After more than 16 months absence, today was my first time back inside the correctional facility since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Mid-March, 2020, was the last time I had met with three guys who were my regular study partners for the weekly Torah portions. They are incarcerated at a nearby prison, and when the nation-wide shutdown started I was no longer allowed to go inside as a volunteer.
For a couple of years now (I don’t remember exactly when we got on this schedule) I’d been meeting with this particular group nearly every week. We are designated as “Jewish,” though they are all believers in Yeshua and, to my knowledge, not ethnically Jewish – which doesn’t matter. The Department of Corrections has a list of recognized religious classifications, and we have to fit into one of them. It’s just a label.
On one week we would gather in a room in the Chapel where occasionally we were joined by other people, and hold a service complete with the regular Sabbath liturgy and worship songs. It was Friday morning, not Saturday, but when you are in this environment you do what you can. In the Chapel anyone in the facility who listed Jewish as a religious preference could attend.
The next week, on Sabbath, we would meet in the unit. Yes, I actually sat with them at the cold metal tables just outside their cells. We discussed the weekly Torah, Haftarah and New Testament readings and anything else they wished to share, while all around us the other inmates went about their regular dayroom activities. Sometimes the guards closed the room down just for us to meet in a little quieter environment. At the conclusion of our time together, I chanted the Aaronic Benediction, and it echoed all through the building off the concrete floors and block walls, two floors high with the catwalk and cells around the perimeter. It was awesome, and all of the inmates waited quietly until I finished.
That was the regular schedule – one week in the chapel, the next week in the unit. Every week. Every Torah portion. And then it all came to a screeching halt in March, 2020.
A few weeks ago the facility held a training session the volunteers, the first since the shutdown. That was always an annual thing, but this time it also included special instructions for re-starting our volunteer activities. Virus-related precautions were still in place throughout the campus, as this concentrated population has the potential to be a hotbed for another outbreak. Some of the restrictions seemed rather extreme, but extra caution was warranted.
There would be no physical contact permitted, no handshakes or even fist bumps. Medical-grade masks would be required at all times. I would not be allowed to bring anything in – no Bible, no study materials, and no guitar, something I previously always took in for the worship the guys so much enjoyed. A Bible and guitar would be provided for me to use while I was there. Likewise, the guys could not bring anything with them; they would instead use Bibles that were already in the Chapel.
And for the foreseeable future, we would be in the Chapel every week. The informal discussions back in the unit would not be permitted. After the initial security check, I would be escorted directly to the Chapel, wait for the guys to come in and then leave about two hours later, and then be escorted back to the front.
The First Service
It was a privilege to be included in the start-up group of volunteers. There seemed to be very few other volunteers or groups in this first round. And when the day finally arrived for us to meet, some of those restrictions were relaxed. My guitar was permitted, along with my Bible and study materials. I just couldn’t share them with anyone else.
My three regulars came in, and we greeted each other – from a distance. With them were two other men who had been joining them each week. For some time, the prison had been allowing them to meet in the Chapel without a volunteer and study together. They had been using a CD I had made of the liturgy and a few songs, along with watching some DVDs and reading the weekly Torah portions together.
After chatting for a while and catching up with each other, we took out some copies of part of a Messianic Siddur that were there in the Chapel and recited portions of the liturgy we had previously used. Then I got out my guitar and we sang some of the songs we used to sing.
Some of it we kind of stumbled through. I realized that now I don’t do all of the liturgy in the same way I used to do it, especially with the parts that are chanted or sung. Trying to remember what we did and then explaining the things that were different was a little awkward, but these guys remembered and were on it. They’ve always challenged me, and I’ve always gone away from our meetings learning just as much from them as what I had shared with them.
Since they cannot bring their own Bibles into the chapel, they had to use what was there. And in the area we were in it was the Ellen White Study Bible provided by a Seventh Day Adventist ministry. We weren’t using the study notes in them, so didn’t present a problem at all. What was a problem was the translation. These were King James Version. I haven’t read a KJV in years. As we went around the room reading, everyone stumbled over the archaic language that was way too distracting. Fortunately I had brought in my Key Word Study Bible NASB and we could get some clarification. Most of them had already read the portions in their own Bibles before coming to the chapel. We had a good discussion.
And we ended, as always, with the Aaronic Benediction, which I always follow with the last two verses of Jude. It didn’t echo like it once did back in the unit, but you could tell by the look on the guys’ faces that they had missed that, and that they received it.
It was great to see these gentlemen again. Now that we know how things will work, I will be more organized and prepared for next week.