April 10-12 was my third Short Journey in the last four years and the anticipation among those of us selected to attend was not any less than the previous times. Admittedly, our excitement had a lot to do with the food, catered by Central Prison’s “Test Kitchen”, the place where prison staff go to eat. Compared to food served in our chow hall, meals from the Test Kitchen (also known as the Officers’ Dining Hall) is restaurant quality. You might not think three days of good food does much for your capacity to listen and absorb an important message; you would be wrong.
The simple pleasure of palatable, seasoned food and a full stomach is a powerful draw in prison. On death row it’s akin to Christmas. Not only are you spared the drama of standing in line for 20 minutes to get a tray of something that is often tasteless or disgusting, the atmosphere of Short Journey is buoyant and friendly. The Kairos have done this ministry for many years and know the secret to getting a stubborn man to listen lies in meeting his most basic need. They call this “the hook”. Dee, one of the oldest Kairos said:
“We know many of you guys come here for the food; we want you to. Eat your fill and tell others. And when you’re sated we’ll feed you with an entirely different kind of food, the sort that will feed you for a lifetime and beyond.”
Over the course of three eight-hour days we dissected the Lord’s Prayer line-by-line, discussed prayer in our confinement, and read a number of different passages from the Bible, reflecting on how they applied in our lives. A lot of our table discussions--twenty death row prisoners were divided into four tables entitled, “Luke”, “John”, “Mark”, and “Matthew”--tended to be lively. Not every prisoner who participated professed Christianity as their faith and some who did had very strange views. Needless to say there existed an opportunity for everyone to learn from his neighbor.
Our table discussions were facilitated by the Kairos’ “talks”. These speeches, often harrowing accounts out of their own personal hells, inspired and provoked thought. One particular talk caught my interest the most because it touched on the topic of forgiveness from Jesus as he hung from the cross, in Luke 13:34
“ Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,”
Ken the Kairo interpreting the passage said:
“I often think of what Jesus said that day he was crucified, imagining there to be so much more in between the lines. ‘Father, heal them of their wounded pride and their soul sickness that leads to the death of their own souls; the death of sane, rational thinking; the death of their trusting relationship to you, Father; the death of relationships with others who suffer the same soul sickness they themselves have.’”
As I listened to Ken it struck me how much truth can cut through the debris of our lives to fulfill a need that had yet to exist until that moment. Soul sickness described an ache I can never quite soothe on my own, a place my spirit weeps, just as Jesus cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
I go to the Short Journey to get fed in what is quite literally a mountaintop experience of fun, fellowship, and fulfillment. It is a respite from the daily grind of life in prison. The challenge is carrying the light of God down into the shadow of the valley so others who stumble along in their soul sickness might be shown The Way. The challenge is in making certain the light is not extinguished.