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Inside Prison Walls

October 20, 2017
Last night, when most of us were watching "TGIT" television or making plans for a beautiful October weekend, South County resident Jeff Kohler was 60 miles south in Potosi.

The Potosi Correctional Center, to be exact.

There, he and 23 other men from the region began the first night of a four-day retreat for 18 inmates at the facility. It's called Kairos Prison Ministry, and its mission is to bring the Christian faith inside the walls of the maximum security prison and provide an experience that often becomes transforming.

The Kairos Prison Ministry is a national movement with a state chapter, one in which Kohler, a retired CPA, has been involved with for three years. He is on his fourth retreat this weekend, and each experience is transformative for him, too.

"There isn't a more scary, sickening sound than those metal doors locking behind you," he said. "But as a Christian, I wanted a challenge to my faith, and I was called to this ministry."

I met Kohler, a parishioner of St. Mary Alacoque Catholic Church, a few weeks ago at a talk at my own parish. I almost didn't go; it was a Monday night and there's always something to occupy your time. But I thought it might be good to meet someone who looks first outside himself to make this world a better place — even if the world is inside prison walls.

Kohler, a burly man in his mid-50s, exuded a soft-spoken contentment and ease as he described the weekend. He described how the team is met at first with skepticism by the inmates, who question their motives for being there in the first place.

He told us how everyone is nervous when it starts; how members of rival gangs are grouped together and eye each other with contempt; how each weekend progresses through storytelling and prayer. He got emotional at times, too, when he described how it almost always ends with lives being changed.

"Almost all the men tell me they know why they are imprisoned," he said. "They choose to participate in the retreats because they want to be better people for the rest of their lives."

I couldn't help but be inspired by this one ordinary man doing this one extraordinary thing. He didn't come to our group asking for money; he just came to share his story. But the Kairos Prison Ministry, which has programs for inmates inside the walls, for families outside the prison, and a long-term mentoring program, does rely on donations.

More information on donating and the ministry itself can be found at www.missourikairos.org. In the meantime, Kohler and his team carry on, this very weekend.

"Never before have these men seen such an outpouring of love," Kohler said. "Forgiveness is powerful."

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