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John Patrick Grace: Great time to go to prison, sharing God's love

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 01:12 AM

April's coming and I'm heading back to prison -- and glad of it.

Whether in North Carolina or France, Kentucky or West Virginia, over the past 37 years I have been involved in one form or another of prison ministry. I hope it's been a spiritual boost for inmates I've dealt with, but I know for sure it's been a great boost to my own soul.

While reporting for the Greensboro (N.C.) newspaper, I had occasion to cover an "open house" at a minimum security prison, McCleansville, just east of the city. There I came upon the Yokefellow Prison Ministry and decided to jump in.

We did weekly share-and-prayer meetings with inmates from many different denominational backgrounds, or from no Christian background at all. I was hooked. I found I loved going into a prison and interacting with inmates, hearing their stories, telling my own.

Subsequently, I moved to Chapel Hill to pursue graduate studies. There I discovered not far from my home in rural Orange County the Hillsborough minimum security prison unit. Working with a young Baptist chaplain, I helped found a new Yokefellows chapter. We recruited lay people from quite a number of different denominations to join in our prayer-and-share groups.

While living in southwestern France, at the request of a friend, I became a visitor to a prison in Pau, for a young English woman who'd been convicted of drug smuggling. Her family were too far away for regular visits and thus I stood in for them.

After relocating to Huntington 18 years ago, I hankered for a return to prison ministry. So I simply showed up at the federal correctional compound at Summit, Ky., on the edge of Ashland and asked, "How do I get involved?"

They put me into a ministry run by two lay preachers from the Four Square Gospel Church, and Catholic to the roots though I am, it was a great fit. Four Square is pentecostal in its doctrines and order of service and as a longtime participant in the Catholic charismatic movement, I was very accepting of laying on of hands for healing, the gifts of prophecy and discernment of spirits, and praying in tongues.

One evening our home phone rang and a Catholic friend from St. Albans, Bob McAteer, invited me to sign aboard with Kairos of West Virginia. Kairos, headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., is an interdenominational prison ministry operating in some 36 U.S. states and more and more foreign countries.

It is based on the cursillo movement, which originated with Spanish Catholics but has spawned such four-day "walks" as the Methodist-run Walk to Emmaus. "Cursillo" means "a little course (in Christian life)," and that's exactly what the Kairos XXIII team I'm now on will offer April 18-21 at Mt. Olive maximum security prison near Montgomery.

Outside volunteers give talks on topics such as "Who is Jesus?" "What is the church?" "Forgiveness." "Christian Action." "Walking in Grace." Each talk is followed by table discussions with four-five inmates and two volunteers per table. We sing a lot. And pray together in the chapel.

And we shower the prison with cookies. Not only do the 42 inmates who take part in the Kairos weekend receive cookies, but also all 1,000-some inmates and all the correctional officers and other staff. The cookies are simply a tangible symbol of how God loves us all.

Church groups that would like to bake cookies for Kairos 23 please email me at publishersplace@gmail.com or call me at 304-617-1292. There are other needs you can help with, too, and I can tell you more once you contact me.

John Patrick Grace formerly covered health care and religion for The Greensboro News and Record in North Carolina. He is currently a book editor and publisher based in Huntington.

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