It was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there!
Last December I spoke in a Florida state prison on the Hebrew origins of the Lord’s Prayer. I had never been inside a prison before so I was quite nervous. Mike Harrell, who runs a prison-motorcycle ministry called “Born Again to Ride”, invited me to do this event with him. Mike goes into prisons all over Florida with a large assortment of Harleys and other loud motorcycles and then puts on a rock concert. The idea of “Born Again to Ride” is that inmates who would never otherwise be interested in God are drawn to the motorcycles and the music. When Mike first suggested I do a prison event with him, I warned him that I don’t know how to operate a motorcycle and don’t play any musical instruments.
He assured me that my prison event would not involve any motorcycles or Christian rock bands. Instead I would be speaking at a weekly Bible study. The prisoners who participate in this sort of Bible study have already “cleaned up their act” and dedicated their lives to God. I would be there to teach on the Hebrew background of the New Testament to give them a deeper knowledge of the faith they already embraced. I jumped at the challenge and asked Mike to arrange it.
Weeks later when we finally pulled up to the prison compound I started to think I had made a mistake. The prison looked like an Israeli border fortification, surrounded by a high chain-link fence with plenty of razor-wire and watch towers at regular intervals. We had to go through several layers of gates and steel doors to get to the main entrance area where a guard searched our bags and our bodies for any contraband. We were then led down a series of hallways each of which ended in a steel door opened by an unseen guard in a control room somewhere. After about 10 minutes of this we finally arrived in the prison chapel where I set up my laptop and projector. The prisoners arrived about half an hour later. There were 30 inmates who came to the Bible study and a guard followed them in to do a head count before locking us into the chapel and leaving. One prisoner in the front row saw my computer and asked excitedly if it was really a “laptop”. He explained he’d “been inside” for 20 years and had never seen a laptop computer except in the movies.
As I introduced myself and the subject I realized I was locked in with Mike, the prison chaplain, and 30 convicted inmates; there was no guard anywhere to be seen! Despite my apprehensions, I was very pleased with how my message was received and later said to Mike that I especially enjoyed having a “captive audience”. As I presented the information, the inmates would often interrupt me with questions. I usually ask my audiences to leave their questions to the end. But I realized these men probably have few opportunities to express themselves so I decided to answer their questions as they came. Instead of just spitting back answers, I opened a dialogue with them. As they would ask questions I would respond – in a Jewish way – by asking questions of my own, in order to challenge them to think. As I interacted with the inmates, I was extremely impressed by their knowledge of Scripture and Hebrew. Mike later explained that prisoners have lots of time on their hands; those that dedicate their lives to God spend much of this time studying. One example that really stood out for me was when I asked them, in response to one of their questions, if they knew the Hebrew meaning of the name “Jesus”. The prisoner in the front row who had asked me about my laptop blurted out: “It means ‘Yahweh saves’”. I was surprised that a convicted criminal who had never seen a laptop before knew something that most Christians do not know. I asked him how he knew this and he told me he studies for hours on end with his Bible, a Strong’s Concordance and a Hebrew dictionary. This reminded me of a letter written by William Tyndale, one of the first people to translate the Bible into English. At the time, translating the Bible was a crime and Tyndale was eventually burned at the stake for his efforts. As Tyndale sat in the dungeon of Vilvoorde Castle awaiting execution, he wrote to his jailers asking for:
“a warmer cap… permission to have a candle in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark… But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procurer that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.”
I went into that Florida state prison fearing for my life but went out genuinely inspired by the dedication of these men to search out the truth and acquire knowledge even under the most difficult of human circumstances.