“Even though I’m serving a prison sentence of 150 years, I’ve never felt freer,” said J.D. Langston, an inmate at Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma.
His freedom is knowing God. And there are no walls, rules or restraints that can keep him from God.
J.D. is part of a faith group at the prison that is bringing a new sense of calm, compassion and community into a seemingly godforsaken place.
In the Diocese of Tulsa, dedicated volunteers, led by its director of prison ministry, Deacon Kenny Longbrake, are helping prisoners to experience the love and forgiveness of God.
They are working at Cimarron and four other prisons in the diocese, through a faith program called Kairos, which is deeply impacting life in prison.
The wardens are big fans of Kairos. They see the peacefulness it brings and how it changes the prison environment. In fact, one Kairos weekend, the prison was on lockdown, which typically means no one leaves his cell. But the wardens let Kairos continue knowing its powerful impact. “No one else was moving,” Longbrake explained, “but God was moving.”
Working in prison ministry can be daunting, disheartening and exhausting, but Christians are called to practice the corporal works of mercy, which includes “visiting the imprisoned,” and to bring the light of Christ to these darkest of places.
J.D. does not mind sharing his story because he believes the worse parts are behind him. After a rough childhood that included sexual abuse, he became addicted to drugs, was a runaway at age 15 and landed in prison for assault at age 19 in 1993. After two years he was released but returned a month later for assault again. Having been convicted on four counts of shooting with intent to kill, he is now there for good.
In prison, he said, “I claimed to be a Satanist.” As most inmates do, he soon joined a gang. Gangs are a way of survival. They promise protection in the hazardous prison environment, where anger, threats and attacks rule the hallways. But gangs require loyalty and are fraught with dangers and violence themselves. J.D. was in a white supremacist gang. “I needed a gang, because when fights broke out, I had to know which side to take,” he said.
Daily living was treacherous, and J.D. was working hard to fend for himself, when he noticed a guy in prison who was not part of a gang and who seemed to be smiling all the time. He was a rarity. J.D. found out he was a Christian.
In 2003 J.D. attended a four-day Kairos retreat and was introduced to a loving God. It changed his life. The first thing that struck him during the retreat was that he cried. He had only allowed himself to cry twice during his time in prison, when each of his parents died.
“I was hurting all the time,” he said, “but I would never cry, even if no one was watching.” Crying indicated vulnerability, and he did not want that. “But at Kairos, it was a downpour. I had to stop my testimony five times because of the tears.” It was a breakthrough.
He told his gang he wanted out. They said he had to remove the gang tattoo on his arm himself, or they would do it. He chose to take it off himself, burning himself with a Coke can that he had heated over a fire. That led to a major infection and sent him to the medical unit for weeks of treatment. He now has an atrocious scar.
He has since reconciled himself to his life as an inmate. He works with the prison’s administration, giving orientations to new inmates and telling them about Kairos and the pitfalls of gangs. He also helps to bring different ethnic groups together and mediate disputes when problems arise. He does public speaking about his conversion and reads Scripture daily. In fact, he has now become that smiling Christian guy who is a mystery to the other troubled inmates until they too experience Kairos.
“He’s one of the best evangelizers we have at Cimarron,” said Longbrake.
Kairos Prison Ministry International is a non-denominational Christian program that establishes faith groups in jails. “It came out of the Cursillo movement in the Catholic Church,” said Longbrake, “but it does not include the sacraments.”
The initial retreats are held twice a year in prisons from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. Each retreat hosts 42 inmates. Ideally, there are 42 volunteers — one for each inmate — but volunteers are sometimes hard to find, so they get by with fewer.
The initial draw for many inmates is the promise of home-cooked meals and limitless cookies throughout the retreat—a rare treat.
Inmates are divided into seven groups of six that become a unit—a brotherhood. Each group is given a name from the Gospel, such as “Family of James” and “Family of Luke.”
The retreats offer a series of talks and discussions. Topics center around God’s forgiveness and mercy. It is a time of healing, sharing stories and camaraderie. Barriers begin to fall. Inmates start connecting. Suddenly, they are finding a group, that is not based on fear and confrontation, like the gangs in prison, but a community based in faith and love.
Inmates who have attended previous Kairos retreats return as servants for the next participants. “They wait on them hand and foot,” said Longbrake. “These guys have never been treated so kindly, especially in prison, where kindness is considered a weakness. People don’t take care of each other here, so the stark contrast of Kairos is huge.”
For many, it blows their minds. They are not used to this level of companionship and affection. Many have never known fatherly love and therefore can’t understand the concept of God as a loving Father. The fathers they grew up with were absent, abusive and dismissive. “Inmates often come to the retreat sheltering great hatred. By the end they are giving hugs,” said Longbrake.
“At the closing ceremony, you see grown men, tattooed from head to foot, bawling their eyes out in front of 100 people because they have come to know God,” he continued. “They don’t want to leave Kairos. They don’t want to come off the mountaintop.”
