By Audry Lynch
The first question is “how did you get involved in Kairos and then spend the last sixteen years in it?” Gene Plevyak answers thoughtfully, “I lost my wife, Betty, and was rather lost, so I was having lunch with a group of Cursillistas when my friend, Dan Bryant said, ‘Why don’t you try Kairos with us?’”
Kairos is the prison ministry offshoot of the Cursillo movement and the first “Cursillo in Prison” was in Florida, in 1996. Subsequently Cursillo in Prison was adapted to better serve the needs of incarcerated men and women and was named Kairos Prison Ministry and separated from the Cursillo Movement.
I was just a simple white retired software engineer when I worked my first Kairos weekend. I wondered “What do I have to offer these people? After doing a six-week training program I met my first Kairos candidate on the first evening of the Kairos weekend, an older black guy covered in tattoos sitting in a wheelchair, but we got along fine and my worries about what I had to offer him were alleviated. All I needed to do was listen, listen, love, love.”
“Have you ever had trouble in prison on a Kairos weekend?” asked a member of the audience. “Once in the Protestant Chapel the Nortenos got into a fight with the Surenos and that stopped the Kairos weekend,” explained Gene. “They carried on from where they left off the next weekend and all went well. Basically we treat these guys like human beings and they act like human beings; it’s as simple as that.”
Another thing the Kairos team learns in formation is some key phrases like “nothing in and nothing out.” “The only thing I take in is one piece of identification and my car key,” says Gene. “In our groups we pray and share together. Some of the prisoners have been there 20 or 30 years and these are concepts that they may have forgotten.”
Although Kairos is non-denominational, the weekend offers a “short course in Christianity” much like its parent Cursillo. Each day starts with a new meditation. The most powerful is probably the first one, the story of the Prodigal Son. Most of the prisoners have a problem accepting forgiveness, especially for themselves. “Some of them actually start to cry,” says Gene.
If this sounds heavy it is, but there are also moments of sheer joy–lots of singing, making posters for a poster party, discussing and sharing. The walls of the prison chapel are covered with paper hands, called agape, that Christian adults and children have made for them. There are packs of 50 letters apiece for each participant. The letters are handwritten by each Kairos team member. Some of the men have never had a letter from their own families.
On the first day each man is given a bag of cookies for himself. On the second, he is given two bags, one for himself and one for a friend. On the third day, he receives three bags of cookies–one for himself, one for a friend, and one for someone he can’t forgive yet.
On the first full day of the Kairos weekend the entire group is divided into “families,” and given family names such as the Family of Saint John. The acts of forgiveness and unconditional love have transformed the whole atmosphere into a day of love. Outsiders are urged to attend the “Closing” on the last day of the retreat.
Gene passed a sheet to all the Serrans and urges them to come and participate in a closing day ceremony. “It’s like having a front row seat at a miracle,” he promises.