River – (Leon Bridges)
Mississippi…God’s country…that’s one of the names for it. Through its ups and downs, its lefts and rights, Mississippi has always been God’s country. But there’s a place down here in the country that nobody ever wants to go…About 60 miles east of the Mississippi River in the flat delta land lies Parchman Farm, the home of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Spread out across 20,000 acres, like the photo above, the “MSP” is oldest prison and the only maximum security prison in the state of Mississippi…
There have been several books written about it, I haven’t read any of them yet. Believe it or not, ever since I was little I actually have never been much of a big “book reader.” Sounds kind of funny coming from a writer…but bigger books always somehow intimidated me in a weird way and I guess I was always wanting to learn and discover the stories in a visual way. Now my dad was always the type that could pick up a book, even if it was 500 pages, and read it in a day it seemed like…well I always wanted that ability to do that! But it has honestly just never been in my cards to be able to. I think our lives can be like books sometimes. Sometimes I want to tell everybody my story and then some days I don’t want anyone to read a word of it…but knowing God is helping me write it I have to trust the words of my book will be for a purpose. This is a short story about my four days on the Parchman Farm and how I saw light in one of the darkest places in God’s beautiful divine country…
Now I feel like I could write for days on this story, but for the nature of this blog post and the promise of confidentiality I made with many of the inmates I will try and keep this one short. The opportunity first came about from my company that I work for and from the Kairos prison ministry program. My company graciously has given all employees 5 service days every year, a benefit we call “Cares.” With these days you are allowed to go anywhere and spend your time in any way that you like in hope to be of some service to a community or a project with the overall goal of helping other people in need. Well right after the benefit was announced, I happened to be recruited and invited by the Kairos prison ministry program to join their team of about 30 men to go down to Parchman at the end of April and spend four days inside the most notorious unit in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. That unit is Unit 29, which can hold over 1500 inmates. The entire prison is divided up in “units” all across the farm. Death row even has its on Unit 17 that inmates call “Little Alcatraz.” But 29 is by far the most notorious…in fact the entire Unit 29 has been on a “lockdown” since January. The lockdown was placed from drugs, cash, cell phones, shanks, contraband smuggling, and multiple attacks on the guards inside the unit (Five attacks actually occurred within the time we were there). These lockdowns take away their yard time, any visitations, any use of phones, their canteen, etc. We were in fact the only group the Warden has allowed into the Prison because honestly right now that’s how bad it is…Kairos has a great reputation with the prison and they really need any help they can get right now. So everyday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. we took over a gymnasium attached to the Unit and spent the entire time with about 30 inmates (all free to roam around us with no chains or locks) all under the supervision of only one to two guards…I was almost shaking of nerves on the first day. But our overall goal and mission each day was to honestly just show love to these men, to spend time with them, feed them, give them drinks, talk to them, write them letters, play music for them, share God’s word with them, hug them, pray with them, teach them about forgiveness, and encourage, encourage, encourage…These men are hurting so bad and in desperate need for someone to just show them a little love…and that’s what we did.
Our group of inmates were made up of several gang members, some from of the Aryan Brotherhood, Crips, Bloods, Black Gangster Disciples, you name it they were there…we had notorious murderers, mastermind thieves, drug lords, etc…I felt like these men could snap my neck in under a second if they wanted to…but every morning we walked into that locked down Unit 29 and wrapped our arms around them and told them we loved them. There were several speakers throughout the week, but on the second day I had the opportunity to give my personal testimony to the inmates and give a 2o minute talk on the “choices” that we make in life. I felt like some of my choices could have easily led me inside these walls if I had been caught. In those four days…I saw grown men cry (I cried too), I saw inmates encouraging each other, I saw them praying with each other, I saw them showing each other verses from the Bible, I saw some give their lives to God, I saw some renounce their gang affiliations (which usually leads to a brutal, near-death beating), I saw them forgive each other, I saw them singing with each other, I saw them smiling with each other (One inmate actually said it was the first day in 3 years that he woke up with a smile on his face knowing that we would be back the next day). Two men from opposing gangs that “wanted to kill each other the week before,” according to several inmates, were actually shaking hands and sitting at the same table by the end of the week…I can honestly keep on going forever about how God moved people in that Unit and will tell more in the answer section but I have to keep these short…Bottom line is that these inmates at Unit 29 haven’t even been allowed to go outside for the past 4 months…4 months…this lockdown is crushing them…Most don’t have any real families left, some haven’t received a letter in 20 years…some haven’t recognized their own birthday in 20 years…these men are just hurting…surrounded by death, violence, and daily destruction. One day when we were feeding them I gave an inmate a banana and he just stared at it, looked at me, smiled and said he hasn’t seen a banana in 2 and a half years…(but the best part about that…an inmate next to him asked if he could have it and he just handed it to him. I asked him why he gave it away and his response to me was “..it was just the right thing to do.” The next day I made sure he got another banana…
Have you ever made choices and done things so bad that you feel like you can’t ever be forgiven no matter how many times you ask for forgiveness? Do you ever put yourself in your own little prison holding on to things from your past?
