The River Behind Bars

One day in 1996, I was minding my own business when I received a letter from an inmate in a prison in Virginia. Before receiving this letter, I believed that all prisoners deserved to be where they were and visiting them was the farthest thing from my mind. On one page of the letter someone had outlined a hand on a piece of notebook paper. The hand- scrawled note on it read, “We know we could never hope that you could come to our prison, but if your church’s prayer team will just lay their hands on this piece of paper, we believe the Toronto blessing will transfer to our prison.”

Suddenly, a well of compassion rose up in me. Why couldn’t we go? It was only a five-hour drive from our church near Pittsburgh, PA, one hour closer than Toronto. What the inmate didn’t know was that we’d all been soaking in the blessing of God’s presence for over a year, and we were filled up and looking for “victims,” fresh candidates for the Father’s blessing.

Two months later after obtaining approval we set out with a team of twelve for our first of many forays into this prison. It was Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., and I couldn’t help thinking how amazing it was to have a team of formerly burned out Christians now so on fire that they had given up their holiday to take the “blessing” to a prison.

As we pulled up outside the ominous concrete facility, so out of place in the peaceful Shenandoah Valley, I couldn’t help but wonder if we would ever come out. Three sets of barred gates clanged shut behind us.

As we walked across the prison yard, heads peeped out of the doorway to the room where the inmates were assembled. “They’re here! They’re here,” they shouted not even trying to muffle their excitement. Their awestruck faces resembled those of elementary school children instead of hardened criminals.

Two inmates, Greg and Ed, who were cellmates in the maximum-security facility, immediately approached me. They had read my book, THE RIVER IS HERE, and had memorized portions of it and were quoting them back to me. I was too ashamed to tell them that I couldn’t remember having written the passages that meant so much to them.

“Can we do carpet time?” they pleaded in child-like awe. There was not a fiber of carpet in sight, only freshly mopped tile that reeked of pine cleaner. So we started to pray, and they began to receive their long-awaited blessing.

Throughout the weekend we watched God fall upon inmates who were guilty of crimes like murder, rape and even child molestation. How could this be, I wondered? Churches where I had recently ministered were resisting what was happening in Toronto, some of their members even scowling at me from the pews. But here in one of society’s darkest places was a cavern of spiritual hunger. I suddenly realized that I had spent years in the ministry trying to feed people who weren’t hungry.

The message of the Father’s love and forgiveness never sounded sweeter than to these men, most of whom had never known a father’s love. During the last service, our daughter, Sarah, stood up in front of them weeping. “I feel so sorry for you,” she cried. “God loves you so much! I just want you to feel it.”

One big dude stood in the back wearing sunglasses with his arms folded and tears tracking down his cheeks. By the time the weekend was over, Ed and Greg were thoroughly filled and so were a dozen or so other inmates. Others were saved.

Today I received a letter from Greg, now in another prison. “I can’t seem to find a prayer partner to join me. (I miss Ed) but I am endeavoring to soak and linger in His presence by myself.”

We saw Ed just this weekend. Ed, who pastors his flock behind prison walls, possesses the extraordinary gift of being able to tell the difference between what the River is and what it isn’t. He misses Greg, too. They were prayer partners and cellmates for several years. They may never see each other again.

I say to you Greg, Ed and all of you who are soaking in the love of God behind bars, “You came to the banquet when others wouldn’t.”

This issue celebrates the beginning of Toronto’s eighth year of outpouring. The articles in it describe the fruit of what some have hungered for and others have ridiculed, but what may become known as history’s longest continuous revival. I hope reading it will help you be like Greg and Ed who recognize a River when they see one.