The iron gate slammed home as we made our way into the holding cells on death row at Angola State Penitentiary. The sound of the gate echoed through the hall as each of us wrestled with our own trepidations. A thousand miles from the comfort of home and a week into the adventure I’d so earnestly sought, second thoughts quickly turned to thirds and fourths. How different, how utterly contrasting were these base surroundings from the colorful posters advertising a trip to Louisiana for spring break!
I had awakened that morning in an alleged prison “safehouse” to find a life-sentence inmate sweeping the floor next to my bunk. New experiences are supposed to stretch and twist us in uncomfortable new directions. There are anxieties over relationships and transitioning to a different way of life, even when it’s short-lived, as in this case. But this—this was beyond a mere expansion of comfort zones. It felt as though the all-loving, personal, sovereign God was doing much more than just stretching and twisting. However, this wasn’t about me.
The ice-breakers I’d memorized and the briefing we’d been given became hazy in my mind as the buzzer ushered us into the passageway. My feet moved forward reluctantly as I gazed timidly through the bars and into the eyes of the outcasts of this world. I moved slowly, not wanting to be alone but joining in here and there as those with more proficient tongues made their way into the lives of these prisoners. The best I could offer was a friendly smile and a word or two of encouragement as I grappled for some common ground with these men. What do you say, and how do you begin to unearth the souls of people long forgotten?
I continued on my own, finding a cell that had eluded the attention of the others. As I peered into the darkness, a strong, wrinkled black face looked fiercely back at mine. He motioned me over and, like a deer caught in the headlights, I cautiously acquiesced. Though soft-spoken, his words were firm and without fear—the voice of one tempered through the kiln, true clay of the Potter—and overflowing with a joy completely incommensurate with his surroundings.
I cannot remember his name. I cannot remember what we said. What I recall without hesitation was the way his weathered hands reached through the wrought-iron bars and found mine as he asked if he could pray for me. The sincerity in the eyes of one condemned to death is not something that can be spoken or justified; it does not need to be. The man’s faith was real.
Authentic faith, found in one of the darkest places imaginable, testifies to the love of our Heavenly Father, and to the reach of his life changing Gospel of forgiveness and salvation in Christ alone. How beautiful the mystery, and how loudly does Heaven sing!
Lukas Kjolhaug is a first-year seminary student at Lutheran Brethren Seminary. He grew up in Clearbrook, MN attending Elim Lutheran Brethren Church.