One freezing winter’s night before Christmas, I found myself on a bus headed to Rikers Island. Rikers is a prison located on the East River between Queens and the Bronx. It is infamous for stories of prisoner abuse and for attacks on prison personnel as well. I have seen articles and watched documentaries over the years about these events and they had me in tears. On this night Rikers held about 11,000 inmates.
My trip, however, was to be one of celebration! I’ve been involved with Prison Fellowship Ministries for several years, visiting a few inmates over the years who sent me fan mail from prison. I’ve always felt that “There but by the grace of God go I.” Why did I have such an amazing Mom and journey this far in life and why did thousands of others fall through the cracks, without guidance, love or anyone caring for them?
What could I do to share the amazing grace, hope and love they could each have now, despite their circumstance, through an amazing God?
After much waiting and being vetted, our group of about 30 passed through all the razor wire surrounding these depressing buildings and finally entered an inmate gymnasium. It was decorated for Christmas and had an aroma of a great Italian dinner warming up! Not a typical scene in this place! There was a podium with about 8 chairs on either side, and an audience of chairs facing the podium. We were there to honor and celebrate the inmates who had completed and were graduating from an intensive educational program called the Prison Fellowship Academy . For months, they spent 10 class hours per week studying essential life skills such as fatherhood, basic finance, communication, anger management, forgiveness and The Bible. This program, Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) was founded by Chuck Colson after his experiences in prison for the Watergate crimes. Chuck came out a changed man, determined to help the many prisoners, and their families, learn of forgiveness and hope that they could have even behind bars…not an easy task!
When the inmates filed in for this unique ceremony celebrating them, the crowd of about 50 stood up and erupted into applause. PFM president, James Ackerman, with whom I’m pictured here, spoke about the power of God, the Gospel of love and hope and the very real transformations that had taken place in the lives of these men. Jose Negron, a field director for PFM cautioned the men “Knowing the right thing to do does not mean you always do it.” He continued that it would be hard to maintain but it was possible with “God’s strength”. After several of the men spoke and their diplomas were handed out, we sang some beautiful hymns and Christmas Carols. It was such an incredible moment.
Afterwards, I got to enjoy that Italian cuisine at a little round table with 3 inmates: Jameel, Mr. Whitney and another young man whose name I can’t remember. We talked about their hopes and plans as they are each scheduled for release soon. They each gave me something specific to pray about for them…I’m honored to pray every day for them and for all prisoners and their families everywhere.
If you’d like to help in some small way, you can give a gift at Christmas to a child of a prisoner. This kind of blessing is a powerful spark of hope that someone cares…and who knows what hope and beauty that spark may ignite? Check out the Angel Tree program by going to www.prisonfellowship.org.