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You are cordially invited to dinner with 52 inmates

The prison looms large in the night.  Heavy silver electrical wire wraps circles across the tops of the buildings, reflecting the lights that cast angular shadows across the lot.

It’s freezing cold.  I hug my coat around me and walk briskly with my husband towards the entrance.   He had suggested I leave my hooded coat in the car, as no “hoodies” are allowed inside.  I’m hoping I can make the case that a winter coat and a hoodie are two very different things.

Outside the door we are greeted by the program director- a warm and smiling man who welcomes us and thanks us for being there.  I scan his face.  He doesn’t look nervous to be standing so close to a building full of hardened criminals.

We, and a dozen other visitors, take off our shoes, belts, coats, and place them in bins to be scanned, give our IDs to a very tough-looking woman I would not ever care to disappoint, and then walk through a metal detector.  She doesn’t mention my “hoodie.”  I breathe, relieved.

A uniformed officer unlocks door after door, ushering us through the long hallways.  We are taken outdoors through a yard towards another large building.  I grip my husband’s arm a little tighter.  “Honey, just so you know- I’m nervous,” I whisper.  “I’ve never eaten dinner with inmates.”

He smiles.  He has already been at the prison a handful of times to encourage the 52 inmates enrolled in the “Men of Valor- Jericho” discipleship program, and has started meeting with a man named Derrick, a 15-time felon who recently surrendered his heart to Christ.  We were special guests at Derrick’s table for their Christmas dinner.

Once through the door, we enter a bright gymnasium.  A hundred or so tables are colorfully decorated for the occasion- centerpieces made by the inmates of construction paper roses, straw stems jammed into the sides of plastic cups, hand-colored paper placemats.  IMG_3571“Merry Christmas” glitter signs hang on the walls.

Both plain-clothes and khaki jumpsuits fill the room, some in line for the buffet, some already seated.  As we walk down the line to find the end, my husband begins shaking hands.  I follow suit.  I’m afraid to make eye contact with the men in jumpsuits.

But then, I do.  And I’m surprised.

The eyes that look back at me are not the hardened, angry criminals I had imagined.  They are nervous just like me, even shy.  They smile, thank me for being there, introduce themselves by name-  the names given to them by their mamas, just like I gave names to my boys-  David, Rick, John, Garrett, Derrick.  If were all dressed the same, you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s a criminal and who’s not.

Derrick is excited to see my husband and hugs him warmly, telling him he finally mailed a letter to his wife.  He hopes over time he will be able to show her how God has changed his heart and to love her with the love he has been shown.

He hands a letter to me, too, letterphotoasking me to pray for him, thanking me for my husband’s influence in his life.

The program begins.

Ten inmates form a choir and enthusiastically lead us in singing “Joy to the World” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”  Beautiful voices, joyful faces.  Imprisoned, yet free.

Two men give their testimony.  The first, a current inmate, tells of his upbringing, seeing God as a demanding judge, how he had built up walls around his heart with anger and fear.  His smile then lights up his whole face as he shares how He accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in September, how God’s love is now knocking down the walls around his heart, just like the walls of Jericho.

The second man, Jared, a former inmate, tells of being in prison 11 times, returning again and again to his life of crime because he had never been truly broken by his sin.  And now he is broken, repentant, learning to forgive those who have hurt him, to forgive himself, and to ask for forgiveness from those he has hurt.

The American prison system has a 75% recidivism rate.  That means 75% of inmates will return to prison again.  But in the “Men of Valor- Jericho” discipleship program?  The rate is just 17%.  I have a feeling Jared will be one of the 83% who never return.light

Then, the founder of the ministry speaks.  A former inmate, he was in his 30s before he ever heard another human being say, “I love you.”  And as he came to understand the love of God for him through Jesus Christ, his heart and life were transformed.  He wanted to offer the same hope to other inmates and started the program 18 years ago.

At the end, he tells the inmates, “I want every one of you to stand up.  Now go hug a ‘free world’ person, tell them you love them and thank them for being here.”

I, a “free-world” person, am undone.  I weep.  I hug.  I thank.

I gather my things, including my “hoodie,” and make my way to the door.  I glance back.  Fifty-two men in khaki jumpsuits line up against the wall of the gymnasium.  They will walk back to a heavily guarded room of 26 bunkbeds.thankyou

I will walk out of a prison forever changed.

5 thoughts on “You are cordially invited to dinner with 52 inmates”

  1. Pingback: Kimberly Moore Communicates Legacy of HopeDr. Heidi Petak

  2. Pingback: Derrick: Former Inmate Starts New Chapter | Dr. Heidi PetakDr. Heidi Petak

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