Wow! It has been five years since I first went to the Rutherford County Jail! My regular visits there will stop at the end of April. It is hard to comprehend what God has done through those regular stops.
My first visit was late in 2005. Jonathon had been meeting Jeremy regularly and came to me to say that he was asking Bible questions that were too deep. He said I needed to schedule a visit. I had no idea what was about to happen.
The jail became my learning lab. It became the place where abstractions I was learning from seminars had to roll up their sleeves and put on work gloves. Theories were transformed into realities—hard realities. God blessed me by first calling me to this ministry through a true learner (teachers have to motivate students, but their challenge with learners is staying ahead of them).
David Watson (the brother who has discipled me for years) always stressed that discovery-based discipleship is messy. I got a rude introduction to that reality before my first visit to the jail. While waiting in the lobby to go up to see Jeremy I was shocked by the large list of rules for the family members who were arriving. Some made perfect sense like, “No weapons or drugs allowed.” Others were surprising like, “You must wear underwear.” I have seen why each of these rules had to be spelled out.
This jail is a hard place. No TV or internet. A small radio might play for a couple of hours a day with the news. There is no exercise yard outside and no weights inside. On good days a garage-type door is raised and lets the sun and fresh air into the thirty-foot cube called the ODR. Here the guys walk in circles around the perimeter or play volleyball or hackey-sack with a balled up sock for an hour. Others might sit in a corner to do a discovery Bible study. This facility has often reminded me of a Kevin Youngblood quote from a class on Jeremiah, “Nothing grows in the desert—except faith!” This jail is a desert.
Jeremy, Chris, Michael, Aaron and at least fifteen more became discovery Bible study facilitators during those years. Most of them were in the “hardest” of the sixteen pods. Here many guys passed their days playing cards–gambling for soap, shampoo and other items inmates can buy from the commissary with money their loved ones put on their account. The sharks loved displaying their winnings as though they were gold medals. But a small group of men prized themselves in hearing from God and finding ways to obey what they heard.
The toughest times were learning that a loved one had died and not being able to go to the funeral. Missing your oldest son’s graduation. Hearing the judge’s ruling denying your motion for early release, or being told you could reapply for parole next year. The guys grew to realize others were watching at such moments wondering whether a Bible would be slammed in the trash can and God’s name blasphemed for not answering prayers.
Several of these men grew by leaps and bounds. Their growing faith often amazed me. But none of them were blessed more than I was. God gave me this place to walk out one of the oddest of the CPM Counter-Intuitives—“Expect the hardest places to yield the greatest results.” Guys in this jail took the truths I was sharing to heart because they discovered them for themselves and they were certainly in a hard place. Little did I know that their story would inspire others in Europe and Africa to begin making disciples in jails and prisons. God’s ways are not our ways.
It was bitter-sweet to notify the current chaplain that my regular Bible studies at the jail will end on April 22. I will never drive by 940 New Salem Highway without thinking about how much my faith grew there. God is good. He often takes us on the strangest paths to get us where he wants us to go!