07/02/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

A Banner Called Free: Lessons of Faith, Hope and Beloved Community at the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison

A maximum security prison is an unlikely destination when seeking a transformative encounter with God. Yet, I recently experienced God as never before amid high fences, barbed wire, legions of guards and multiple checkpoints, while in the company of extraordinary men and women.

Last week, I attended the Fund for Theological Education's (FTE) 2012 Leaders in Ministry Conference held at the historic Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tenn. During the conference, I participated as a roundtable leader and mentor pastor to a fresh crop of FTE Fellows as we faithfully engaged the conference theme, "Builders of Beloved Community." A site visit to the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison was included as a part of this phenomenal experience. Ten years ago, the late Harmon Wray, the Rev. Janet Wolf and Dr. Richard Goode established a mutual learning community at Riverbend wherein students from seminaries, colleges and congregations come to the prison to engage in theological inquiry and dialogue alongside the men incarcerated there.

After successfully navigating the extensive prison checkpoints, our group was escorted to the Chapel, a small room with cinder block walls and aged wooden benches. Once there, we were warmly greeted by the insiders (incarcerates) and engaged in mutual dialogue around matters of faith, rehabilitation, transformation, redemption, forgiveness and ecclesiology. Many lessons struck me as significant during our all too short encounter with these men.

The men spoke candidly about the failures of many prison ministries. They spoke of churches coming to Riverbend seeking only to "get them saved" but not seeking to be in community with them. They spoke of the failures of most rehabilitation practices wherein insiders learn how to regurgitate responses to the questions posed to them but never undergo a true transformation of mind and spirit. As they spoke, I could not help but to think of the failures of the present-day church which oft-times places a greater premium on building buildings and personalities than building transformative communities and which are more committed to getting you saved than entering the struggle with you and teaching you how to live faithfully for Christ in the world.

I soon recognized that within this transformative community of open dialogue and mutual sharing, these men had achieved that which has proven to be a great challenge for many churches today: beloved community. When speaking of the creation of the beloved community, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, "Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives." This speaks to so much more than rehabilitation, but to transformation in the truest since of the word. As the insiders spoke of how they were being made anew within this faithful community, supporting each other and holding each other accountable each step of the way, I witnessed the hope that we can rise above our worse selves towards the fulfillment of our better selves like never before!

I am in no way seeking to glorify incarceration. And I am not seeking to glorify the incarceration of these insiders. There is nothing glorious about prison. Some of these men committed horrific crimes, crimes of which they are neither proud nor deny. But there was something glorious about our encounter! Inside Riverbend, theological inquiries are engaged with sincerity and urgency. Matters of forgiveness, salvation, redemption and love are not just fetter for intellectual enterprise but out of necessity to hope and survival amid a depressing reality. Engaging theology in such a setting makes one's theology come alive. If only our theology could be animated as such within our houses of worship.

I return to Nashville this week to attend the 49th General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Thousands of A.M.E.'s from across the world will gather to worship, fellowship and debate, pass legislation and elect denominational leadership. As I return to this now familiar place, I do so carrying deeply within me the hope of beloved community as well as a renewed commitment to help build beloved community at home and abroad. What better place to start than within my own Zion?

At the very beginning of our dialogue last week, each person within our circle was invited to share what they hoped to gain from the encounter. When giving my response, I stated, "I want to leave from here transformed." As we prepared to depart after our fruitful engagement with the Riverbend insiders, a colleague noted a banner that for me had been hidden from sight for the duration of our encounter. I had readily taken note of three banners hanging in the Chapel, which read "Love," "Hope" and "Joy." But I had failed to see the banner that rested just above my head bearing the word "Free." Though incarcerated, some since their teenage years, these men are free! They are free in the full sense of the freedom articulated by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Church of Corinth. Paul penned, "For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom!" (1 Corinthians 3:17, New Living Translation). And truly, the Spirit of the Lord is at Riverbend.

I was transformed! We all were!

Now, it's time to build.