Awana is more than a children’s ministry. As we recently focused on Father’s Day in the U.S., I am reminded of a special Father’s Day that takes place at different times around the country. It is a ministry of Awana named Returning Hearts. It is a ministry to men in prison and their children. A day when fathers get to spend a special time with their children. You might call it a special father’s day. The Awana Missionary for Eastern Maryland, Chris Mikesh, attended for the first time this year and shared his thoughts. I thought it fitting to share as we remember our dads, let us pray for dads who made mistakes, but have begun to follow Jesus and want to share it with their children, having an impact on their lives while incarcerated. Here are his thoughts…
This was my first trip to Angola. I had been praying about this event for months, with no expectations and looking for the blessing and fruit only God can give. I was not disappointed.
My inmate was Mr. F (name withheld) and he was the uncle of 1 boy (11) and 2 girls (5 and 6). The mothers dropped of the kids late in the day (I was the last Family Assistant immediately available), and were gone to their car as fast as they could turn the kids over to me. Soon to discover the youngest had the flu or something, but the other kids took care of her until we got to Mr.F. The 11 year old boy was bright, educated and aware of his surroundings. The 6 year old girl was perky, cheerful, excited and wanted to experience everything. The littlest one was 5, wouldn’t talk and shy because she was not feeling well.
The four of us got to the tent to announce their arrival and Mr. F bolted across the field, not caring about the announcement. “I thought you weren’t going to come! I’m so happy!” he said with a thick urban/Caribbean accent. Then the tears of joy started (mine too).
I introduced myself to Mr. F. and told him briefly what my role was as an assistant. The youngest girl had climbed up into his arms and hung on for the rest of the day. After some small talk about family, we started out to get family pictures, then enjoyed bowling and mini-golf. There was a lot of laughter and joy as they competed as a family for the first time since … well…I don’t know… but it had been a while. Soon a familiar bond was getting stronger by the minute as the carnival-like atmosphere brightened their day.
Lunch was Hot Dogs, chips and a cookie. We ate very little and – not that it was bad – but they were busy talking and enjoying each other’s company. Soon after, we headed out to the blow-up slides where it was always crowded. