Kairos Prison Ministry reaches out to Augusta inmates

Twice a year, men armed with cookies and letters from children pour into Georgia's prisons for a weekend of hugs, prayers and song.

Often, inmates come for the snacks: pizza, soda, even steak. They stay, however, for the fellowship, said Michael Phillips, one of dozens of Kairos Prison Ministry volunteers at the Augusta State Medical Prison in Grovetown.

"They see the love of God in a pizza," he said.

Larry Gibbins is one of them.

Gibbins, 66, is serving a life sentence for rape, child molestation and incest. He joined Kairos in 1996.

"I had no idea what it was," he said. "It turned out to be life-altering."

Today, Kairos celebrates its 25th year in the Georgia prison system. Since its launch in Augusta in 1987, nearly 2,000 men have participated in a Kairos weekend, patterned after Christian retreats such as Walk to Emmaus, Tres Dias and Cursillo.

The Augusta State Medical Prison operates the oldest Kairos in Georgia. The prison is one of 23 institutions across the state to offer Kairos fellowships.

Jim Schroeder, an Army veteran who works for Boeing in Augusta, leads the 40 or so men who volunteer at Kairos weekends at the medical prison.

The facility was built in 1983 to house sick inmates, including those who need mental health services, physical therapy or elder care. Half of the prison's 1,000 inmates receive mental health services, said Scott Wilkes, the deputy warden for care and treatment. Kairos weekends are open to them, too.

"That stood out to me, that Kairos would include them," he said. "They'll bring in Spanish-speaking volunteers, too, for our inmates who can't speak English."

Kairos tries to be inclusive because God is inclusive, said Paul Balducci, a longtime volunteer.

"These are people like we are. They may have made a mistake, but God forgives," he said. "At Kairos, they begin to understand God really loves them."

That was a difficult message to receive, said Gibbins, who is serving the life sentence.

"A lot of us are used to the negative. We didn't grow up with normal families," he said. "In Kairos, they're quick to tell you 'I love you.' They don't expect anything in return."

Gibbins said he is learning to be vulnerable.

"I was blind," he said. "Kairos helped me see I do have a heart. I am loved. They helped break that heart."

Gibbins had faith before he went to prison, but said it was the way most people have neighbors, waving from a distance but never knowing them personally.

"I can say now I know who Jesus Christ is," he said.

Some men walk away from Kairos weekends as new Christians. Others don't. They're all welcomed at prayer and share groups, which meet in the chapel, and monthly reunions on Saturdays.

Richard London, 39, is Kairos' inside rector. It's a title given to the inmate who helps shepherd the men after the Kairos weekend ends. He is serving a life sentence for the murder of two lodge owners outside Atlanta in 1997.

He has modeled his own service after the lives of the volunteers.

"When they came, it really touched my heart. I realized they came on their own time. They didn't have to do that," he said. "They didn't look down on us. We weren't just inmates. They let us become a part of something."

Schroeder shies away from inmates' thanks.

"One of the reasons we do this is because we get a blessing. When we go, we ask these guys not to applaud, not to thank us." he said.

The ministry has been a blessing to Leo Maniccia and his family. Maniccia, a volunteer, and his children have drawn pictures and written letters to inmates for years.

"It became a part of their lives," he said. "Eventually, I was sure I wanted to do more and go to prison. It was frightening. There's barbed wire all around. Prisons are scary places. Inmates can be scary. That's why we have to bring the love of Jesus."

The love of Jesus has the unique power to change the prison environment, said Dante Fort, 29, who was convicted of a 1999 murder.

"The love catches everyone's attention," he said. "It motivates us to love others. It isn't just about me, but other people. I want to go all out and be an example for Christ."

Ultimately, Kairos has power to motivate inmates unlike most other tools at the prison's disposal, Wilkes said.

"We're always looking for ways to improve behavior," he said. Although the prison can impose phone or shop restrictions or send someone to lockdown, "those deterrents don't work the same way. This really is the only life change option available to them."

For many, the faith they find through Kairos is life-changing, London said.

"It's what stays with a man when no one's watching, the lights are out, the doors are closed. It's the thing they need to lead them and guide them when they leave here and live without the confines of the institution," he said. "There's nothing that even compares to the leading of the Holy Spirit when it comes to teaching me what's right from wrong. I know now where to get help. I can get down on my knees and pray."

Gregory Lamar Smith has been in and out of prison. He hopes Kairos will give him the tools he needs to succeed next time he's released. The 47-year-old Decatur, Ga., native is in prison for a parole violation after previous convictions for burglary, rape, shoplifting and marijuana.

"We're all thinking about why we're here and how we're going to leave, because we can't leave how we came," he said.

While the ministry might help with life on the outside, Kairos builds hope for inmates who expect to live and die in prison, said Fort, who is serving a life sentence.

"Our faith is in God regardless of how much time we have. We live as though God will deliver us tomorrow," he said. "He's the only one who can."

Kairos Prison Ministry

Kairos is a Greek word meaning the right or opportune time. "God's special time" is the theme of Kairos weekends, three-day retreats for inmates organized by volunteers.

The first retreat was held in 1976 in Raiford, Fla. The ministry took hold in Augusta in 1987. The Augusta State Medical Prison was the second institution in Georgia to start a Kairos program. It is now the oldest, because the first, in Stone Mountain, Ga., was discontinued.

Kairos Ministries operates in more than 350 prisons in 31 states, including 23 in Georgia. More than 170,000 incarcerated men and women have participated.

Learn more about fundraisers for the ministry, volunteering, or submitting letters and drawings at asmp.kairosofgeorgia.org.

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