After a three-year pause due to covid-19, the Kairos Prison Ministry of Arkansas this week resumed its semi-annual weekend retreat for residents of the Pine Bluff Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
The 3.5 day-long program, described as a short course on Christianity, began Thursday evening and finishes Sunday.
A total of 131 inmates applied to participate this time, according to Richard Allen, a member of St. Andrew's Anglican Church in Little Rock and a decades-long Kairos volunteer. Due to space limitations, only 24 were accepted. They'll be joined by two dozen volunteers, a mixture of clergy and laymen.
Kairos, which offers similar programs at prisons across the state, seeks to create "Christian communities inside prisons that can transform lives, decrease prison violence, and reduce recidivism," organizers say.
Founded in Florida in 1976, it now operates in 37 states and nine foreign countries.
Some of the participants question the visitors' motives, at least initially.
"The first day they just can't figure out why we're there. They think we've got some kind of angle, that we want something from them," Allen said. "And it takes until about the second day, the evening of Friday, before they realize that there is no agenda that we have, except to show them the same love that Jesus Christ has shown us."
Prison ministry isn't a new development; in the Christian tradition, it is 2,000 years old.
In Matthew 25, when the righteous are separated from the wicked, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned are blessed. The others are cast away.
Members of Kairos take the passage to heart, returning again and again.
At the Pine Bluff Unit, the weekend retreats have been held 50 times over roughly the past 30 years. This will be retreat No. 51.
Volunteers bring more than Bibles; they carry cookies, too -- 900 dozen, give or take, for this weekend alone. The goal is to provide a dozen or so to everyone living or working at the facility.
Early on, supporters would do the baking themselves. These days, they're required to take the store-bought kind.
"Kairos" is a Greek word sometimes translated as "the right time" or "the opportune moment." The ministry defines "Kairos" as "God's special time."
While the visitors are inside teaching the course, volunteers on the outside are doing their part as well, said Gil Gilbert, chairman of Kairos' advisory council for Pine Bluff and another St. Andrew's member.
"We have people that are praying in 30-minute segments the entire weekend," he said. "They're being covered in prayer the entire time they're there by people all over the world."
Team members also write letters of encouragement that they leave behind.
At some point Sunday, the volunteers depart, but the Kairos ministry continues.
Inmates who complete the program meet for alumni-led weekly "Prayer and Share" gatherings. Volunteers show up for pre-meeting fellowship with the inmates, then hold a Prayer and Share session among themselves while the inmates do the same.
"We're trying to create a Christian community down there and have those guys minister to each other," said John Pownall, a member of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in North Little Rock and this weekend's retreat leader.
Dina Tyler, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said she's glad to see volunteers returning.
"Many of these groups have been coming in for decades, and we want that to continue," she said. "I think that they can make a world of difference."
Kairos is ecumenical and the focus is entirely on prison ministry, Pownall said.
"We're all united," he said. "We offer just the core values of Christianity."
John Carney, a volunteer penitentiary chaplain who is also participating, is the son of Southern Baptist missionaries.
Growing up, his family lived, for a time, in Bangladesh.
Rather than traveling half-way around the world to share his faith, Carney has focused instead on the incarcerated.
After discovering prison ministry, "I came to realize that this is kind of my mission field. This is where He called me. He called my parents to be missionaries to a foreign country, but He's called me to be kind of a missionary here in the Department of Corrections," Carney said.