Kairos Retreat Inside Prison Rejuvenates Faith


by Stephanie Brokaw
June 2010


Drizzling rain began to fall as we walked into the Lebanon Correctional Institution (L.C.I.) on a gloomy Sunday. The razor wire and rocks that formed a barrier to the outside world seemed to set off a clue in my mind that this was going to be quite the experience.

Michael Shryock moved effortlessly through the prison’s gates and security points. One could tell he had been through this before. Mike has volunteered ten times at Kairos retreats for incarcerated individuals at several different prisons. He knew the guest policy and the ins and outs of undergoing processing to be admitted into the institution seemingly better than those actually on the inside.

Walking into the prison I had no idea what to expect. It doesn’t really hit a person that he or she is in a prison until one sees the inmates. Mike and I were led through a metal detector and several security gates, and finally down a long hall into a musty gym with out-of-date sports equipment. Some of the inmates that worked there were helping set up for the Kairos graduation.

On one side of the gym sat the volunteers and people who had been involved before in such an extraordinary activity. The band began to play upbeat gospel and bluegrass music and everyone was clapping and singing along.

Mike showed me a window where I could see the prison yard, and I wasn’t shocked to see there wasn’t much out there. L.C.I. has a baseball field and a large stone wall going around the perimeter to prevent anyone from trying to escape.

After about 20 minutes the inmates who had taken part in the retreat prior to this one came into the gym and the volunteers all stood up and clapped to support them in making the choice to come back. Hidden under the tattoos and perceptions of what an inmate looks like is an actual human being. 

The band began to play a lively tune of “When the Saints Come Marching in” for the graduates of the 40th Kairos Retreat. This last ceremony is a surprise to them, and many seemed so touched to see us there applauding them with the crew they had been with those last four days.

Walking into Kairos they are no longer addressed as inmates but as residents. It makes them feel as though they are something more than a prisoner.  So much planning goes into the retreats with months of doling out jobs to the volunteers. There is a whole team dedicated to cooking the food for the inmates, which you could tell was greatly appreciated. They constantly stood and applauded for the meal team which provided home-cooked meals for the inmates for four days.

The Kairos retreat is held twice a year, but so much work goes into planning an event so large. There are teams dedicated to every aspect of this program which was created 20 years ago at a Florida prison. The program helps the prisoners to rejuvenate their faith and to see that they have God to love them and to help them forgive and to be forgiven.

The inmates were broken up into “family groups” under the names of the gospels and the letters of St. Paul and St. Peter, so the groups were identified as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter. There are typically six prisoners to a Kairos family group and four leaders to help facilitate the discussion and faith aspect of the exercises. The groups vary in age and race so that the prisoners see different views and beliefs.

The first question they were asked as a group centered around what level of spirituality they had in their lives. Many answered with either “no faith at all,” or “much faith but loss in direction.”

Kairos targets an institution’s gang leaders to join the program so they will influence those around them to join the program and, as a goal, to end much of the violence prevalent in prisons.

The discussions that were brought up over the four-day retreat revolved around known stories read in the Bible such as the “Prodigal Son” and “Footprints in the Sand”. The last discussions among those in the retreat were of forgiveness and forgiving others and one another, and most importantly forgiving themselves. They forgave themselves for the mistakes they made before prison and during prison. The talks are led by the leaders of the families. Their role titles are: Family Leader, Family Clergy, Family Assistant, and Family Servant.

During the open microphone portion of the graduation ceremony, the residents could talk for up to two minutes about the retreat and what they felt they learned from such an experience, but they were told to not thank the volunteers, because they knew they were appreciated and wanted the residents to know they were appreciated as well.

One Kairos volunteer noted that the light seen in the eyes of the residents was enough of a thank you. The inmates that got up and spoke said they felt found, and no longer lost, and that they felt anxious at the beginning of the retreat because what they perceived was ahead of them was unknown. One inmate, Humberto Perez-Diaz, courageously said how he wasn’t changed after four days, but felt he now had the correct tools to change and find a deeper meaning in his faith.

The next Kairos retreat at Lebanon Correctional Institution is scheduled for this Fall, 2010. Volunteers are currently planning for their respective roles and committing to prayer for God to take on large roles in the lives of the individuals in the next retreat class.


Related Video:
Listen to Stephanie Brokaw speak about her impressions of this first visit to a prison and the Kairos graduation.

Kairos group photo at Lebanon Correctional Institution

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Cropped segments of the group shot of participants and volunteers at the Lebanon Correctional Institution Kairos Retreat held earlier this year.