Once people are sentenced to prison, they are often forgotten by the public.
They become nameless statistics, anonymous mouths for taxpayers to feed, individuals rotting away in the mess they've made for themselves.
And there are reasons these people are in prison. They've committed crimes -- sometimes horrific ones -- and must pay for what they've done with their loss of freedom.
But they should never become nonpersons.
Earlier this month, Gary Armes, senior pastor at Hickory Valley Christian Church, took part in a ministry that is making a difference for good and for God at Walker Correctional Institute in Rock Spring, Ga.
Kairos, an ecumenical, faith-based ministry, is a four-day experience held within prison walls in which a small number of trained servant/teachers from the outside fellowship with, break bread with and share the love of Christ with a larger number of inmates.
Armes and seven other men from Hickory Valley Christian worked with 42 men from the prison.
"I wanted to be obedient to the call of Jesus in Matthew 25, where he spoke of visiting those in prison," he said.
Armes is one of 36,000 volunteers who together donate more than 3 million hours of service annually in more than 400 institutions (including the Hamilton County Jail and Hays State Prison in Trion, Ga.) in 32 states and nine other countries, according to Kairos Prison Ministry International. Each year, more than 25,000 inmates and their family members take part in such experiences, according to the organization.
The ministry, rightly, is voluntary. No one is forced to take part.
During the four-day experience, which Armes said begins at 7 a.m. and continues until after 8 p.m., talks are presented on various aspects of the Christian walk. During breaks, the inmates are given a choice of soft drinks and snacks, all of which are served by team members.
"It was a different experience for them," said Armes, "because for so long they had been told when to go to bed, when to get up, to eat, what to eat, when to work. Now they could choose at least a few things for a short time. [They] truly appreciated being treated with a sense of respect and dignity."
Among other activities, he said, are several "open mike" opportunities, where residents shared "stories of [the cost of] drug addiction" or confessed to have been Christians "but not living in a way that would honor the Lord. Many admitted their pride or suspicion but now were humbling themselves."
A particularly touching exercise, Armes said, involved inmates writing on pieces of paper the names of people they needed to forgive. As they prayed and sang in a group worship service, each inmate dropped his paper in a large bowl of water.
As they did so, Armes said, "I noticed many had filled every space ... with names of those they should forgive. And then each and every resident stood as they watched the paper dissolve in the water," symbolizing their own forgiveness and that of the names on the papers.
Another moment during the weekend involved the residents receiving a personal gift bag. Inside, contrary to what they might have felt or believed they were worthy of, were expressions on notes, cards and letters of love and caring from family members and friends.
"Many of these men had not received a single piece of mail in years," Armes said. "As they opened the bags and began reading, I noticed one resident who was the consummate picture of a hardened criminal. Yet, as he read the letters, many of which were from children, his face softened and his eyes grew moist with tears.
"So many of these residents," he said, "have families and children on the outside that they haven't seen for long periods of time, and letters like this truly touched their hearts."
A final "open mike" session allowed residents an opportunity to express, in front of the outside team as well as residents who had previously experienced Kairos, their spiritual condition before the weekend and what they would take away from it.
Feelings of loneliness, bitterness, confusion and hopeless searching, according to Armes, gave way to redemption, compassion, acceptance, fellowship and the love of Christ.
In the closing circle of prayer and song, he said, believing the men had become prisoners of hope, "you couldn't help but sense the presence of the Lord. And as we stood together, holding hands with men who were being justly punished and paying the consequences of their sin, you realized we are all sinners, saved by God's amazing and wonderful grace."
If Kairos ministers to these men's brokenness, in whatever way it manifests itself, it's a worthy use of the time spent.