Tony Bass can’t remember the last birthday he celebrated at home. For the past few decades, he’s spent every one with murderers, gangsters and other violent felons inside the walls of a prison.
“If you’ve ever heard the term, ‘dead men’s eyes,’ that’s what it is ... in the military they call it the ‘1,000 yard stare,’ where you have just lost all hope and kind of checked out,” he said.
Bass, who lives in Brunswick, has seen plenty of those gazes through his work with the Kairos Prison Ministry of Georgia. He and the rest of the team of devoted believers travel to Ware State Prison in Waycross, offering inmates a way out of despair through Christ.
“We are not bleeding hearts by any means, these are dangerous guys. They did what they did and deserve to be (in prison) ... but not for eternity. The truth is, a lot of them never stood a chance. I could tell you story after story,” Bass said.
“A lot of them were raised in gangs. I remember this one gangster whose first memory was watching his dad blow another guy’s leg off in a fight ... just awful things. But we don’t care about what they did. We want to expose them to the offer of salvation ... to a kind of love they have never known.”
Bass started his work with the Kairos ministry in the late 1980s. The retreat program is based on a Roman Catholic “Cursillo” movement originated in Spain in the 1940s. The three-day revival offers participants an intensive spiritual experience, often producing life changing results. Over the years, the Kairos began to include other denominations and has been collectively known worldwide as the “three day movement.” There is also a collective effort referred to as a “fourth day movement,” that is living everyday as if it was the day after the Kairos experience.
Bass went through the revival many years ago and can certainly attest to its power.
“It’s a 72 hour experience, Thursday to Sunday. It’s led by a team of people who have already gone through it ... and they really explain Christianity in a way you can understand,” he said.
“The best way I can describe it is, ‘enlightenment.’ It’s something that only the Holy Spirit can do.”
The nonprofit Kairos program has more that 30,000 volunteers and only nine paid employees. The Ware State Kairos strives to maintain at least 42 volunteers, but Bass said that number has dwindled in recent years.
This particular group, all of whom are men, meets with inmates in a controlled setting, matching up volunteers with prisoners.
“There is a women’s group too that goes into the women’s prisons. But we will generally go into a gym or conference room and the other part of it is done in the chapel, where we actually have services. We would like to go in with a team of 42. Right now, we only have 24 volunteers so we can only take 24 residents ... the max in the Kairos program is 42, but we go for quality over quantity,” he said.
The prison chaplain helps selects the inmates for the program. Once accepted, the inmate must complete all three days of the Kairos. Bass, a former teacher, said that the greatest impact comes from the volunteers’ testimony and presence. That, he notes, is what changes the prisoner most.
“There are two fundamental ways of teaching students. The first is where the student wants to know what the teacher knows. The second is the student wants to become who the teacher is ... that’s what we focus on,” he said.
“We are sitting right beside the inmate and want to resonate with them. We don’t just want to teach them what to do. We want the relationship we have with Christ to open the doors of understanding so that they can be delivered to the feet of Christ where they can be changed.”
The program doesn’t end with the inmates themselves. The Kairos extends outside the walls of incarceration to their families and loved ones.
“The same thing we do on the inside, we do on the outside for spouses or dear ones. We have so many stories of restored family relationships from this,” he said.
But Bass notes that the program has to be a continual effort. A simple, one-time visit to the prison is not enough to make a lasting difference in the lives of prisoners.
“Everyone has heard the term, ‘jail house religion,’ that’s a phenomenon. But we actually go back for 10 years at a time. We go back once a month ... forever. We don’t convert people and leave them to their own devices,” he said.
“And because we go back, we actually see the change that comes upon these guys. You can tell when they go through something that would detonate the rest of us and they don’t get detonated. Their relationships with fellow inmates change. The warden will tell you that. They start a Christian community within the prison and other inmates think, ‘I wonder if God would do that for me.’”
Bass is hoping more volunteers will take up the charge. The organization is planning Kairos retreats and training programs, which future volunteers must complete in order to get involved.
All of the relevant information is outlined on their website, warestkairos.worthyofpraise.org. Bass will happily share information with prospective members and outline what is to be expected.
One thing he notes up front — it is not an simple call to answer. It is an intense experience and something not to be taken lightly.
“This is not an easy ministry. It’s not like a vacation to Honduras. But it is worth it,” he said. “It takes a lot of time. You have to prepare by going on a Kairos and then doing six to eight training sessions. You have to know what you’re doing.”
Some of that is prison protocol, Bass adds.
“You can’t bring in sugar packets or ink pens with springs or metal clipboards because they could make knives with them. But you learn all of that,” he said. “It’s not dangerous for us, they know we’re coming in to bless them ... but you need to know the rules.”
Even with the time and the effort, Bass wouldn’t trade a moment. Witnessing what he’s witnessed has enhanced his faith and strengthened his resolve.
“We get the worst of the worst. One time we had two rival gang leaders in the same Kairos. The officer in the room ... you could tell he was kind of nervous about what would happen,” he said.
“At the end of the weekend, they were going up to the microphone to share what God had done for them. One of the gang leaders got up, walked across the room and reached his arms out to the other gang leader. And they hugged. The officer said if he hadn’t seen it, he would never have believed it. But that’s what happens. They are translated by love.”