I never thought I’d find myself inside of a prison, yet there I was for the second time in my life. The somber sight of those seemingly endless coils of barbed wire that surround drab clusters of old brick and cement block buildings always seemed to imply that I was to stay out as much as the inmates were supposed to stay inside.
Yet here several other individuals and I were, being escorted by an officer as we prepared to enter the county’s male correctional facility. The first time I went inside, I struggled to maintain an appearance of indifference as I battled unsuccessfully against nervous sweat and trepidation of the unknown. This time – two years later – I was no longer nervous. In fact, I was eager to return.
I wasn’t entering as a prisoner, nor was I there to visit an incarcerated friend or relative. No, I was there as a volunteer participant in Forgiven Ministry’s One Day with God Camp. On both occasions, my job was to accompany one of approximately thirty children into the prison so they could experience an otherwise impossible opportunity: spend an entire day with their dad.
Sometimes there just aren’t enough words to adequately describe an experience. This is one of them.
As I stood with my assigned child outside of the gym door, I could catch glimpses of the participating dads standing inside along the far wall, craning their necks in an effort to see their own child. When a father’s name was called, he stepped out into the center of the gym floor and waited expectantly for his child (sometimes two or three children) to be announced and enter to join him. Some fathers and children ran to each other in excitement, others slowly approached one another in self-conscious nervousness, but every single one embraced and held onto each other.
I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine being a thirteen-year old and finally being able to meet your father for the first time because of an event like this. THE. VERY. FIRST. TIME. That’s exactly the situation of the child I was paired with this weekend. It was such a blessing and privilege to witness that pivotal moment in their lives.
The kaleidoscope of emotions that I experienced as a spectator was undoubtedly minuscule in comparison to those of the dads and children. This one day was the only opportunity that these dads had to experience what fathers on the outside often take for granted: eating a meal with their child, watching a live show together, playing games together, making a craft together, and most importantly, hugging and talking to each other for hours.
Despite the sparse, chilly gymnasium and the various officers stationed around the perimeter of the gym floor, joy and peace filled that expansive room. The dads and children took center stage and everything else became a barely visible backdrop.
These select inmates were more than willing to toe the line for months in advance, take on extra work and meet stringent criteria in order to be able to participate in this event. Perhaps that is why when it was announced that it was time to do the craft, one father seemed worried. His young daughter had fallen asleep on his lap and he couldn’t do the craft in that position. He looked up at a volunteer and said he didn’t know what to do – it was obvious that he wanted to continue to hold his daughter but he also knew it was imperative that he follow instructions. The volunteer reminded him that this day was for them; he was to enjoy the ability to hold her in his arms. Relieved, he sat back and snuggled with his little girl as the volunteer did the craft for them.
During this six-hour event, these men weren’t treated as inmates or prisoners – they were treated simply as dads. Yes, these men committed crimes and yes, they deserve their jail sentences. However, these men are also dads who love their children. And the children desperately want their dads actively involved in their lives. How do I know? Because I read and prayed over their written prayer requests.
Child after child prayed that their dads would be awarded an early release so that they could come home to live with them again. As one little boy wrote, “so he can teach me more about school and baseball and basketball and soccer.” These kids understand that their dads have done something wrong, but they also recognize the power of forgiveness.
Statistics back up the need for dads to be involved in their children’s lives. According to the National Center for Fathering, “More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father.” In fact, their Fatherless Epidemic Infographic states that, among other things, “90% of all homeless and runaway children are fatherless…fatherless children are 20x more likely to become incarcerated…[and] 70% of teen pregnancies happen in fatherless homes.”
This is why programs such as Forgiven Ministry’s One Day with God Camp are so important. The fathers who participate in the program understand the urgency of being a part of their children’s lives and they know their children are worth the extra effort it takes to qualify for the program. Likewise, God also thinks His children are worth extra effort; despite our many sins and shortcomings, He loves each of us and sent His Only Son to pay the ultimate sacrifice so that we can have a restored relationship with Him.
Indeed, you could feel God’s presence there that day, mending hearts and bringing joy. Nevertheless, the one-day event eventually had to come to an end. The fathers were invited to dance one dance with their daughters and walk the perimeter of the gym with their sons before heading outside to a fenced enclosure to say goodbye. It was truly an emotional and bittersweet moment as the fathers gave one last hug and kiss before lining up for roll call to resume their customary prison schedule.
As they stood waving goodbye to their children, some of those men knew that they might not ever get to spend such quality time with their children again. But they also realized that despite physical separation, they forged a bond that day that can never be broken, regardless of time or distance.
I encourage you to challenge your perceptions, as I did the first time I decided to enter a prison. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and make a difference in someone’s life.
What are your thoughts? When has someone made a positive impact in your life?
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