I pulled up to the correctional facility this morning with great anticipation. As I mentioned last week, I was part of the first group of volunteers allowed back in after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our Messianic services and studies in March, 2020. The first week was a chance to regroup with the guys, find out who was still interested in having a service, and see what resources were available for us there.
My three regular guys had come, along with a couple of others I didn’t previously know. That was very encouraging, as I had spent the last two or three years meeting with them on a weekly basis. We sang some of the old songs (I was permitted to bring my guitar into the prison Chapel), recited worship liturgy, and read the Torah portion together. It was wonderful to see them again and to worship with them.
Preparing for this second week, I made up new liturgy pages and brought them with me. They aren’t allowed to bring their own Bibles and materials from their cells into the Chapel building, so this was a good opportunity to update some things. Earlier in the week I emailed new song sheets to the Chaplain, who said he would print them off and have them there waiting. All of these things would stay in the room in the Chapel where we meet as part of the COVID safety precautions.
After going through the security checkpoint in the front lobby, I was greeted by the Chaplain. But his greeting wasn’t what I expected. “I’m not sure how many you will have today,” he said. He went on to tell me that half of my group had been transferred to another facility the day before. Actually, that kind of thing happens all the time in the prison system. But this was a blow to me. After 16 months of not worshipping with them, last week we had finally been permitted to meet again. Now, just like that, they were gone.
Thinking about that, though, the same kind of thing could happen to any of us at any time. We go about life thinking that today will be a continuation of yesterday, that those who are a part of our lives today will still be here tomorrow. But that can change in an instant. Tomorrow, even today, is guaranteed for no one.
It turns out that two of my three regulars had been transferred to the same place, and it is the facility where two other regular attendees had been sent a few years earlier. I am hoping that they will be able to study together there. Even though that prison is closer to me, I won’t be able to join them. The COVID-19 precautions don’t permit volunteers to minister at more than one facility.
There were very few transfers between prisons during the COVID shutdown. Perhaps the same lifting of restrictions that has allowed volunteers back in has also allowed the transfers to resume. It may be that, just as some of our group has moved on, others will come to join us. I pray that the Father will watch over those who are moving around in this system.
The Second Week
Of the five who met with me last week, two had been transferred. The third one who had been a regular attendee did not show up, and I am uncertain why. The two new guys I met last week came, along with one more who had been coming to the group during the time I was not there.
So here in this room in the Chapel, ready to worship together, are three guys I know very little about and who did not know me. Those who came before have been through two or three Torah cycles together with me. Now we are starting over. After a brief chat, we took out the new liturgy pages and the new song sheets and began worshipping with songs they did not know and liturgy with which they were not familiar.
I mentioned before that the Department of Corrections requires us to take a designation from a standard list of approved religious preferences. Our group is designated as Jewish, even though we all are believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah and none of us are ethnically Jewish. But that isn’t true, now. The new guy says that he has Jewish ancestry, and he is also a believer in Yeshua. He’s covered in tattoos (most of the guys are) and I see many Christian and maybe a few Jewish emblems or figures.
It turns out this new guy had been to synagogue services when he was a child. After a while, you could tell that he did recognize parts of the liturgy. I’ve seen that before, when I used to minister with a Christian pastor in our local jail. As I started playing and singing some of the old hymns, inmates who hadn’t been to church in years would tear up and sing as the old familiar words came back to them.
We read through Torah Portion Ekev, once again struggling with the King James Version Bibles that were available in the Chapel. When we got to Deuteronomy 10, I shared with them what I have posted here about The Other Ark. That was something I had to research after being asked about it three years ago by the two gentleman who had now transferred to another facility. I’ve learned so much being with the men as we’ve studied together. Often they ask challenging questions, and since resources are limited in the prison I have to look things up at home and then report what I found the following week.
We continued with the New Testament reading, discussing it and then turning to the Haftarah portion in Isaiah. We will be in Isaiah for Haftarah for the remainder of this Torah cycle, which will be concluding soon. The Fall Feasts are right around the corner. In the past, we’ve been able to meet for the Feasts, but I don’t know how that will work out this year with the restrictions. We’ll talk about that as the time gets closer.
I missed the insight from my regulars. I wondered if the ones who had transferred were settling into their new surroundings, and if they would have any fellowship there. I wondered if they would find the men who once worshipped with us here. And I wondered why the other regular who was still here had not come out today.
At the conclusion, as always, we closed our time together with the Aaronic Benediction. When I asked them to stand and I faced them to recite this blessing, new guy raised hands in the sign of the Shin.
Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishmerecha.
Ya’er Adonai panav eleicha vichunekka.
Yissa Adonai panav eleicha v’yasem l’cha shalom.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
To him who is able to keep you from falling
and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—
to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority,
through Yeshua Messiah our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!
(Jude 1:24-25 NIV)