Our Canvas men`s ministry small group, Fight Club, is aptly named. Each of us as members has had to come to some uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and believe me, it is a fight. As men, we tend to be hard headed, immovable, single minded, wanting to be in control, well, you know how we can be. Letting go and giving up total control of ourselves is difficult for us. But through faith in God we find that if we can give up our control to Him, God will deliver some startling truths to us. We may not be as in control, as focused and sure of ourselves as we thought we were. We may have (hard to say) been wrong.
After meeting with Fight Club at Canvas for quite some time, our group became closer to each other by getting closer to God, we are giving up some of ourselves for the greater good as it were. We are fighting to become better Christians and through that we are becoming better men, husbands, fathers and I hope leaders and mentors for future generations. But Fight Club is not always about being comfortable. A group of Christians sitting around discussing and chatting inside a church is great, Christ tasked us to be there for one another, through good and bad, easy and hard, to build our faith through fellowship. But there is more.
We were also tasked to reach out to be ambassadors and disciples to those outside of our comfort zone. Christ told Peter to “feed my sheep”, He never said just the nice clean ones nearby, He sent the Disciples to the ends of the earth, places where they would have to deal with people who were in difficult situations and in places that were not accepting of the teaching of The Good News. These are things that most of us are very glad that someone else has the gifts and guts to do, maybe because we will not have to do them (I`m not pointing fingers here, just reflecting on my own faults).
This kind of honesty led Fight Club to step out in faith and do something that was definitely not easy. This last year some of us have been involved in writing to a prisoner who is struggling to maintain his faith despite being locked up with people most of us would not be comfortable around, and in an environment not nearly as friendly to faith as is our cafe on Sunday morning. This led us to explore the possibility of starting a prison ministry at the jail in Loudon County, since there is not one currently working there. Having absolutely zero experience in this we turned to the Focus Prison Ministry Group in Knoxville (check out their web page for details if you like).
Several of our group attended a class with Focus a few weeks ago and were impressed at the work these people are doing, not only ministering inside the walls, but working with the inmates families, finances, future and most importantly their relationship with The Lord. Having just finished our series on the importance of community, the idea of reaching out to people who, by and large, are dismissed by society due to their situation seemed a perfect fit, although the decision to commit was anything but easy. We were prepared for some resistance from the dark one, but what we got was more than we were expecting, if Satan is working that hard against you, chances are that you are on the right track.
I will only speak of my own experience as to the events leading up to the visit as well as the visit itself, but I had a lot of waking mornings with the idea that this was not for me, I could not pull this off, negative thoughts and uneasy feelings for weeks along with some very disturbing dreams. We all prayed very hard to gain focus, strength, purpose and guidance so we would not goof this up.
So on Thursday night, the 27th of June, six of us from Fight Club took a trip to the Knoxville Detention Center at Maloneyville Road as guests of Focus Group Ministries. The Focus Group runs a pod of approximately 50 men who applied for this particular place to serve their sentences in a Christian environment. The completion of certain courses and compliance with standards can mean time off their sentences. The inmates call it The God Pod.
To say I was uneasy would be a huge understatement, I was scared. I have never been inside of a jail with the exception of visitation, and had no real idea as far as what I was walking into. We met Steve Humphreys, Executive Director at Focus at their office, jumped in two cars and away we went. The men in my truck were joking and laughing on the way over, mostly (to my mind) to mask our apprehension. After checking in, we started the very long walk down the hallway to the pod we were to visit. I can only speak for myself, but the apprehension built up quickly as the door slammed shut behind us.
The pods are built around a central hub where we we checked in again, and as soon as we arrived it was clear which one we were visiting, we were expected. The men in our pod were eagerly setting up chairs for us and as soon as the door opened, we were surrounded by greetings of welcome and acceptance, they thanked us for coming and asked if we were going to set this up in Loudon County, they were stoked! The men had already started their nightly meeting and were discussing questions relating to a video that had just finished. As for me I was immediately impressed at their openness to discuss, their scriptural knowledge, their honesty and all of the uneasiness in me just faded away on the spot. The men were polite, involved, honest, and it was very apparent that the Holy Spirit was at work here.
When the gentleman teaching the group announced it was praise and worship time, the whole place came alive with excitement. Understand that although this a Focus group, they basically set the framework and let the inmates run it, and run it they did. They moved chairs around since no one was sitting for this part, several men selected music and started the screen and away they went. To hear these men worship God in song was powerful, they like to sing, and sing they did, loudly, with prayer and feeling. They brought glory to God, and we were blessed to be a part of it.
After much worship and prayer, the leader announced it was small group time, again the room we reshaped for several groups of seven or so each. I stood in the middle of four groups summoning me to their groups, we all spread out and found a spot. My group started their discussion and we were part of it from the beginning, we heard men discuss mentorship, faith, accountability, praying together, we even heard some men discuss their acceptance of their punishment for breaking the law of man and why they accepted it as they found scripture (quickly and easily without hesitation) to prove their point. I saw laughter, tears, hugs, love, and a very genuine love of God and ease with each other and us. An inmate told me that he would
spend Christmas in jail and that he was happy he could spend it with his brothers in Christ. Wow! One inmate told us about the package of books they were allowed to buy, workbooks on the bible, fatherhood, financial management and such and since the books cost $25 and some inmates cannot afford them, they donated to a fund to supply books for those who could not come up the cash, in jail!
The service was to last two hours and as we are used to at Canvas, they ran late. When it was time for us to leave, we were again surrounded by these men thanking us, inviting us back, urging us to get this started in Loudon County, we shook many hands, got hugs and blessings and literally had to go back to get everyone out, we were so different leaving than going, it was happy, impressive, positive, and most of all it was rich in the love of God.
While walking down that long hallway leaving Steve asked us what we thought, He had a sly grin on his face, he already knew how blessed we felt about the experience. The conversation on the ride home was quite different from the nervous chatter on the trip there. We had our world rocked, plain and simple.
I realize that this group of men is small compared to the population of this jail and that there may have been some posers among the group (not that I saw any), but my heart told me that most of these men were true and strong in their faith and that is powerful no matter where we find it.
I will say that leading up to this visit, I was looking for anything to prove to me that it was not for me, God had other plans. I sincerely hope that my words are clear enough to get the message across, I am only writing this now because God will not let me keep it to myself. I would like to thank all those who offered prayers and encouragement to us, all of our family at Canvas for giving me the courage to step out in faith, my wife Suzanne and all of my brothers in Fight Club for helping me grow in my relationship with God.
Mostly I thank My Heavenly Father for everything, and I offer prayers to the men in the God Pod for sharing their faith and love to all of us.