"I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." Matthew 25:36 (NIV)
Most Christians have heard these words from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and a growing number are showing Jesus’ love to people in prison, as well as their families and friends outside, according to Kairos Prison Ministry International in DeBary.
Some admit that they became involved in prison ministries reluctantly at first, but many are quick to say that the experience offers profound healing and transformational encounters with Jesus' love to all involved.
Unlike the Kairos Inside prison ministry, in which teams of men and teams of women minister to inmates of the same gender inside prison walls, Kairos Outside teams host weekend retreats for adult women impacted by incarceration. Guests come from all walks of life and include grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, aunts or friends of people who are or have been incarcerated. Women who have been in prison also can be guests.
While these women reside outside of prison walls, many feel like they are doing time right alongside the incarcerated person in their lives. Some women have close relationships with someone in prison, while for others the relationship is strained or the inmate has died. Each guest faces her own unique circumstances, and this goes for volunteers too.
"Kairos Outside is my way of visiting the prisoner by being in relationship with someone who knows the prisoner," said Vicki Klimowich, a member of CityGate Ministries in Fort Myers and chairperson of the Kairos Outside of SW (Southwest) Florida advisory council. "People tend to think of those who go to prison negatively, but it is eye-opening when God shows you the hearts and souls that he loves and has called us to reach out to."
Ideally, a Kairos Outside team consists of 30 to 40 Christian women from churches of different denominations, said Gina Brockmeyer, women's ministries coordinator for Kairos Prison Ministry International. Teams include experienced ministry volunteers, people who are new to the ministry and women who have previously been guests. Clergy members who shepherd each weekend are required. Men also serve in supporting roles.
Weekend retreats take place twice a year and involve several months of planning and preparing. When the retreat starts on a Friday evening, volunteers are ready to serve up to 30 guests in a safe and comfortable space until closing ceremonies on Sunday afternoon.
The weekend consists of a series of activities and talks through which several women on the team share from their life journeys. After the talks, guests have time to voluntarily share with one another in small groups. The talks are interspersed with music, prayer, fun activities, food and heartfelt pampering.
"If you want to see God at work, this is a place you can do that."
– Lisa Adams, Kairos Outside of Northeast Florida
The women’s sharing typically reveals how drastically guests' lives are changed by the incarceration of a relative or friend. Many talk about how they spend so much time caring for others that they end up with no time for themselves, Klimowich said.
Some struggle with forgiving the incarcerated person and may feel as though the church and society are judging them because of their relationship, Adams said. Some guests also endure the hardship of lost household income and a great amount of time and expense involved in visiting or calling a person in prison.
“Oftentimes we find they’re very deep in their faith. Their faith gets them through," Adams said. "They minister to us as much as we minister to them.”
Another reward of being on a Kairos Outside team is observing the transformation that takes place within each guest by Sunday.
“You can see that something has been lifted off them,” Adams said.
Kairos Outside was started in 1989 to help Kairos Inside attendees who wanted to reconcile with their families, Brockmeyer said. The first Kairos Outside weekend was held in 1990 in California.
Today in Florida, there are four Kairos Outside advisory councils. In addition, Kairos Inside programs are serving four women's prisons and 29 men’s institutions in the state.
When operating at full strength, Florida's Kairos Outside advisory councils offer eight retreats yearly, involving approximately 300 volunteers. They reach at least 80 to 100 women per year, as well as family and friends who are affected by their experiences, Brockmeyer said.
The benefits to churches that become involved in Kairos Outside include helping participants understand what the true body of Christ looks like by working with other churches, Brockmeyer said. Church members who are unable to volunteer can participate by paying for meals, making placemats and other “agape” items for guests or by signing up to pray during a weekend retreat.
"This ministry could use more attention from the church. I didn't realize it existed until someone in my congregation started participating," said Rev. Victoria Guthrie, senior pastor of Wesley Memorial UMC, Fort Myers. As clergy, she observed a retreat hosted this month by Kairos Outside of SW Florida.
"It's not threatening, and it brings people along by showing them the love of God," Guthrie said. "Guests were comfortable talking about their faith or lack of faith in a community where they were able to come together without being critiqued or judged."
Kairos Outside helps congregations expand beyond their customary boundaries.
"I was raised in the church, and I knew how to minister in that setting," Klimowich said. "This is my outreach, outside the four walls."
– Annie Lindstrom is a freelance writer based in Cape Coral.