By Asher Griffin
After the first time I was in prison, I promised myself I would never go back. The cement floors were cold, the windows were foggy and small, the doors were loud and the echoes of the voices never ceased, only increased. The food looked dry and hazy—like the butt of a cigarette. People would talk to you, even if you did not want to listen. Their words were threatening, sharp and filled with historically stricken hatred. And it felt like Jesus was nowhere. But I am pretty sure I would not want Him to see and hear what I saw and heard.
But I was not an inmate at that prison. I was just a visitor. And, of course, I learned on that day that I never wanted to be an inmate. At that point, not even another tour would cause me to want to return. “Big Mac” in McAlester, as it is famously referred to, etched an image in my mind of pure fear and emptiness. Whenever pastors referred to Hell, I, from that point, was instinctively reminded of my short tenure in “Big Mac.”
That was six years ago, and much has changed in my life. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to go back to a place where people were locked up. I wanted to meet people in orange jump suits. I wanted to be around clanging handcuffs and echoing hallways. But this time I didn’t just want to see the inmates—I wanted to talk to them. And I wantedtalk to them about something specific: Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb.
Being a pastoral intern at a church in Edmond grants me easy access to all the ministries the church does. And one of the ways this church obeys, with joy, the call to make and mature followers of Christ is by sending men to participate in the Oklahoma County Jail Ministry.
The ministry in the Oklahoma County Jail is unlike any other jail ministry I have heard of. It’s not a time for hungry pastors to practice their sermons; it’s a time where followers of Christ meet with inmates one-on-one. Hundreds of volunteers are used every week. And through that, inmates are being met, heard, witnessed to and discipled from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. each weekday.
I saw biblical counseling take place in two ways that day. The first way was through inmates requesting to see a counselor, being led to the Chaplain’s room and meeting with one of the volunteers to talk about whatever was on his mind. And even though the counselors are good listeners and questioners, their attempts to take the message of the cross of Christ to each inmate’s ears were one of the most encouraging things I have ever seen.
Being cynical, I naturally think some inmates may request to go to that room for alternative reasons. They may want a piece of candy, an extra book to read or maybe just someone to talk to who doesn’t have a gun strapped to their belt. But that does not bother the Chaplain or the volunteer counselors. They want the opportunity to share the glory of Jesus’ atonement. They want to help the inmates hear of Jesus for the first time and start, or maybe continue, a path of sanctification. Through this, inmates have the opportunity to get a free NKJV New Testament and even Bible lesson pamphlets.
The second way I saw biblical counseling take place was within the pods of cells on the separate wings of the jail floors. I went with one of the seasoned counselors to Floor 10, Pod A and Pod D. He was going to meet with the inmates who are waiting to be sent to their more permanent prisons in various parts of the state. These inmates knew their time in this jail was short, and they were mentally preparing to be sent away from this ministry.
We walked into Pod A originally, but the inmates were not going to be let out of their cells until 2 p.m. (it was 11:15 a.m), so we had to walk across the floor to Pod D. As we were leaving the pod, an inmate began to anxiously pound on his cell door while looking intently through the 6”-by-6” window at the counselor and me. When we finally figured he was knocking at us, we stopped and looked over. At that point, he slammed a piece of paper up against the window. My naive, initial reaction was, “He wants to threaten us . . . am I going to die?”
The counselor I was with yelled at him, “I’ll be back at 2 p.m. Don’t go anywhere!” The inmate then lowered the piece of paper and smiled at the counselor through the window while giving ‘thumbs up.’
Needless to say, I was pretty confused. So I asked, “what did he want from you?”
The counselor said: “That’s the Bible lesson, with questions, I gave him last week. He probably wants me to grade it and talk to him about it.”
From there, we went to Pod D, where eight inmates were let out of their cells and allowed to come to the tables in the middle, exercise at their will or just sit somewhere outside of their cell. Four of them came to us at a stainless table in the middle of the large, open room. A man three times my size sat down right next to me and said, “Did you bring me a message from the Word? I can’t get enough of the Word.”
The counselor started talking about sanctification, pursuing holiness, confession of sins and salvation. They asked questions and wanted prayer. But mostly, they listened. Whenever verses were mentioned, one inmate would immediately recite the verse. When mentioning 1 John 1:8-9, he recited it before we did. When mentioning a passage in Matthew, he recited the whole passage. When mentioning Romans 9, I knew the first half of it. It’s as if he knew the whole New Testament. So I asked him, partially in sarcasm, “Brother, what do you do all day?” He quickly struck back with a smile and said, “I read the Bible. I love it. What do you do all day?”
At that point, I didn’t know whether to feel encouraged, defeated or humiliated. This guy got it. He understood he broke not only the laws of the State, but also is a sinner against God. He knows that Jesus came, died on the cross for his sins and conquered death by His resurrection. He believed in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. And he is pursuing Christ-likeness within a cell.
A worldly person would quit if he faced what that inmate faced. But the Spirit dwells within this man. The Spirit awakened his soul and breathes God’s goodness into his mind and heart. And he is going to fight sin knowing that the Word is his sword and Jesus is his warrior.
The man I previously mentioned, the one who slammed his Bible lesson against the window, is more eager than any churchgoer I’ve seen in a while. If that man were released today, he’d probably be the first person at church on Sunday. He wouldn’t casually walk into the service midway through the second song. He wouldn’t go to church because of the coffee bar, multimedia video introductions or the festive children’s programs. He would want to hear the Word because it changed his soul.
That Monday night, I laid on the floor in my room and prayed aloud to my Savior: “God, may I seek You like a baby needing to be fed. May I long for You like an inmate locked in a cell. May I yearn for Your instruction like a hungry man seeing food for the first time in a week.”
I looked up after that prayer and saw scores of books on my shelves. But my Bible was on my desk. And those inmates encouraged me to read it. Until the early hours I read it. I read of Moses, Paul, Abraham and John. But through all of that, Jesus was the One casting the shadow of their salvation and the unfolding story of redemption. He was the extender of my joy. He was the instructor of my heart because it was He Who breathed life into my dead soul so many years before that night.
I had not been to a jail or prison in six years before this past Monday. The first time I was looking for every reason not to go to jail because I didn’t see one speck of Jesus. But the second time, I saw Jesus’ disciples at work. They taught, encouraged, listened and proclaimed the glory of the cross and the salvation brought by our Savior. The second time I went to the slammer, I saw the advancement of the Kingdom. It was humbling. But more than anything, it was encouraging. And I cannot wait to go back.
Praise God that He is using men and women to bring His message to jails. And praise God that Christ is still saving men, even when they are in orange jumpsuits and live behind bars; we were the same in our unrepentant sinfulness.
Asher Griffin is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.