We shivered in the near-dawn darkness in the parking lot outside Raleigh's Central Prison that first day, checking each other's pockets to make sure we had nothing but our driver's licenses. The morning seemed unnecessarily cold, the walk to the gate needlessly long, the guards overly zealous in their scrutiny.
Even the chaplain for Kairos #21 seemed tense, preoccupied, as we lined up to enter the facility. I was a little concerned. God himself seemed distant at that moment.
We trudged up the gravel path and packed ourselves into what looked like an elongated airlock. The back door must be secured before the front one opens. Finally, an interminable ride up ancient elevators to the second floor, where we mustered once more.
A female officer inside a glass enclosure smiled and said, "I sure hope you're going to sing." And I was perplexed. Sing? Now?
One at a time, volunteers turned the corner into a long, white, cinderblock hallway. And began singing.
First one voice, then two, then five, singing:
"Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can feel His mighty presence and His grace."
Now ten voices, 20 voices, 30. Two-part harmony -- no, three-part harmony -- echoing off those unforgiving hallways.
"I can hear the brush of angels' wings
I see glory in each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place."
And, like a light bulb, God's presence was EVERYWHERE. His glory was, literally, visible on each face.
We entered the gymnasium we would claim for Jesus for the next few days. It was unadorned: Just some chairs and a couple tables of food that first night.
The residents entered one by one and volunteers, like fluttering moths, zeroed in on their designated partners, plying them with food and conversation. Some entered into the talk willingly enough. Others silently ate their food. Some feigned indifference. They listened to the ground rules of the weekend -- and the promise that tomorrow would be much, much better -- and filed out.
I won't try to cover the ensuing days chronologically. There was a framework of talks, discussions, poster-making, singing, prayer. And over that framework, God laid miracle upon miracle. He built relationships, He broke down walls, He lifted spirits, He changed hearts.
It was amazing to see a group of sullen men transformed into a table family working together on posters to glorify God. It was awe-inspiring to see them come to open-mike night and discuss how their lives had been changed by Jesus during these days.
I will never forget watching a prayer circle, as one resident stood behind another, seated resident. He leaned forward and quietly spoke words known only to those men and to God. Tears began flowing from the seated man as he listened to those words. And tears sprang from the eyes of the man behind him as he experienced the power of being God's holy vessel.
It was incredible to watch the drab gymnasium as it, too, was transformed by colorful placemats drawn by children; by garlands of construction paper prayer chains circling the walls once, twice, three times; by the residents' bold posters and agape from other Kairos weekends.
I ached for the men during the forgiveness service as they wrote down the names of those they needed to forgive -- often putting their own names at the top of the list. I sympathized with their assignment to bring a dozen cookies to the person inside that prison they needed to forgive the most.
On the final day of the Kairos walk, we volunteers had the opportunity to walk through the prison to the place where closing ceremonies were held -- singing "Surely the Presence" at the top of our voices all the way.
At closing, resident after resident spoke of the changes they had experienced over these few short days. Nearly every one of them pointed to the unconditional love they had felt as the greatest blessing.
Listen, listen. Love, love. It's the Kairos motto -- and so much more. Listening without judging opens the door to dialogue. Love opens the door to God.
The Kairos weekend is long past, but God continues to work among those He touched there.
At a recent reunion at Central Prison, a resident named Sal shared how he had been mistakenly accused of breaking a prison rule and had been sent into lockup for 12 days.
"Normally, that would have sent me into a fit of rage," the man said. "But since I've followed Jesus, I've come to realize that sometimes God wants things to happen a certain way, and they aren't necessarily OUR way."
Sal said he decided to make the best of his time in solitary confinement. He began writing a short devotional about God's plans for our lives. Before he knew it, it had grown to 12 pages.
"I had never written anything that long," he said. "But as soon as I was done, the warden came in and said they had discovered their mistake. He apologized and let me out."
A short time after that, Sal received a letter from a woman who was at the end of her rope. She was considering suicide.
Sal sent her the devotional.
"A few days later, I heard from her. She said, 'Thank you, thank you. Everything you wrote was just what I needed to hear.'"
Another resident, Jim, shared how powerfully Jesus had been working in his life. He mentioned that he had an opportunity to be moved from Central Prison to another prison closer to his family. For some reason, he said he felt the time wasn't right.
A volunteer then shared that a new Kairos opportunity had opened up in the western part of the state -- at the facility Jim was describing. It turned out that a Kairos graduate, nicknamed "Papa Smurf," had raised such a stink about getting Kairos into that facility that the warden was begging for us to come.
"Well, there you go," said Jim. "I guess God wanted me to wait until Kairos got started out there before I went. Maybe I can help lead the new Kairos team."
God continues to work in the lives of these men. We may only hear snippets of the stories, but they provide a powerful undercurrent that tells us immense things are happening.