I’m Celebrating Christ in Prison This Christmas
Each clothed in similar oversized khakis, they file into a huge warehouse building and stand in circles, six to a table—over 300 of them.
Many are “lifers,” residing in one of America’s most well-known maximum-security penitentiaries, East Jersey State Prison (EJSP), which has been featured in Hollywood movies, most recently in Ocean’s Eleven.
Once everyone is seated, the annual EJSP Christmas banquet unfolds. What I see before me is just a snapshot of the Christ Awakening stirrings I’ve witnessed at EJSP for many years now—which I believe is a preview of what the Holy Spirit intends to bring to churches all across America.
If it can happen in a prison it can happen anywhere!
Let me tell you some more about this banquet—because it’s also about you.
The head of chaplaincy services, Rev. Dr. Larry Akins, who was formerly a pharmaceutical executive and has a doctorate from the Reformed seminary in New Brunswick, NJ, steps to the mic. Here is an African American leader addressing an audience that is 95% African American. His words grip the inmates, as well as those of us who are their guests:
“Brothers, we are not here today to celebrate Christmas. We’re here today to celebrate Christ!”
Worship Behind Bars
The prisoners are immediately on their feet. Three hundred pairs of hands respond with a thunderous ovation that won’t stop.
Next we enter into a season of worship music, singing with hearts full of love for Jesus. Such strong, impassioned voices full of praise you have probably never heard before.
My eyes fill with tears when we get to the chorus of “O, Holy Night” and sing over and over and over: “Fall on your knees. O hear the angel voices. O night divine, when Christ was born.” Fall on your knees! Fall on your knees!
Fall on your knees! Sung by men who have done just that—in their hearts and with their bodies, daily, before King Jesus!
The time of worship is climaxed by a rousing guitar solo from a 21-year-old young man who studied classical guitar (especially Bach) before landing in EJSP and being led to Christ.
The 300 listen in rapt silence.
This congregation within this prison was formerly incorporated in 1979 to be a church—The Church of the Reconciled, as they are called. But in the past decade there has been a movement of God’s Spirit inside the walls of East Jersey that’s nothing short of a Christ Awakening.
Famous for Christ
That’s why, one Sunday four years ago while preaching to these brothers, I suggested we needed a “vision statement” to describe the dream the Father had put in all of our hearts. I proposed the following formulation, which was instantly and enthusiastically embraced. Since then, we often recite it together when I’m visiting. Chaplain Larry tells me they even proclaim it to each other throughout the cell blocks.
Their mission statement goes like this:
East Jersey State Prison will become
AS FAMOUS FOR CHRIST
as Wall Street is for money,
as Pittsburgh is for steel,
and as McDonald’s is for hamburgers.
To keep it simple, we boldly declare together, “Famous for Christ!”
We believe the day will come when the reign of God’s Son is so manifest inside that prison, that when people on the outside think of EJSP, they won’t think of cell blocks, or crime, or prisoners. The first thing that will come to mind will be Christ himself—because of how evident his transforming power has become among a community of godly men.
Come to think about it, why shouldn’t every congregation in America take on the very same mission statement, and pray for and labor toward the very same testimony? “First Anywhere Church will become as famous for Christ as….”
After about 45 minutes of worship (while a lavish smorgasbord, prepared by fellow prisoners, is waiting to be devoured), Larry Akins shares a message from Isaiah 61, challenging us that in these verses we find the real meaning of Christmas. Jesus had to become one of us in order to “proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to release the captives, to give sight to the blind,” and to bring all of us into the “acceptable year of God’s saving grace.”
The chaplain reminds us how visibly the Lord Jesus is fulfilling these promises daily at EJSP. Our Redeemer is among us right now to carry out his manifold ministry, not only to us but also through us to one another.
Listening to him, I conclude that this message should become the central theme of every Christmas Eve service around the globe in 2015.
The Proof of Transformed Lives
Finally, we eat! Well, most of us eat. For my wife Robyne and me the next hour is taken up with one conversation after another, sharing deeply with inmates whom we have grown to know and love. On this single afternoon I am hugged—tightly hugged—by more brothers in Christ than I’ve experienced outside these walls for the past five years put together. The love of Christ flows throughout the room.
And get this: The reality of God’s Son ruling in our midst is so tangible, that the EJSP administration has assigned only four guards inside the mammoth facility—four officers to oversee three hundred convicted felons. Truly, God’s kingdom has come here in ways that make it feel like heaven to everyone!
First Fruits of a Christ Awakening
Here’s the best part for you: Scripture tells us that our God is “no respecter of persons”. Thus, what he is doing at East Jersey State Prison he is able, willing, and ready to do with you and fellow believers right where you live.
What is happening at EJSP represents the transformative work of God that is impending upon our whole nation today. Simply put, EJSP is “first fruits” of a Christ Awakening movement that must be unleashed in churches and communities from coast to coast.
With memories of the sacred banquet this week burning in my heart I can honestly say I’m still celebrating Christ in prison this Christmas.
Will you join me?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Bryant
Known as a proclaimer of Christ and Messenger of Hope, David Bryant is the founder and president of Proclaim Hope!, a ministry whose goal is to serve a nationwide Christ Awakening. David is the author of five books, including Christ Is ALL! A Joyful Manifesto on the Supremacy of God’s Son.