The sign said, "United States Penitentiary–Leavenworth, Kansas." We were living in Kansas City, Missouri at the time. A prison ministry group had asked me to speak at Leavenworth one Sunday evening. I have visited a number of people in various country jails before. I had never spoken at a Federal Penitentiary.
A group of us would be going into the penitentiary together. First, we had to get through security. We removed rings, wallets, belts, shoes, etc. We passed through a highly sensitive, security screen. Next was a photo ID. Then we passed through another security area. Some electronic iron doors opened. We went through and then they closed. A very sobering moment.
A chaplain approached me and said we would be going to the chapel. We came to the back of a large auditorium. It was dark and was full of inmates watching a Charles Bronson thriller. I followed the chaplain as he walked along a side wall. I was nervous. 600-700 federal prisoners in this large, dark, room. On the screen was the familiar face of Charles Bronson, gunning someone down in cold blood.
We finally got to the chapel. It was a small room but soon filled up quickly. About 125 African-American, Hispanic, and White, male prisoners had gathered. I spoke from Genesis 3. I retold the story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent.
I had preached earlier in the day at our church but this was so very different. There was an energy in the room and an alertness that was quite different from what I saw in people’s eyes that morning. Normally, I speak to people are totally silent during sermons. They rarely if ever say anything back. However, this evening would be different.
I began to preach and these prisoners began to talk back:
Adam and Eve were in the garden when the tempter in the form of a serpent approached them. Yes sir! Look out! Uh oh!
The serpent told them that if they would eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would not surely die. The serpent lied and they bought it! Watch it! Oh Jesus have mercy!!
They bought the lie and then they thought they could hide. Do you know what it is to feel as if you have to hide? Do you know what it is to not be able to be honest and open? The shouts became louder with– oh yes! mercy yes!
Back and forth we went. It was an energetic evening. More than that it was evening where God was obviously present. The message ended and I had conversation with many of these people.
So–what if Jesus had a church?
If Jesus had a church (and yes I know he does. Not referring to my bunch or anyone else’s. I don’t mean that in a sectarian sense at all). I wonder what kind of people might be attracted to it. What kind of people would want to be a part of this church? The Gospels are helpful in answering this question.
For now, I suspect that many of them would be located at places like Leavenworth Penitentiary. On that Sunday evening, forever etched in my memory, they had a hunger for God.