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I remember the first time I laid eyes on Corey .  He looked out of place and scared as he walked in wearing those loose fitting prison clothes.  He wasn’t covered in tattoos like a lot of the other guys were and struck me as the kid that might bag my groceries at my local Publix or take my order at the Chick-fil-A and follow my “Thanks” with a “My Pleasure.”  He carried himself with a quiet determination like he just wanted to do his time and get the hell out of that place.   As I watched him take his seat I thought to myself “Damn.  He’s just a kid.”  My heart broke a little every time I looked at him.

Me and my brothers on the Encounter team arrived at the prison on Friday Morning for what we knew would be an intense weekend-long Wild at Heart Boot Camp.  Intense is actually a pretty tame word.  We spend over 48 hours with these 70 or so men talking about wounding and about how God desires to set them free so that they can live free with a heart fully alive.  As they file in and take their seats they are given a name tag for their first name.  (This part is especially important because in prison culture they are not called by their first name by the guards or prison staff.  They are simply known as “Inmate” and on their prison-issued jumpsuit is the word “Offender” followed by a number.)  We do name tags because in the kingdom of God our identity is of great importance; it has weight.  We are known and named by God the Father.

The Prison offers other programs similar to ours set on rehabbing offenders but most of these are simply designed to reduce the recidivism rate which, by the way, is extremely high.  But the Boot Camp is different.  As Proverbs 4:23 says the Heart is the well-spring of life and most of these inmates (and sadly, people in general) have spent most of their lives beating back their hearts, stifling them and not letting themselves feel.  They turn to self-medicating as a way to kill the pain that comes from heartbreak and the wounds that they have suffered.  Many of these dudes grew up with parents that abused them physically and sexually.  They grow up learning that its best just to not feel at all so they shoot up or smoke anything that will dull the pain.  In our society we have been told that drugs are killing our young people.  Nancy Reagan championed this message during the Reagan administration with the Just Say No campaign – but here’s the deal folks, drugs are not killing our young….its the loss of heart that’s killing them. Luke 19:10 says that the son of man came to seek and save that which was lost and what is lost, John Eldredge says, is the heart.  In the course of the weekend we tell the inmates that they are loved and not forgotten.  We tell them through the beauty of story that Jesus is actively and aggressively pursuing them and seeking to restore their hearts.  We tell them that they were meant to be more than just nice church-going law-abiding citizens, that they have a vital role to play in the restoration of the world starting with their own lives.

Back to Corey.

I had just wrapped up my talk that morning on my story and my wounding.  (You can read that here)  In the talk I tell about my not feeling like I was ever enough for anyone and how God was and is healing and redeeming that in me.  Corey sought me out, walked up to me, his eyes bloodshot from crying and said: “How can I feel like I’m enough?”  His question broke my heart, yet again.  I can’t remember exactly how I answered – I was a little in shock by how raw his question was – but in our limited time I tried my best to unpack his question and hear the gist of his story.  His dad was a drug user and spent most of his time when Corey was a young boy in and out of rehab so Corey was raised mostly by his mom.  The wound for Corey was that his dad loved getting high more than he loved his son.  Now, that might not be true but to the heart of a small boy, it couldn’t not be true.  He went on to tell me that his wife who he hadn’t been married too long had left him shortly before he got locked up and I thought to myself “Damn.  Abandoned two times by two people that he thought loved him” and the more he talked the more the tears flowed.  He said, “I’m scared that I’m going to end up back in here.”  I responded, “Why is that, Corey?”  His answer was heartbreaking.  “Because I really want my dad’s approval and I know the only way to get it is to do drugs with him which is why I’m in here in the first place.  He came back into my life just before I got married and all he wanted to do was get high so I thought if I got high with him maybe he will love me.  I know that sounds crazy.”  After he said this to me the guard ordered that he find his seat so our conversation ended as abruptly as it began.  I just stood there and watched him walk away in that saggy prison-issued jumpsuit wishing so badly I could go home with him and try to save him from his piece of shit dad.  I had to walk out in the hallway so I could cry hysterically in solitude.

I’d love to tell you that Corey got out and is doing great but I don’t know where he is today.  But whenever I think of him I ask God to protect him from his dad and remind him that he is loved by God, his true Father.  I and a few of the other men got a chance to surround Corey and pray over him before the weekend ended.  I really believe that Corey had a real encounter with Jesus and something beautiful began in his heart that day – it was awakened.  The Father will always take us back down into our hearts where we must wade through the pain of our wounding in order to restore us, make us whole and bring our hearts back to life.  That is why this prison ministry is so vital!  There are a thousand Corey’s; young men sifting through the ruin of their childhood desperate to find a love that was never expressed, starving for the approval that was never offered and simply left to nurse the wounds the best way they know how.

Through the work of Encounter, these men have a shot….they have a chance to walk in the freedom that only Jesus and His Gospel can offer.  They have an opportunity to leave that prison and reunite with the wives, kids, moms and dads that they left behind.  And the beauty of the Gospel is that it spreads….it will spill over and touch the lives of their families.

We will return to this same east Texas prison in September of this year…just a few weeks from now!  Would you prayerfully consider giving so that this work can continue?  If you want to partner with us financially you can do that here.  Or if you want to volunteer on a trip you can get more info here.

The need is great and you have a vital role to play.  Don’t miss out!