One special feature of the closing ceremony is that community members are invited to join, as a surprise to the participants, to offer support. Just before the men are asked to get up to the microphone to express each of their thoughts about the weekend, a large curtain is pulled back to reveal a crowd of outsiders who have gathered to listen to their testimonies and reinforce each man in his new journey. Kleenexes are passed out to the inmates and their supporters, because it is a powerful exchange. At the end, all the inmates and guests form a large circle around the room, hand in hand, to pray. Tears are falling throughout the room.
Everyone seems to be reflecting on the stark realities of incarceration, freedom, the harshness of life without God and the beauty of forgiveness. Inmates and visitors alike seem to know that but for fate and circumstances, any person in the room could have been seated on either side of the room.
Despite the misery of their life in prison, the inmates seem utterly grateful that people, most of whom are complete strangers, care enough to take the time to be with them and to let them know they are not alone. It is a powerful experience.
Chad, an inmate for six years, said Kairos is by far the richest ministry offered at the prison. “At home, we missed male leadership. Kairos is all about relationships and loving people who have never been valued. Most of us had parents who put drugs and prostitution before their kids. These guys in Kairos are there for me.” He hopes to be a prison chaplain one day.
The love continues after the retreat. Every Tuesday night, Longbrake and others return to lead small groups of Kairos members in prayer and sharing. One Sunday a month, they hold a bigger reunion.
In every unit in prison, there are Kairos participants. They greet each other by saying, “I’m K-16” (Kairos-16th retreat). “I’m K-11.”
“We build nests of Kairos people, so they can protect each other,” said Longbrake. “When they declare themselves as Christians, they put a target on their back. They’ve been bold enough to take a stand, and we want to keep them strong.”
The rate of recidivism among inmates who attend Kairos is way lower than the normal rate,” said Longbrake. “For the regular inmate population, the return rate is more than 50 percent and for Kairos participants, it is below 20 percent, especially for those who do a retreat near their release date.”
Kairos retreats take place at five prison sites in eastern Oklahoma, transforming 420 inmates each year. The retreat staff needs to bring in all the supplies: tables, totes with food, coffee makers, speaker and music systems, Bibles and overhead projectors.
In 2016, Catholic Extension gave a Year of Mercy grant to the diocese to purchase Kairos supplies and a trailer to store and transport them. With so many retreats running, the trailer has made a world of difference. Logistics are easier to plan and retreats run more smoothly.
Embracing the incarcerated
In 1997 when the Cimarron Correctional Facility was being proposed near his home, Longbrake (not yet a deacon) opposed it. He did not want a “bunch of thugs” in his backyard.
He had not yet considered being a deacon, he said, because at that time he was “not deacon material.” He liked to party and drink.
He had married at age 17 and had a wonderful wife and three sons, but he was not an attentive husband and father. He had left the Church, and he was struggling.
He came upon Father Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son—with a beautiful image of Rembrandt’s painting The Lost Son on its cover—and it struck a nerve. He knew he was the stray son and needed to come home.
Longbrake returned to the Church, and people eventually started saying he should consider becoming a deacon. He began diaconate studies, and in 2004 a deacon who at that time was the diocese’s director of prison ministry, asked him to join a Kairos retreat. Longbrake wasn’t really interested and unsympathetic toward prisoners, but for some reason he went anyway. He was immediately hooked. Ordained in 2007, he took over prison ministry in the diocese.
“When I attended my first Kairos, I knew it was fertile ground. Hearts can be changed so quickly, and inmates want Christ in their lives so badly.”
Longbrake oversees ministry at all county jails — at 12 medium security prisons and at 12 medium to maximum security prisons, including Cimarron, which houses 1,650 men.
Oklahoma’s prison facilities are overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed. Guards are underpaid. The state of Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate nationally, according to 2015 statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, with 715 inmates per 100,000, well over the national rate of 458 per 100,000.
Prison ministry began in the Diocese of Tulsa in the 1990s with one priest saying prayer vigils at every execution. That effort continues and has evolved into five priests and four deacons who minister in prisons today. They celebrate the sacraments — Mass, reconciliation, first Communion and confirmation — and provide a regular Catholic presence.
"God hasn’t given up on them. We need to let them know that.”
Volunteers are a big piece of prison ministry, including the Kairos retreats. In a state where less than 8 percent of the general population is Catholic, nearly 50 percent of Kairos volunteers are Catholic.
In addition to his work in prisons, Longbrake serves as a deacon at two rural parishes, Sts. Peter and Paul in Cushing and St. Mary in Drumright. He is active in marriage support, hospital ministry and visiting the elderly and homebound.
For these contributions, the Diocese of Tulsa nominated him in 2016 for Catholic Extension’s annual Lumen Christi Award, which recognizes those who bring the “light of Christ” to others.
His favorite ministry, by far, is working with the incarcerated. In addition to Kairos, he does RCIA in prison. “For many inmates, their families have given up on them. Society has given up on them,” he said. “Sure, they’ve made mistakes and bad decisions, but God hasn’t given up on them. We need to let them know that.”