Over a hundred men sat at tables around the room, all wearing the same tan uniforms with the words “Department of Corrections” displayed largely on their backs. The room felt like a rundown school cafeteria – painted stone walls and a concrete floor. Just outside the thick glass windows, a wall rose with barbed wire on its top. Beyond that wall was more barbed wire and a guard tower. Our surroundings were bleak, but these men smiled and talked animatedly with one another. There was laughter. There was real joy. This was the Jumpstart Christmas party in Bibb County Correctional Facility – an Alabama state prison for men.
Though I have been a board member of the prison ministry Jumpstart Alabama for over a year now, due to covid restrictions, this was my first time in the prison. For months, I have heard of the wonderful work God is doing in Bibb County Correctional. For several years now, the Jumpstart Inside Program – a yearlong discipleship program with an emphasis upon Godly manhood – has seen hundreds of men graduate the program and continue on together in a community – a community set apart from the rest of the prison – of Christian brotherhood, worship and accountability. Some of these men have been released and joined Jumpstart’s Outside Program – a yearlong transition program which provides housing, employment and transition through a community of Christian support and accountability.
Now, here I was finally getting to see the inside for myself – along with other board members and volunteers. By the generosity of many churches and volunteers, we brought with us 212 hygiene bags and goodie bags along with pizza, soft drinks and chips. We worshipped together with all 212 Jumpstart program participants in the prison chapel. Several of these men led us in worship, and pastors from supporting churches preached the good news of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, we ate pizza together in the adjoining room.
I began to introduce myself to a few of the guys. “We know who you are. We pray for you every day.” One of them told me. I was stunned.
They thanked us effusively as they warmly shook our hands. But we felt unworthy of their thanks. I wanted to thank them. Nowhere have I witnessed a more tangible or more beautiful picture of the gospel’s transformative power. There was more hope and joy among these men in prison than I have seen in most churches.
I stood to the side, looking around the room in wonder. All I had heard was true. I saw the peace and joy that reigned among these men – a peace that can keep shining in a place as dark as this: the peace of God. Derrick Bright, the pastor of First Presbyterian Aliceville, stood next to me. He and his congregation are strong supporters of this ministry. “Doesn’t this just fire you up?” he said. I looked at him and saw giddiness showing plainly upon his face like a child on Christmas morning. We felt the same. “Yeah,” I said, unable to say more.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Jumpstart is that the ministry is inmate-led. As a board, we view it as our role to fuel the fire. We want to keep supporting the ministry that is already happening in the prison. These Christian brothers in Bibb are literally risking their lives to share the gospel. They protect one another, they pay each other’s debts, and they hold one another accountable.
As we all settled in to eat our pizza, one of the men came and sat down across from me and two of my fellow board members. As others had before, he gave us his heartfelt thanks. Again, I felt unworthy. We small talked briefly. But soon our conversation became serious. Pain became evident on his face. “I haven’t seen my children in 8 years.” He choked up as he spoke. “My wife remarried.” He paused. “I know it’s my fault. I understand why…” He broke off. We spoke of forgiveness. Without going into detail, he spoke of how so few in his church would extend him forgiveness. And how they seemed to stop caring about him. I didn’t know how to reply.
His eyes welled with tears, and he began to speak with constrained emotion, “Where are the true churches? Why don’t more of them come to see us? I know they are there. It’s as if we no longer have souls and that we don’t matter anymore. What about Matthew 25? ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ We are the least of these.” He jammed his thumb into his own chest as he said this.
We attempted an honest response, but I feared to say what was truly on my mind.
I believe that most Christians like forgiveness and grace but only in the abstract. Our favorite stories are those of wild forgiveness and grand redemption. But in the end, most of us never had to leave our comfort or security. We just got to hear about it. We like it when the mess and the pain of redemption is distant from us. For when we are truly faced with the mess of sin and depravity, everything changes. When somone threatens our way of life – our comfort and security – we resort to judgment, not forgiveness.
As I heard this man’s story, I tried to put myself in his shoes. I do not know what this man did, and I do not need to know. We all have a fearful capacity for sin. I see this in myself. Any one of us could easily come into a situation such as his. I asked myself, could I fall so far that I could go beyond the limits of my church’s grace and forgiveness? Ask this yourself. I fear that the answer would be yes for most of us because I think we know that our own grace and forgiveness has limits. We can easily think of things, of threats that are too great for us to tolerate. This is a frightening thought, but we must consider it. Do we possess the grace and forgiveness of our Lord?
The grace and forgiveness of Jesus is radical. Forgiveness is never abstract for Him. Indeed, our Lord dwelt among us, becoming flesh, embracing the messiness and pain of our fallen world. And He burdened Himself with our sins to such a degree that it killed him and buried him. He came as a willing sacrifice. Then, he rose again from the dead. Now, for all who repent and believe in Him, He is our righteousness.
Sitting before me in Bibb County Correctional, I saw men who have experienced rejection from society, their churches and often even their families. It has been conveyed by many that their sins are beyond grace and forgiveness. They are deserving only of judgment. Well… there is truth in this, insofar as it is true for us all. If we want to speak of judgment, Scripture says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is the gospel message: because of our sins, because of our offenses against God, all of us are deserving of death, but “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Let us take care then, we who can so easily judge. For judgment and wrath could rightly fall upon us all. Grace and forgiveness are never for the deserving. If it were, we all would be lost. Grace and forgiveness are for the repentant, for the broken and the contrite, for those deserving of judgment and death.
And these men in Bibb County Correctional – my brothers in Christ – they know this truth. This is all their hope and joy. In Jesus, they have found grace and forgiveness for their sins. They know they have a Father who has not abandoned them. Perhaps they did not have a family before. They do now. Here, in prison, they have what all the world longs for: freedom. In Jesus Christ, they have found freedom.
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