The little church that was planted by Granger Community Church within the walls the South Bend Prison Reentry center is growing and maturing. It is fascinating to watch it happen. It was slow going at first. We had a few regulars and the occasional stragglers that wandered in for a long time. These guys have been in and out of prisons and institutions for a long time and seen a lot of churches come in, do a Sunday church service, and leave. That is what they expected, and for the most part, that’s what they got from us. It wasn’t good enough.
Church isn’t a building or an activity, it’s people. People living lives together as disciples of a Holy God. Doing something different than what we as a ministry team, and the men that we are trying to serve, have grown accustomed to is a challenge. We are growing together and learning as we go. It took time to show the guys that we wanted more for them than just a chance to feel good about ourselves for coming in once a week and then going home patting ourselves on the back.
I admit that at the start that is kind of what I did. I had never served with a church in any kind of official capacity and it just felt good to do something. I just loved showing up and knowing that there was a church service available. But the more I went, the more I got to hear some of the stories, the more I wandered the halls of the place and saw the hardened faces soften with any small kindnesses that I had to offer, the more I knew we had to do more.
We started offering help. We started asking what the guys needed. We started engaging the guys who didn’t come to church. We started, but didn’t get far. There was no trust, we were outsiders. Prison culture dictates that you don’t want to owe anyone anything. Church culture dictates that we come together on Sundays, smile, say that everything is fine and then go home. We had to make it clear that what we wanted was something else.
Beginning with small things like candy bars, I went into the dorms and made ourselves known to the non-churchgoers. More than once it was a little scary. There were no guards around and I was entering into some hardcore criminals dark and private space with nothing more than a smile, a handshake, and a bag full of Snickers. They took the candy, thanked me with hard looks and that was about it. At first…
I kept going and in time I started recognizing faces, seeing smiles creep across faces. I knew I was making progress when on one of my wanderings I overheard a new guy making fun of me and my “stupid candy” as I left the room. Before he could even finish his statement, a handful of the other guys shut him down and told him to be quiet. They told him that I was “cool” and that I just “cared about them so I brought them something”. This was from the guys who never stepped foot in our church service. It was huge and encouraged me to keep it up.
Before long we had a few requests for simple things like work boots, clothing, and bibles. We had broken through the wall. It was seeping through the culture that we really did care. We weren’t there to push an agenda or cut and run when our time was up. We were there because we loved these guys right where they were at and wanted to help.
It is still a work in progress. Our core group is about twenty percent of the institution (which would be a huge mega-church in any other community) and continues to grow. There are regularly new faces and the old timers are helping to spread the word whenever new guys show up. Our regulars have occasionally started passing a hat for tithes and offerings, guys want to get baptized, our small-group is thriving. I try to encourage everyone to be on mission, even inside, and they are. It’s funny to see one die-hard, tattooed guy try to grab another and drag him into church.
We are a church. It’s organic and a learn-as-we-go situation, but it works. We make mistakes, recover, and move on. In the harshest of environments, Jesus is alive, well, and taking prisoners (literally)!