Thursday, September 18, 2014

Aletheia Praise Night at the Prison

Last night was the monthly "Aletheia praise night" at prison.

Aletheia means "the truth that is revealed" and is the name of a weekly Bible study at the prison where my husband is a chaplain. It was given that name many years ago by a chaplain who encouraged inmates to be seekers of God's truth. The gathering is unique for this prison in that some inmates are given a leadership helping role. After the chaplain gives everyone a sheet with the topic/scriptures/questions for the evening, volunteers and an inmate helper guide discussion in several small groups. This is not the only Bible study opportunity, but it is the most well-attended one and includes both Protestants and Catholics and both English and Spanish speakers.

Aletheia Bible Study has continued mostly with volunteers from Reformed churches who have been coming in for years. And I mean many years, long before my husband arrived, and he has been the chaplain there for close to 20 years. Some of these dear people are in their late 80s or even their 90s.

The chapel is not air conditioned. It has tiny windows. The back wall of the chapel (an attractive building with singularly poor design) is glass and faces west. This means that in the summer months the chapel becomes an oven.  It is HOT in there,

I don't usually attend the Bible study nights, but I do occasionally show up to sing at these once-a-month evenings of music, poems, testimonies and rap. As I've noted before in posts about prison, the most challenging individuals to deal with are usually not the prisoners but are the gatehouse guards--the guys who decide whether one comes in or stays out. This is a position of quasi power, and for some individuals that is not at all a good thing.

I went to prison last night.  The guards included "Mr. Grump," an older man with a perpetual frown and a constant bad attitude, and someone I'd never encountered before. Many of the gatehouse staff know I'm the chaplain's wife, but he did not. I'll call him "Mr. Unknown." I'll use MG and MU for the two guards, and ME


I found a parking space and entered the gatehouse, just outside the razor wire fencing. I was the first volunteer to arrive. Mr. Unknown greeted me by swearing and then added, not unkindly "What are you doing here, lady? Do you know what a bad day it is to be in the chapel? Do you know that it is at least 110 degrees in there?"

Me: "Yes." I smile. "I'll be okay."

MG: Harumph!  No eye contact, just the grunt.

MU: "I can tell you there is no way in *&% that I'd be in that chapel today. If I were you I would have found something else important to do, or pretended to forget or something." Head shake.

MG: "License." He's never one to use two words if one will do. He has seen me dozens of times and knows who I am. He always acts like he has never seen me before. I hand it over, with a big smile and a "How are you tonight?" He does not respond and he does not look at me or at my driver's license either. He just pushes it back on the counter.

MU: "There's no way anybody but you is showing up on a day like today. You are probably gonna be the only volunteer tonight. I bet the inmates won't come either. I mean, it's hot in the housing units, but not as hot as that *&^% chapel. I bet no one is over there. Are you sure the chaplain even came to work there today?"

This conversation is going on as I remove my watch, glasses and belt and proceed through the metal detector.  I don't say much.  MG says nothing. 

MU continues: "Do you know you are gonna sweat buckets in that sauna? I hope you don't pass out."

Me: "I'll just pretend I'm at a spa sauna! I'll probably lose five pounds! It'll be great." SMILE

MG: Snort

MU: . "If I'm gonna voluntarily sweat it'll be for something important. Nothing important about tonight at that sweatbox of a chapel...."

Me: Actually, being at the chapel does me a lot of good. Probably more than a spa.

MU: looks at me like he just stepped in dog doo doo.

Right about that time five volunteers show up. Four of them are 80+. So much for me being the only fool to attend chapel, but there is no comment from MU. MG checks them in and they pass through the metal detector. To their credit, MG and MU were quick and efficient and made no difficulties. They were, in a stiff way, kind to the old people.

MU: "Do you know it has gotta be over 110 in that chapel, folks? Maybe 120?!  Are you sure you don't wanna go back home?"


The sun blazes in. The lights are off. Two fans blow the hot air around. The guitarists are tuning up. One man, a long-time guest of the prison system who had formerly sported a long pony tail has a buzz cut. I ask him about his hair and he tells me that he grew it for "Locks of Love."

Many guys greet me. One has the most beautiful smile I may have ever seen, and he says as he shakes my hand, "We heard you resigned your church. I know you have prayed for me, and now I'm praying for you, sister. You know we love you and pray for you, right?  I know God has something wonderful for you. You know you are always gonna be 'Pastor don't you, Miz Chaplain G.?  Don't you be discouraged."

The evening begins with the Gospel Choir, who sing the best version of "Blessed Be Your Name" that I have ever heard (the newer praise chorus, not the old hymn). As they sang, "You give and take away" my eyes filled with tears.

Next the Spanish Choir sings.  What they lack in skill they make up for with enthusiasm.  One of the Hispanic guys shares a testimony and says this is his last Praise Night because he is leaving the institution. There is loud applause. He says he is happy tonight, not just to be going home but to share in praise to God with his brothers who have blessed and encouraged him. Not a churchgoer on "the outside," he came to chapel at the urging of a friend. He stayed and found God, he says. More loud applause.

I sing and then next up is Bob. Bob is a frail 89 or 90, one of those volunteers who has been coming in for a long time. He smiles broadly as he says he learned to sing hymns as his mother played their old piano. He sings an a capella version of "I Love to Tell the Story." He is seated to a standing ovation. What a blessing to these inmates that an elderly white man from a small town has been ministering to mostly black guys from the inner city, and doing it nearly every week for decades.

And this time, doing it in a chapel where all were sweltering.

We shake hands and wish God' s blessings on the men as they depart.


MG is completely silent and manages, as always to make no eye conact as he checks our hands for the stamp that says we are not inmates. :-)

MU: "You all survived! It was hot as blazes in there, wasn't it? I warned you.  No way I'd have been in that chapel tonight. Go home to your air conditioning!"

Bob: "Yeah, it sure was hot. I think it is a disgrace that the chapel is not air conditioned, and you can tell someone I said so! We sure had a great time praising the Lord though."

MG: Stares.  (Yes, he actually looked at us.)

MU: "I hope the inmates appreciated it. Was anyone there?  Bet not many showed up." Smirks.

Me: "Oh, they came. They always show up for Aletheia Praise Night."

I think that perhaps a little seed was planted in MU's heart. My husband likes him, says he has a good heart, and was surprised to hear of his comments. Will you say a prayer for him today, and MG as well?