Jesus said, 'Go to prison'
When I was in junior high we lived in Joliet, Illinois, home to Stateville Correctional Center, one of the best-known maximum security prisons in the country. Movies scenes have been filmed there, including the opening of “The Blues Brothers” when Elwood Blues picks up his brother, Jake, at the old gothic entrance to the prison. Piece of advice: If you’re driving on old Route 66 southwest of Chicago, it’s a bad idea to pick up hitchhikers in orange jumpsuits.
In the late 1950s, a group from our church went on a tour of the prison, and I was allowed to go along. It’s not a nice place to spend time, but I have a close friend from high school years who decided that prison is where God called him to be, and that’s one of the reasons I look forward to the 50th reunion of our high school graduation this summer so I can catch up with my faithful friend, Chuck. We talk on the phone once a year and send a few emails but talking face to face will bring me in the presence of a modern saint.
We know that in Jesus’ final set of commandments in Matthew he ordered his followers to feed, clothe, provide care for the sick, welcome the stranger and give drink to our neighbors — and many do that. Chuck, though, has set a standard of the final requirement of a disciple of Jesus that is extraordinary and less often obeyed. He visits men in prison, and for Chuck that involves saving money for plane flights to maximum security penitentiaries at far distances from his home in Colorado.
Prisons are filled with lonely and frightened people who are hurting deeply and wonder if any one loves them — fertile ground in which to plant the Gospel. In Chuck’s ministry, he trains the inmates how to tell the tales of the Bible. They listen as he becomes a storyteller sharing about Gideon or David or a scene from the Gospels. He not only fulfills the commandment to visit those in prison, but he’s also following the commission to “go and make disciples,” which is Jesus’ final command in Matthew’s gospel. That is amazing to me. He visits incarcerated men and returns often to teach courses on how one prisoner, with limited reading skills, can tell another prisoner the stories of the Bible and the telling then goes on and on.
I worry about the future of our churches, but I never worry about the power of the Christian faith in a person’s life when they have a personal relationship with Jesus and the courage to risk taking him at his word.