“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” Matthew 5:14
By Liv Osby
Few places are as dark as prisons, whose inhabitants often feel alone and forgotten.
But Bob Larson, a member of the Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Greenville, SC, is part of a movement that brings light and hope to the incarcerated, all while helping to fulfill the mission of the church in the community.
It was friends who first introduced Larson to the Kairos Prison Ministry, which links volunteers with inmates to offer friendship, an open door to church, and the love of God.
Larson’s group of about 40 volunteers visits the Tyger River Correctional Institution in Spartanburg County, SC, which houses 1,500 men ranging from those involved in drug crimes to lifers there for murder.
While the volunteers hold a number of events throughout the year, the highlight is a four-day weekend during which they talk with the inmates, share meals and pray with them.
“It’s very difficult inside of prison. People are very defensive,” said Larson.
“They put up a wall so they don’t hurt inside. Their wife may have divorced them. They have crisis in their lives. And nobody to talk to. The objective is to get every one of them to have a friend inside prison he can talk to and pray with.”
Discussions revolve around what they’ve read and learned, how Christ has revealed himself to them, and what they’ve done to help others, among other topics.
They also talk about how being inside prison has impacted their lives. And along the way, the volunteers encourage them to find a church and new friends once they’re outside, so they’re less likely to return.
The work is supported by the volunteers’ churches, which provide funding for the outreach as well as meals for the weekend.
“Visiting a prison is not an easy thing to do, but it is much appreciated,” LCOS senior pastor Mark Cerniglia. “Through his work with Kairos, Bob Larson does more than just visit. He spends time getting to know the prisoners and offers them hope for the future.”
While the congregation can’t accompany Larson on the visits, they send cookies, notes and prayers, Cerniglia said. So they are with him in that way.
“One of the things Jesus reminded us was that when we visit someone in prison,” he said, “we are visiting Him.”
Larson, a retired marketing executive, and his wife, Geneva, a homemaker and former chemistry teacher, joined LCOS when they moved to Upstate South Carolina from Indiana about 17 years ago. They have three daughters and seven grandchildren.
A lifelong Lutheran, Bob has served on the LCOS council and as president of the congregation, while Geneva teaches adult Sunday school classes and is involved in WELCA.
Geneva, who’s helped with support for the wives, mothers and sisters of the inmates, also attends the Kairos weekend closing event.
“The thing that moves me the most is as we leave I think, I’m going home. They have to stay there,” she said. “It’s an emotional thing to see.”
The first Saturday of every month, a Kairos reunion is held at the prison that’s typically attended by about 125 inmates. It’s something Larson always looks forward to but has had to forego for several months as he undergoes chemotherapy for bone marrow cancer. But he hopes to get back one day soon because watching the men change is a rewarding experience.
“The prisoners talk about how it’s changed their lives. And how important the support is to them,” he said. “You can actually see Jesus work in the lives of these prisoners making a difference.”