As men from Holy Family Catholic Church pack for a weekend retreat, there are two necessities they can’t forget: plenty of Bibles and cookies to go around. They also can’t forget to pray as a group before they go, because unlike other retreats for which they might have gone to a lake or the woods for spiritual rest and relaxation, this one is going to be a little different.
They’re headed to a prison.
As members of Kairos Prison Ministry, an international, interdenominational organization, the men from this Windermere church go to Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando a few times a year to lead inmates in four days of prayer, worship and Bible study. The goal is to change the inmates’ hearts, helping them learn love, trust and hope.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming. … You can see the flood of emotions that go over these guys,” said Ken Derick, who is a leader of Kairos retreats for Holy Family. “Pretty soon, you’re seeing some of the most hardened guys dancing around the room.”
Derick said for inmates who did not have a spiritual experience such as Kairos while incarcerated, there is a 70% return rate to prison after they are released. But for those who did have such an experience, the return rate is about 30%.
Churches throughout the world are involved with Kairos and support one another. For example, every hour the Holy Family team is at a prison, another team — whether in Florida, Australia, Peru or anywhere else that Kairos is active — is praying specifically for Holy Family.
Before a retreat, Kairos teams spend about 40 hours together in prayer and preparation. They also get together after the retreat to discuss their experience. Every week, they go to the prison for a reunion and worship service with inmates who have attended a retreat.
It’s a big commitment, but it’s worth every hour.
“Kairos means God’s time,” Derick said. “We have chronos, which is man’s time, where we keep track of the minutes and the seconds, but kairos is God’s time.”
There are three aspects of Kairos, which allows everyone at the church to support the ministry in some way.
Kairos Inside is the group that goes into the prison for retreats. At Holy Family, the men are more active inside than the women because there is not a women’s prison nearby. But the women are more active in Kairos Outside, through which they care for the wives and children of incarcerated men. The third branch is Kairos Torch, which is a ministry for juvenile offenders.
The church and its lower school even find ways to get children involved in the ministry. The students sometimes decorate placemats to send to the prisoners to use during the retreats. They sign the placemats with their first names, which has been an emotional point for some inmates who received placemats with the same names as their own children.
One of the prisons with which Holy Family has a relationship is Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, with the help of parishioner Ron Flak, who serves as a liaison and volunteer assistant to Chaplain Jeff Sackett.
“Every inmate that attends that, they do come away changed,” Sackett said. “It helps them develop a much more positive outlook on their life here in the institution.”
Associate Chaplain John Kalange said it is important to reach the “negative leaders” of the prison through Kairos, whose changed attitudes after the retreat tend to have a big effect on other inmates as well.
Kalange said there were a few specific strategies of Kairos that make it an effective program. On the first night of a retreat, inmates who never had interest in spiritual programs are enticed to the chapel with outside meals and the cookies from the church. Another key part of the program is that it gets the inmates to recognize that they have done something wrong and had an effect on their families and society at large.
But after establishing a basis for right and wrong, Kairos introduces the inmates to forgiveness, which is a powerful concept for them. They are asked to make a list of everyone they need to ask for forgiveness, as well as everyone they need to forgive.
Kairos teams from various churches service 30 prisons in Florida and each has two retreats per year. Kalange estimated that more than 50,000 prisoners in Florida have completed a Kairos retreat.
Holy Family always welcomes new Kairos volunteers. They do not need to be members of the church, nor do they need to be Catholic. Kairos focuses on the commonality of belief in Jesus and ignores the differences.
“It’s not something I planned,” Flak said about his Kairos service. “You’re called to do something, and you just do it.”
Contact Catherine Sinclair at [email protected].