Kairos Prison Ministry changes lives of prison residents and volunteers

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VINTON–Steve Musselwhite of Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church says he became committed to the Kairos Prison Ministry about 18 years ago because he “had never anywhere seen the power of the Holy Spirit move as He did in a maximum security prison.”

Since then, Musselwhite has spent 40 weekends in seven different prisons and has convinced many other volunteers to make the same commitment, or to at least give it a try.

This spring several members of Thrasher, including Bob Benninger, Todd Brinkley, and Pastor Jae Song visited prisons in western Virginia with Kairos.

Several members of Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton recently participated in a Kairos Prison Ministry weekend in medium/maximum security prisons in western Virginia. Shown left to right are Pastor Jae Song, Bob Benninger, and Todd Brinkley.
Several members of Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton recently participated in a Kairos Prison Ministry weekend in medium/maximum security prisons in western Virginia. Shown left to right are Pastor Jae Song, Bob Benninger, and Todd Brinkley.

This was Song’s first time to participate in the program. Brinkley has made 10 trips beginning in 2011. Benninger has volunteered on 28 Kairos visits so far. All were influenced by Musselwhite to join.

Kairos is “a lay-led, interdenominational Christian ministry in which volunteers bring Christ’s love and forgiveness to prisoners and their families.”

Kairos got its start in Florida in 1976 and has now expanded into a huge international ministry. It is a structured three and a half day program introduced to inmates by the volunteers but continues after they leave, with the residents who participate continuing to gather regularly for “accountability, support, and prayer.”

According to the Kairos website, “through talks and discussions prisoners learn that they are worthy of God’s love, light and grace–that no matter who they are or what they have done, God forgives them.”

The word “Kairos” is a Greek word meaning in “God’s Special Time,” indicating an opportunity for inmates to reconsider their life choices.

“The main focus is to get guys to forgive themselves and others, to build small ‘prayer and share’ groups, small Bible studies, and to hold each other accountable,” said Brinkley. “You help form a church community within the prison and visit to help maintain and show your commitment.”

Pastor Song says that he talked with the inmates more about making good and bad choices than about religion. The theme was “forgiveness, not scripture.”

“Kairos works in medium/maximum security prisons to build a community within the prison of residents, to make them accountable to one another, hopefully leading to them share one another’s concerns while confined,” said Musselwhite.

Statistics indicate that the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.3 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails–a 500 percent increase over the past thirty years. Studies indicate that the Kairos program can be instrumental in reducing the recidivism rates of residents.

One study demonstrated a recidivism rate of 10 percent for those who participated in two or more Kairos ministry sessions as compared to 23 percent for those who had not. Reduction in recidivism rates reduces the cost to society of imprisonment (approximately $30,000 per year per prisoner).

Musselwhite says that while Kairos helps the individual residents, it also can also lead to improvements in the prison atmosphere when residents bond with other residents in the “hope of Jesus Christ.”

Brinkley’s recent Kairos lasted from Thursday through Sunday. He says that the best reward for volunteering is seeing inmates who “look lost and scared on Thursday with a completely different demeanor on Sunday, laughing and cracking a smile.”

He participated with a team of 20-30 volunteers, meeting with 42 inmates from 8 to 4 each day, sharing meals and life experiences. (Residents must ask to be part of the program.)

Brinkley says that “the ideal Kairos participants are gang members or negative leaders who hear what we have to say and make a change. If other guys see the change caused by Kairos, they might also change.”

Song says that many prisoners come to the Kairos program because they just want someone to talk to them. The Kairos volunteer mantra is “listen, listen, love, love.”

He says that the prison population is “made up of guys who have never been loved. They might come from foster homes with no love; they have never been heard or supported. Kairos might be the first time that love has been shared with them. They are victims as well with no models in their youth, victims of their environment.”

“Many of these guys have made huge mistakes–many due to drugs and alcohol,” said Musselwhite. “They may never have experienced the unconditional love of the Lord, and when they do, they are just overwhelmed.”

Song said he was apprehensive the first day, describing himself as smaller in stature than many of the prisoners.

Musselwhite said that before his first Kairos he had the stereotype in mind that all inmates “looked like Charles Manson.” He came to realize that they “looked like my children and contemporaries, but who had made mistakes in life.”

Benninger said that when new inmates enter the prison system it is often a shock to them and their first inclination is to withdraw and isolate themselves to stay safe. The Kairos program encourages residents “to open up, tear down the walls of isolation, interact with others, interact with Jesus, and make their lives better.”

“We share what Jesus has done in our lives and what impact He can make on their lives,” said Benninger.

Teams and leaders are trained each time before visiting the prisons. Volunteers must be 18 years old and go through a background check.

Each volunteer writes a letter to each prisoner in the program. Brinkley recalls one prisoner who instead of opening and reading all his letters, opened only one, saying that he never received mail from anyone in the outside world and wanted to save the letters to have one to open each week. He spoke with another who had been imprisoned for eight years and had never received a letter from anyone.

Brinkley mentioned going into the housing units on the last night and passing out homemade cookies and Christian greeting cards to all the inmates, not just the ones attending the Kairos weekend, as one of his favorite parts of the experience.

“It is a real blessing to all the residents,” said Musselwhite. “Kairos cookies are placed on the tables where six residents and three team members gather throughout the entire weekend.”

Church volunteers bake the cookies for the men to take with them and distribute on Kairos weekends.

After the initial Kairos sessions, there are reunions, but the point is for the prisoners to come to rely on one another inside the prison walls, not on the volunteers from outside.

All of the Thrasher men describe becoming part of the Kairos ministry as “life-changing.” Musselwhite says that he has “become a different person because of Kairos. Some of my best friends are residents.”

Many members of his family—wife, son, brother, mother, nephew—have become involved in one of the several Kairos ministries as well.

Musselwhite is now serving as the State Chairman of the Virginia Kairos ministry. He says in encouraging more to volunteer with Kairos that the biggest benefit is “You never give to the Lord that you don’t get blessed over and over.”

There is a need for volunteers, donations, and even cookie-baking to support the Kairos ministry.

Mussselwhite says, “All that volunteers need to serve in Kairos is a belief in Jesus, as a Christian. We see men change to the glory of God. Man cannot change the hearts of men, but God can through the Holy Spirit. The love of Christ is available to us all.”

More information is available at www.kairosva.org/.