I went to jail last Friday.
It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on First Baptist of Richmond’s yearlong, every-member mission trip.
I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.”
So, I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers.
I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me. Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist. He’s a young, strong man who works as a personal trainer at a fitness center.
I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 a.m. service. The next thing I knew he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”
On Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field. As I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?”
I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to. I knew I’d found the right man for the job.
It turned out that Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said, “just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.”
So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend, Mike Kelly, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do, the Jewish Community Center.
It’s in interesting world we live in.
Mike led us up to a cellblock on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior because they were exceptionally well behaved.
They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero, I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.
I didn’t want to be “preachy” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it.
When I was finished, I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11 a.m. on Sundays. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.
I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love.
I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions.
They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”
And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth.
I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved.
And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond jail, because he knew that man was in there and needed to know God’s love.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
On the way back to church, Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Va., but he might.
I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there. In his own way, Tyler reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.
That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love?
I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did. I’m really glad.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.