“Oh, I wanna come near and give you, every part of me, but there’s blood on my hands and my lips aren’t clean. In my darkness I remember, momma’s words reoccur to me, “Surrender to the good Lord And he’ll wipe your slate clean.” Take me to your river I wanna go…Oh, go on take me to your river I wanna know…”
Leon Bridges is an American gospel and a throwback soul singer-songwriter from Fort Worth, Texas. He was just a local dishwasher working different jobs to help support him and his mother when he got discovered singing out one night at an open mic event and was quickly signed in 2014 to Columbia Records. When asked about his song River from his debut album Coming Home, Bridges says, “A river has historically been used in gospel music as symbolism for change and redemption…My goal was to write a song about my personal spiritual experience. It was written during a time of real depression in my life, and I recall sitting in my garage trying to write a song which reflected this struggle. I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother. I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality. The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.” Bridges goes on to say, “there is always hope at the end of the tunnel, at the end of every day, I truly believe God is our hope…”
Psalm 79:11 | May the groans of the prisoners come before you; with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.
I answered yes to both blog questions above…but no matter how many times I answer yes I will always be wrong. I learned that on the first day of going to serve in the prison you get to “host” or “sponsor” a certain inmate. Although you are surrounded by all the inmates everyday, the one that you host you get to really develop a relationship with and spend some quality one on one time. I won’t name his name but I know God paired us up for a reason…I slipped my new friend an extra letter on the last day…it kind of had to do with the story about the books earlier in this post…I told him that his life and my own life are kind of like really big books…there are a lot of stories in our books, some good, some bad…some older, some newer…some chapters are long, some are short…some pages are ripped out, some are torn, but I told him we are still alive right now…our books are still open and our books are not finished. I told him his life and his story on the farm is not the end…and that it’s up to him to write the rest of his story. And one day when people read his book or hear his story, even see his story when he gets out…How does he want his story to read? What does he want this chapter to be about? What does he want that last page to look like? Will his book have a good ending?
I have said this from the beginning of my writings that “people are important…” Many of those inmates are never ever going to get walk off that 20,000 acre farm. And that’s a tough thing to grasp for me…They live in the place where nobody wants to go, the place that people just want to see in their rearview as they pass by on the highway…and forget about…but we went. (And I am actually going back tomorrow night to visit and follow up with some of them!) As crazy as this sounds and I remember the inmates laughing at me on the last day because I told them I didn’t want to leave Parchman…I know this sounds crazy and some friends have told me those men deserve everything they got (and I think like that sometimes too…) but these men are still men…they are still people… I have been given so many second chances in my life it’s not even fair…maybe some don’t ever deserve to walk off the farm, but they deserve a chance to change who they are while they are there…Most people consider them human trash, as sad as it is to say that, but I promise you that you won’t want to leave… I remember the last day a member of the Aryan Brotherhood looked up and almost in tears said “Man…this weekend has completely changed me. You guys and God have given me a new hope…Most people who come here to try and help us, man most ministry teams don’t really want to be here…they always look at their watches to see what time they can leave…but not one of you guys even wore a watch the whole week…that’s how I knew you guys really do love us.” (That statement blew me away!) I was in tears the last day…that week broke me and changed my life. The last night we were there I got the honor to sing this song River by Leon Bridges inside that gymnasium…with tears rolling down my face I was crying…but it was tears of joy because God has forgiven my past…just like washing them down a real river. The Mississippi River, the largest river in the United States lies just 60 miles from the farm…but God’s river is even closer…and much bigger. And it is full of forgiveness. We call it God’s country down here in the south…and out there on that delta farm land we planted love. On the “About” page from day one I said Mississippi always has a steadfast hope for recovery and to redefine meaning…those inmates have that hope now…I remember staring at the prison in my rearview as we left on the last day and I was smiling. I saw more of God in that prison than I have most other places…hey nothing is impossible right? You know…I can write these blogs every ten days, I can tell you some neat stories every once in awhile but really I just want to help people who may be searching for help…I just remember how bad I needed help and never wanted to admit it to anybody. And I still mess up all the time. I’m gonna let you down…a lot…because I am human and I am just a man at the end of every day…but now I have some help, some really good help. I was in my own prison but I wanted to be free. Don’t ever give up…And don’t ever give up on = LOVE. Nothing is impossible…
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Watch, listen, and share what happens when you decide to live the next 10 days in love.
(Listen below to River by Leon Bridges)
(SPECIAL THANKS: To the men of Kairos for inviting me to join you…Thank you.)
(Feature post photo by Nicolai Duerbaum)
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