I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. There I sat in a sweltering Ohio prison visiting room with 75 other guests from the outside and twice as many prison inmates from the inside. About 40 convicted felons were celebrating the successful completion of their Kairos Prison Ministry weekend.

If you were with me that day, sitting outnumbered two to one by convicted felons, there certainly could be cause for concern. But if you heard and saw what I did, you would sit with me in awe of a God who brings forgiveness, friendship and freedom behind barbed fences and prison walls. And like me, you’d be hooked.

Forgiveness is Free

From that visiting room, I watched grown men convicted of murder, arson, sex offenses, drug trafficking, hate crimes and gang warfare weep as they described the relief they felt in forgiving themselves. For the first time in a long time (or first ever for some), they believed God truly loved them. I watched hardened hearts that had brutalized others gratefully embrace men who just four days earlier were total strangers. It was clear they were brothers now.

Three days earlier, the visitors from Kairos had come to show those prisoners that Christ’s light could shine in the darkness for them too. It didn’t seem to take much — all they did was simply listen to their stories, recognize the hurt underneath, and show them what it looks like when love is “done unto them” (Matt. 25:40).

There is something amazing about seeing what happens when someone who feels forgotten first hears the words, “I see you.” Those three simple words not only feed his soul, they transform others. I had never experienced the majestic grace of God in such a personal way before. I watched God prepare a table in the presence of His enemies (Psalm 23:5) and serve up a feast that would feed incarcerated souls for years to come. I mean it when I say I had never seen anything like it.

They Needed More

I spent ten years working with inmates ages 16-24 in a county jail system in New York. Week in and week out, I helped prepare discharge plans, equipped them for job interviews, gave them tools to help them bridge back into school and tried to reconnect them with healthier social networks. We talked about a lot of life-changing things: relationships, fatherhood, finances, temperament, skill sets and decision-making. We kept it real both in our personal sessions and our group discussions.

But let’s face it. Someone that age is usually not thinking about life transformation; he’s thinking about life transition. He wants to get back home and back in the game. Those young guys were hungry for knowledge, but they didn’t seem to want to feed the craving of their souls. However, things are much different when the future holds nothing more than 5, 10, 20 years or life behind bars. Things like love, acceptance, forgiveness, friendship, identity and hope aren’t just concepts then. They are daily bread.

I was hooked that day because I saw how God had worked, how He showed those who had lost their way that He had come looking for them, intending to rescue them even behind bars. I wanted to join Jesus in what He was doing through Kairos Prison Ministry.

Changing Lives for Good

Each year since 1976, more than 36,000 Kairos Prison Ministry volunteers have taken up the challenge to bring a three-day experience of “listen, listen, love, love” to those in prison. Compelled by Christ, more than 25,000 men, women, youth and families of the incarcerated have experienced the life-altering grace of God in over nine countries. For more information, check out the website at www.kpmifoundation.org.

I must warn you though; no website can ever fully capture the emotion of that moment when “Shark,” a lifer with 30 years in, shared through his tears what it was like to experience his first genuine belly laugh since he was a teenager. As he described how he released his emotions from their self-imposed solitary confinement, he cried and didn’t care who saw.

No brochure could more effectively bring to life the moment “O.G.” (the lethal compound predator) stood up in a room full of inmates and acknowledged one man who had spent the last decade as prison inmates’ prey. He called him his brother and said, “I see you in here, and I will see you out on the yard.” Those words set two hearts free and unlocked many more, including mine.

It sounds crazy, but God changes lives through homemade chocolate chip cookies and a living presentation of the Gospel by men who know “but for the grace of God go I.” God slays the giants of spiritual, mental and emotional institutionalization by using two ears, two hands and servant hearts.

For three and a half days, Kairos volunteers spend time with the inmates, calling them by their names, not their prison numbers. They ask them about their lives, not about their pasts. Throughout the weekend, the inmates experience something different. They are listened to and prayed for, not lorded over and preyed upon. They are loved on, not lied to; and to top it all off, they are accepted for who they are, not ostracized for what they have done.

They Are Never Forgotten

I have been conflicted as I consider those who carry the scars left by the crimes these men committed. We may not ask what they are “in for,” but we know their actions have left nightmares in the dreams of many of our neighbors and even for some of us. I’m conflicted, yet I am still compelled to see them through Christ’s eyes (2 Corinthians 5:16).

There are those who probably find stories like this very hard to read. I acknowledge that helping these men find forgiveness and hope in no way erases the trauma left in their wake. To that end, I pray for supernatural healing for all who have been hurt, abused, brutalized and robbed of joy by their acts. At the same time, I stand firm in my desire to see Jesus bring healing to the malignancy in the inmate’s heart that caused such destruction. When Jesus opened the scroll of Isaiah to the part that spoke of “binding up the brokenhearted” and “preaching good news to the poor” (Luke 4), and then said the Scripture found its fulfillment in Him, He started something that could never be stopped. God’s special time (or Kairos) had come, and it was going to be good news to all who would accept it.

Hooked on Loving Them

One day I sat in a sweltering visiting room and saw something that hooked me from the start. Since then, I have sat at the table with, washed the hands of, taken communion with, sang hymns of praise with, laughed with and cheered for men with horrendous criminal records and called them by name. I have hugged and cried with men who had just eaten their first piece of cheesecake in 20 years and read their first piece of mail in just as long, because God’s hand is “never too short to save and His ear never too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1).

And I have seen the giants of guilt, shame, grief and self- destruction fall as warriors of God’s grace rose from the ashes. I believe there is no one outside the reach of God’s grace. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and have heard the stories with my own ears. I just can’t shake the impact of seeing one more area where shattered people are put back together and are given a chance to live freely – even behind barbed wire fences and locked gates.

Since then, I have never been the same!