Friendship Behind Bars
By brett byford
June 8, 2011
Six years ago, I was asked to give a motivational speech at a maximum security prison. To be honest, the request caught me a little off guard. At the time, I was a frequently requested public speaker at places that were safe, like high schools and youth groups. Prison, on the other hand, seemed a little intimidating. I wondered to myself: Will it be dangerous? Will there be murderers there? What will I even say to those guys? Eventually (with Matthew 25:31-46 as my sole motivation), I did reluctantly accept the invitation.
During my first visit, I met Myron—a 21-year-old gang-banger from Omaha who had been locked up three years already for attempted armed robbery. The two of us were worlds apart in society’s eyes when I arrived to speak that night. I was a college student on a full athletic scholarship to play football, while he was a felon doing an 18- to 33-year sentence. I represented the group our state probably esteems the highest while he represented the group our state probably esteems the least.
He sat on the front row as I spoke and seemed to be eating each word out of the palm of my hand. “Amen!” he would shout as he nodded enthusiastically. I honestly can’t remember much about my speech that night, but I can still vividly envision his energy as he listened. After my talk, he handed me a short note of encouragement and ended it with a simple request: Stay in touch. He then added his address at the bottom, along with his inmate number, 55089, in case I decided to write.
Moved by his genuine and upbeat personality, I decided to take Myron up on his offer. We started writing each other letters and I began attending chapel services to sit beside him on the front row. Our friendship slowly developed and trust began to build between us. I got approved to start coming in for visits once a week. We would sit and talk and eat out of the prison vending machine for hours. We shared our dreams, confessed our mistakes and prayed together while eating Sun Chips and drinking Sprite. I eventually no longer needed Matthew 25 to remind me of my Christian obligation to visit prisoners. My best friend was behind bars, and if I wanted to hang out with him, I had to go to a prison to do so.Today, Myron is one of those classic success stories. He works as a youth pastor in the neighborhood where he grew up and helps the kids avoid gangs and other negative influences. He graduated college a few months back and has a beautiful wife and a newborn named Jericho.
Our friendship didn’t end either when he was given an early parole release in 2008. We both served as groomsmen at the other’s wedding. He sang “Amazing Grace” at mine, while I proudly threw him a bachelor party on the eve of his. We email and talk almost every day. The two of us have truly become lifelong friends, which makes me feel so lucky to have ever stepped foot in a prison.
Sadly, though, I think the majority of Christians miss out on these types of friendships and other blessings God had in mind when he commanded us to visit the prisoner. Why do the majority of Christians fail to take Matthew 25’s statement regarding prisoners seriously?
I think one reason is the fact that we are so busy doing a million other things. We live in a fast-paced culture that constantly begs for our time and attention. We master the skill of multitasking and learn to juggle several activities at a time. Prison, on the other hand, is inconvenient. It slows you down. You can’t text or Facebook message inmates to stay in touch. Instead, you are forced to take a break from your to-do list and be fully present with them. You show up, leave your phone and personal belongings outside, and then you sit down with the inmates and look them in the eye. That’s how it works in the joint. Friendships with prisoners are built on face to face conversations, handwritten letters, and in-person prayers. It’s old school like that.
Perhaps the other reason that the Church regularly neglects to visit prisoners is fear. In America, we live in a relatively safe world. We don’t face persecution. We aren’t beaten for our faith. We pay to install car alarms and home security systems. We have savings accounts, mutual funds, and retirement plans. We have no wars being fought domestically on our land. Our world is pretty safe and secure compared to much of the world. Self-preservation dictates our major choices. We make decisions based on whether or not they are safe and low-risk. The only problem with that approach to life, however, is that it is not the way of Jesus. He invites us out of our comfort zones and into the dark places to shine and serve. Places like prison. But most of us don’t sign up to follow that Jesus when we become Christians. Instead, we are told that He has a wonderful plan for our life and then assume it involves safety and security.
There are more than 2 million prisoners in America today. Jesus identifies with each of them, too, when He says, “I was in prison and you visited Me.” It scares me to think that many Christians miss out on the thrill of meeting Jesus behind bars, because they are too busy or too afraid. It saddens me to think that many miss out on meeting someone as incredible as Myron.
I was nervous to enter a prison for the first time six years ago. I didn’t know what to expect. But when the metal doors closed behind me and I walked into a roomful of inmates, I was pleasantly surprised to see someone I already knew. Jesus.