Robert Hitt Neill Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Witnessing Kairos graduation was best ceremony yet

By Robert Hitt Neill

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I attended a very special Graduation Ceremony a week or so ago, and I wanted to tell you about that.

When my own kids graduated from High School, I was proud not only of them, but there were another maybe dozen kids walking across that stage that I felt pride in, because they had been friends with my kids and they had spent a lot of years out here at my house, so I just naturally considered them part mine. Again, when my kids graduated from college, there were others getting degrees who had spent time in our home, so I almost felt like I had an investment in them, too.

Yet at this College Graduation the other day, I was proud of the whole class, because they too represented an investment of my own time, money, and my heart. The Graduates who were walking across the stage today in their black robes, their hats with the little red tassels, and their hearts full of gratitude and pride were different than most graduates: for underneath those stately black robes they all wore striped britches!

Many years ago, I got involved in the Kairos International Prison Ministry, an organization that is over 30 years old, and is active in most states and several foreign countries.  

Since then, I have spent a lot of time in prison, as most regular readers will know.  We hold two four-day Kairos weekends each year in every institution Kairos is accepted in – essentially, five in the state of Mississippi – and then we go back every second Saturday of every month to visit the Kairos men.

Plus, some volunteers without Wednesday night Choir practice in their own churches go back weekly for Prayer & Share Group time. We see the changes that God can make in men face to face, and the Department of Corrections says that Kairos makes a real difference in the prison environment, from within the walls.

Three years ago, MDOC asked the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to initiate in the Magnolia State a program that had been pioneered in Louisiana, at Angola Prison, which had the reputation as the worst prison in the country.  

It is now a model prison. The program that changed it, from within, is a five-year commitment that takes 30 to 35 inmates a year into its classes. It is a tough program, but if a man can stick it out and pass the tests, he will be awarded a college Associate Degree after three years, a Bachelor’s Degree after the fourth year, and a Master’s Degree in Theology upon completion.

The prison system then sends those Baptist Ministers into other units or satellite prisons to start their own churches – WITHIN the walls!

And the other men within those walls wearing striped britches are changed where it counts – in their hearts – by their pastors who are also wearing striped britches. Prisons are changed from within!

Maybe you’re saying here, “Boy, Neill is a Bleeding Heart, ain’t he?”

Nay, nay; I not only believe in the death penalty, I believe we don’t use it enough. We don’t go into prison to get men out of prison: we go in there to set men free – in Christ!

No one knows better than those who graduated that the God most of them found behind bars first set up capital punishment in His Laws, and that the sins one commits have consequences that must be suffered and paid.

So, that was the Graduation Ceremony I attended. My heart swelled with pride as I watched those Graduates stand and walk forward to get their Associate Degrees.

I knew them all well: Michael had been my sponsoree on Kairos #8; Phillip had been a faithful correspondent for years; Big Bill had also played SEC football in the line; Ricky had shared his poems with me; Glen is my Yahweh singing buddy; Ben has played guitar for me to lead singing; Rufus was the Kairos Inside Rector on my very first Kairos thirteen years ago.

I knew all these men well, as well as the 40 or so sitting behind the Graduates who were in their first couple of years in the Seminary Program, and would be getting their degrees soon.

Rightly or wrongly, I felt like these Graduates were all my own kids, my own brothers. I was proud of them, and I hope that ain’t a sin. I’ve spent a lot of days in prison, but Seminary Graduation Day 2007 has got to be the best one yet!