There was a quiet hush in the back conference room of the Magnuson Hotel in St. Francisville, Louisiana where the Angola Kairos team gathers before all Kairos retreats.
"We've done 63 of these teams. But this one," said Terry Fitzgerald, one of the retreat leaders "is different.”
The difference was where the Angola the team was headed.
Their destination - as far away from the main prison as you can get on the sprawling 18,000-acre facility, deep in the back corner - Death Row.
73 men sit on Death Row, and for the first time in the history of Kairos Louisiana, a team of volunteers was headed there to share the Gospel and to do as their motto proclaims, “Listen, Listen, Love, Love.”
“Let’s do what we know to do,” Fitzgerald said as team members headed to their cars. “Let’s head there and give ’em Jesus.”
Kairos, a lay-led ministry, operates similarly to other three day spiritual retreats, such as the Walk to Emmaus or Cursillo. Participants, go on a journey that demonstrates the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
While the ministry is ecumenical, this particular team had a robust Methodist connection with nearly half of the inside team having a connection to a Louisiana United Methodist church.
"'The world is my parish' is a quote most often attributed to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley," says Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey. "As followers of Jesus Christ, our world often extends beyond governmental geographic parish boundaries and stretches into the minds and hearts of those who live their life imprisoned. I give thanks every day for faithful and committed United Methodists who choose to extend the love and grace of Jesus to those living in prison and especially inside Death Row. Kairos is an incredible ministry that puts our words into action by reaching out to those most have forgotten."
While the location of the retreat was new, the retreat itself was the same.
"Our team approached Kairos 64 as any other Kairos Inside Retreat," said Clay Johnson, member of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. "We were certain we'd see the hem of Jesus’ garment, but aware of possible relational differences."
Those relational differences were stark, and every team member received advanced training to prepare. Each of the ten inmates from Death Row chosen for this retreat by the chaplain’s office, as well as the prison staff, has been locked away in solitary confinement for - at a minimum - twenty years.
“We prepared as best as we could, but serious questions remained,” said Rev. Todd Rossnagel, Director of Communication for the Louisiana Annual Conference. “The more we thought about how folks who have been locked up in solitary confinement would relate to three full days in a conference room, hearing from complete strangers about Jesus Christ, the more we would just ask for prayers.”
The prayers were answered.
"They were the most grateful, receptive and engaged group that I have ever encountered at a Kairos Retreat," said Johnson. "Some had past religious experience - some didn’t. But all were eager to participate and learn. They couldn’t believe the support expressed by the bottomless supply of cookies on the table and by the prayer chain (each link the name of a different person from all over the world), which looped around the meeting room three times."
In the past 25 years, since the Angola Kairos community started organizing and conducting retreats inside Louisiana's maximum security prison, there has always been a strong desire to bring a team to Death Row.
"We, as a community, have been praying and asking for this opportunity. God finally answered the prayer, and the prison finally said 'yes.'," said Rossnagel. "Angola Chaplain Gary Sumrall and representatives from State and National were instrumental, but none of this would have happened without the assistance and support from Angola Warden Darrel Vannoy and his staff."
Secretary James M. Le Blanc of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said, "We have seen great impact in Louisiana State facilities where Kairos programs have been implemented, and this has been especially true for Angola. We are pleased to open the program now to the inmates on death row at Angola and look forward to continued improvement in morale and the prison environment as a result."
"Our volunteers share the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ with the program Participants," said Evelyn Lemly, CEO of Kairos, "We believe that no person is beyond the reach of God's power."
As the team progressed through three days of fellowship, worship and song, the work of the Holy Spirit was evident.
"One resident at my table, whose past encounters with Christians had left him dubious, left the retreat as a new Christian," recalls Johnson. "Another expressed that he had thought that it was appropriate and a good thing for him to live out his life in guilt and shame - paying his dues; to have joy would be a bad thing. He is leaving the Retreat as a witness for Jesus and the saving power that goes with that."
As much as the Kairos retreat had a powerful effect on those inside the walls of Angola, the retreat had, as is usually the case, a powerful effect on the volunteers.
"It's not designed for us, but I'm here to tell you - it's a life-changing ministry," says Rossnagel. "I have often been asked why I do Kairos retreats and for me, the answer is as simple as looking at the 25th chapter of Matthew. Jesus wasn't necessarily saying we, as Christians 'need' to go to prison. Rather, Christ was saying when you do, you will find me. And, sure enough, every time I've participated in a Kairos retreat, I've encountered Christ in ways that enrich my life and strengthen my ministry in ways I cannot begin to measure."
"It's the most powerful ministry experience I have ever witnessed," says Chris King, another member of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. "We all sit in church and talk about God's love and forgiveness. When you realize that He loves someone convicted of terrible crimes as much as he loves you or me, you begin to comprehend the depth of God's love and grace."
On the final day of the retreat, the inmates were welcomed into their new family, the family known as Kairos. They were quick to express gratitude and shared stories of transformation to a crowd of nearly one hundred visitors, via closed-circuit television.
“We all have a life sentence,” said Chaplin Gary Sumrall. “But it’s how we choose to serve that sentence that matters most. Gentlemen, your lives are different now. Go forth in peace and live as free men.”
There were tears as the retreat came to a close, but for the new members of the Kairos family, the experience is just beginning. The prison has allowed each of them to participate in what is known as ‘prayer and share’ groups, and just as a family supports one another, the outside family will be doing the same.
"We will be back," said Bob Leitner, one of the leaders of the team and also a member of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. "Each member of this team has committed to return for the prayer and share meetings, which is the cornerstone of Kairos. This will be their opportunity to share how God's grace is changing their lives and to live as authentic and vital Christians inside Angola and we will, on a weekly basis, over the next year, help shepherd them through this process."