SAN ANGELO, Texas — With bills piling up, an ailing elderly relative and her own son to care for, April Terry was feeling the full brunt of her husband’s imprisonment.
Kairos, the Greek word meaning “in God’s special time,” couldn’t have been a more fitting name for the prison ministry that one year ago began transforming the Terrys’ lives.
“I grew up in the church, but neither of us attended church” as adults, Terry said of herself and her husband. “We weren’t necessarily living an obedient life before he got incarcerated; we were just living. When he got incarcerated, the changes started happening. I started going to church and getting stronger, and then he found out about Kairos. After that, it snowballed.”
Kairos Prison Ministry International is a three-pronged, faith-based program whose volunteers aim to positively alter the lives of incarcerated men, women, juveniles and their loved ones with weekend spiritual retreats.
Kairos Inside brings a trained volunteer team of clergy and lay people into a prison to offer 42 of its inmates a three-day course in Christianity, according to the Kairos’ website. Kairos Outside also involves lay people and clergy in a weekend, but works as a support group for the female family members of the incarcerated. Kairos Torch starts with a weekend retreat inside the prison and continues with a mentorship program for six months thereafter, according to the website.
Known as KPRMI, the organization is carefully structured, its curriculum set forth by a manual every Kairos program in the world uses, said Rex Mason, coordinator of regions for Kairos of Texas.
“The structure is set up so that the inmates inside the prison should not be able to tell that everybody on the team has not been there since Day 1,” Mason said. “When you’ve got people in lots of states working from the same book, it’s not always easy to get the things done that we need to. We have some additional opportunities to excel … but we make a go of it.”
Mason, a Ballinger resident, began volunteering with Kairos Inside in 2000. Explaining to a nonmember the experience of being part of the Kairos team is difficult, he said, and not unlike a Navy SEAL describing to a civilian why he does what he does.
“Going into a Kairos weekend is different than any ministry I have ever been involved in,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to walk beside the Holy Spirit and watch Him work miracles in one of the most miserable places in the country.”
Terry, who lives in Big Spring, can attest to the changes Kairos invokes. More than a year ago, Terry attended Kairos Outside in Andrews while her husband participated in Kairos Inside at the prison where he is incarcerated.
“My husband can be very ‘it’s my way or no way’,” Terry said. “He’s the type that doesn’t apologize even if he knows he’s wrong. He has really softened. He does daily devotionals now. I’ve been here trying to take care of the bills and his granddad and our son, and I was overwhelmed; he could tell over our phone conversation. He called me back and said, ‘I have a Scripture for you.’ For him to go to the Bible and say, ‘This is what I want to read to you right now,’ it’s (proof that Kairos) just really opened him up.”
For Terry, the personal changes the Kairos Outside retreat prompted were just as amazing, she said.
“You are surrounded with a bunch of women that feel what you feel being the loved one of an incarcerated person,” she said. “It’s a chance to bond with other women who know what you’re going through and continue that relationship with (them). It’s great support because now there are people I met on my weekend that — if I need prayer for anything, or I’m going through a struggle — I can email them or pick up the phone and it’s an automatic support.”
Julie Cole, who lives in Midland and has been a Kairos volunteer since 1999, said feelings of isolation are common among women who are grappling with a loved one’s incarceration.
“They’re embarrassed to tell people what’s going on in their life,” Cole said. “It’s really sad to say that some churches, when they find out (a church member is related to an incarcerated person) really discourage them from attending. Instead of embracing them, they shun them.”
Kairos Outside, however, takes the focus off the participants’ loved ones and puts it back on them, Cole said.
“Most of them seem really grateful; they come with the idea that the weekend is going to be about their loved one in prison and they find out the weekend is about them,” she said. “It’s about making them stronger. The majority of women that come are Christians. Some are very strong Christians; some have been to church but have fallen away, and this brings them back to that. They usually all say they feel more worthy because of what they’ve learned during the weekend.”
Terry was so touched by the love and support she received at the retreat that she decided to join the Kairos Outside team.
“For a long time I struggled with ‘Where am I supposed to be in ministry?'” she said. “As soon as the weekend was over, I said, ‘This is it. This is why I have gone through what I have gone through,’ and I want to give back to women what I had been given during that weekend.”
Establishing a support system also is an integral component to Kairos Inside, Cole said.
“It’s been proven: If (released inmates) don’t have family or close friends, somebody to go back to, a potential job or something, their chances of success are very, very low,” Cole said. “Men and women are getting out of prison every day, and those people could easily end up being our next-door neighbors. We need to teach them how to be productive, decent members of our society. It’s a segment of the population that shouldn’t be ignored.”
While relationships — with others and, primarily, Christ — are at Kairos’ core, Mason said the ministry is different from most like-minded Christian endeavors because it is not evangelistic.
“We don’t teach them a lot of Scripture,” Mason said. “Some Christian people who don’t know anything about it are hesitant to get involved because they think if it’s not evangelistic, you’re not going to get the job done. But I would guarantee that there is as much evangelism going on in the unit on a one-on-one basis as there is in any church service you might get involved in.”
Added Cole: “It’s an interdenominational group as opposed to nondenominational. There’s Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics (involved). We focus on what we have in common, and what we have in common is a belief of Jesus Christ. We do not do baptisms or have communion. We don’t have all this peripheral extra stuff out there so it makes for a very simplistic, good weekend.”
For the Terrys, Kairos’ format was just what they needed.
“It’s been beneficial to our marriage, our relationship; all the way around it has really blessed us,” Terry said.