I spent an evening in prison a while back. I volunteered to go with Bob Bolling, a friend who goes there regularly. Bolling invited two of us to attend a graduation ceremony. The graduates recently completed the Bridges to Life program.
Getting through security was much like going through airport security. It wasn’t easy; but it wasn’t all that difficult either. Once inside the unit we were escorted into a large, pleasant chapel. The prison residents wore all-white uniforms. We who were visiting wore anything that wasn’t white. The event felt pretty much like other church events I’ve attended. My friend and I struggled to make small talk without asking, “So what do you do for a living?” There was food, a lot of joking and teasing, and a lot of back slapping.
The BTL leaders easily mingled among the men. They obviously knew and respected each other a great deal. But then these men had revealed many deeply personal things about themselves in small groups during the previous fourteen weeks. The general tone of the event was calm mixed with excitement and gratitude. Lots and lots of gratitude. My friend and I were among a handful of women. The chaplain was a woman as were a few female volunteers and BTL staff.
As many church functions do, this one started with singing and instrument-generated music. Then followed various comments by folks. Any of the graduating men who wanted to say something got to do so. Most of the comments focused on gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the program and revelations about how the experience changed their lives for the better.
David’s story touched me greatly. I would guess David to be in his 40’s. He said he was back in for a parole violation. He didn’t say what he did to be on parole. I didn’t ask. David has a wife and two teen children waiting for him to get out. He thinks he’ll be out in time to see his son graduate from high school. I hope he’s right. I told him I’d pray for him and his family. And I have. David was mild-mannered, well-spoken, and eager to be reunited with his family – especially his son.
John Sage started Bridges to Life in 1998. He did so after a five-year struggle to recover from the shock and horror his family experienced when his sister, Marilyn Sage Meagher, was brutally murdered in 1993. BTL’s mission is to connect communities to prisons in order to reduce repeat violations, especially violent crimes. Part of the BTL program requires each participant to tell the story of their life that led them to prison. Bolling reports the stories are heart-wrenching. Another part of the BTL mission is to minister to both victims and offenders, showing them the transforming power of God’s love and forgiveness.
If you’ve seen such movies as Birdman of Alcatraz or the Shawshank Redemptoin, you know the primary focus of our penal system is punishment. BTL’s focus is on healing – for victims and offenders alike. This restores dignity to people who’ve previously known mainly violence, loss, and prison. It also restores peace to those who have had loved ones ripped away by brutal acts of violence. Offenders who complete the program are much less a threat to communities when they are released and much easier to manage while incarcerated.
John Sage started Bridges to Life in one prison in Texas. The program has been steadily growing. Prison staff were skeptical at first; however, having seen the dramatic positive changes the program makes, they are eager to have BTL volunteers and staff around. So far BTL has scheduled 123 programs in 60 locations in Texas and several others states for 2015.
Violence begets violence. Love and forgiveness beget love and forgiveness. Love changes everything for the better.
For more information about this transforming program go to: www.bridgestolife.org