The prison “chapel” was just a large room with a concrete floor. Junky old chairs were set up for perhaps 200 inmates. They said that a man known simply as “the bishop” was going to speak that night.
All of the inmates stared at us. 85% of them were lifers – they would never see the light of day. They came for a different kind of light. A light that overcomes not external darkness but internal darkness. And they came to hear the bishop, who, like John the Baptist, was “a witness to the light.”
When the bishop took the stage, young and old alike fell silent. He was in his late seventies at least, perhaps early 80s. He walked slowly, barely lifting his feet. I was later told he had been an inmate since he was 22. He had a life sentence, and they said he would die here in Angola State Penitentiary.
Angola is the largest maximum security penitentiary in the U.S. And not too long ago, it was the most violent. Then the Spirit of God had begun to move through men like the bishop, and things began to radically transform.
The bishop was hunched over, and he shuffled his feet slowly to the microphone stand. Then he carefully unwrapped the cord from the stand and held the microphone up to his mouth with some effort. He raised his eyes to look at his audience, his fellow prisoners. He commanded their attention, though not with words.
When he began to preach, it was as if his little old body came alive. Sheer authenticity on his face, power in his voice, and energy in his limbs. I had never heard or seen anything like it. He was not ordained a bishop, but he clearly possessed a spiritual authority in that place.
I only remember a single word of what the bishop said that night. Repent. Repent. Repent.
He said it over and over. And when he said it, he would almost jump off the ground and pound his feet into the floor to put a staccato on his speech. Repent. Repent.
The worship band began to pound their instruments in sync with the bishop as he stomped on the floor and yelled, “Repent! Repent!” It was part command, part entreaty, all authenticity.
Prison is a funny place. Although I was only blessed to do ministry there for a week-long mission trip, I would never forget it. In prison, everyone knows they are sinful, so the message to repent is felt to be a doorway to freedom.
Outside, I would later observe, this is not the case. We are forever attempting to convince ourselves of our own merits, contributions, efforts, value, and innocence. We may not be perfect, but we’re not as bad as so-and-so. The inmates know better. And I watched as this little old man, the bishop, proclaimed with unparalleled power, that true freedom always begins with repentance.