COLUMBIA—A bag of cookies might not seem like a lot to some people, but to a lonely person in prison it can be a symbol of hope and a sign that someone cares.
Volunteers with Kairos, an ecumenical prison ministry, regularly bring bags of cookies to the inmates they meet through their three-day retreats and follow-up sessions.
Kairos programs have been on hold in South Carolina since the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the South Carolina Department of Corrections to make its 23 institutions off limits to visitors — at least until Nov. 30. Recently, volunteers in the Midlands were told that they would be allowed to deliver cookies and hygiene products to prisons in the region.
Volunteers immediately got busy baking homemade cookies and purchasing others to fill the bags, and they recently put together the first load of about 250 bags for inmates at Goodman Correctional Institution, a minimum security facility.
Arthur De Gennaro chairs the advisory council for the Broad River chapter of Kairos, which serves Goodman and two other facilities in Columbia: Broad River Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison; and Kirkland Intake and Evaluation Center, where state inmates are housed and evaluated before being transferred to the place where they will serve their time.
De Gennaro, who belongs to Mount Horeb United Methodist Church in Lexington, said the ministry is truly ecumenical, drawing volunteers from many faith communities. Catholics from the diocese are among the participants, with volunteers from parishes in Columbia, Orangeburg, Sumter and more.
“We believe the Gospel is real and that it will change your life,” De Gennaro said. “The basic message of this ministry is that if you take the Gospel seriously, it will work for you and help to make your life better.”
Kairos ministry has three elements. Inmates first take part in a three-day Kairos weekend where they are invited to commit themselves to Christ. These weekends include talks, discussion time and prayer, and are held twice a year. Participants are encouraged to form “prayer and share” groups within their facility to grow in their faith. Kairos volunteers follow up with them through monthly meetings and two-day retreats every six months.
Dab Dent, who belongs to an Anglican church in St. Matthews, joined Kairos 21 years ago after her husband became involved. She has worked with the ministry at Camille Graham Correctional Institution for women in the past, and prepared hundreds of labels with Scripture passages on them to add to the cookie bags going to Goodman.
“Seeing people actively come to Christ is powerful,” Dent said. “I’ve seen atheists come to Christ and when you really see it happen and change their lives, it’s fabulous.”
Lewis Warner, a member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Columbia, has volunteered with Kairos for several years and was drawn to the ministry after reading a Scripture passage about encountering Jesus through the poor and marginalized.
“I was patting myself on the back, thinking I was doing enough in life, but then I read Matthew 25:31-44, and when I saw the part about visiting those in prison, I realized this was something I needed to be doing,” Warner said.