the men at Benner for your willingness to give a talk inside the walls a chance. May our Loving God continue to Bless you and your good friend Joe on this journey he is taking you.
Deacon Jack & Colette
Deacon Jack and Colette:
Thank you for the kindness you extended to us on our visit. I am so thankful that your were listening to Gus Lloyd’s radio show and that you reached out to me after the interview. This xperience was a great blessing! Let the men inside know just how much they blessed me.