I believe that the purpose of religion is not to get to heaven but, to bring heaven to earth. Heaven on earth has to do with justice, righteousness and love of neighbor. As far as I can tell, most religions include a focus on how we treat those around us. The golden rule seems to have universal acceptance: Do unto others as you would have others do to you.
In my denomination of Christianity, we promise at our baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We also promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. In response to these promises, I have been involved in jail and prison ministry during the past 30 years.
The last weekend in January, I served as a volunteer in an interdenominational prison ministry called “Kairos.” The heart of Kairos is love. Its mission is to bring Christ’s love and forgiveness to those in prison, their families and those who work with them. The method of Kairos is to teach people to support each other in the Christian life through small “prayer and share” groups that meet weekly.
During the Kairos weekend, the inmates and volunteers heard and discussed talks. The theme on Friday was Encountering Self in which we learned about understanding oneself and one’s standing with God. Saturday’s theme was Encountering Christ in which we learned to meet Jesus and the Body of Christ (the Church) and find forgiveness. Sunday’s theme was Encountering Others in which we began the process of growing in faith and community with others. The ministry continues with the volunteers returning to the prison once a month to model the practice of the prayer and share groups.
The atmosphere among the inmates moved from cautious or skeptical to open sharing and joy. We heard about making positive choices in life, acceptance of self, forgiving others and ourselves, acceptance of God’s forgiveness, and healing past memories. In short, we learned about removing the barriers to positive relationships with God and with others. The goal is to live into that image of God in which, we believe, all people are created.
One of the most positive things I heard during the weekend was a talk by one of the clergy who told the inmates: “Your crime does not define you!” The message is that each person is the beloved child of God. Yes, the crime has consequences as do all of our choices in life. However, each of us can change our lives for the better.
Late on Sunday morning, we heard the tragic news of the murder of a corrections officer at the prison in Monroe. I was shocked and greatly saddened. It seemed that the good that took place during our prison ministry was suddenly diminished by the evil done in this violent crime. Where was God in all this? I am troubled about how to give testimony to the love of God in light of the bad that happened.
Yet, I must testify to my belief that God is present in both the good and bad. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that absolutely nothing ever separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It is up to each one of us to decide if “You are not alone” is a helpful consolation in difficult times.
I believe that God can bring good out of this tragedy!
The Rev. Tony Irving is a deacon with St. Benedict Episcopal Church in Lacey.
Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.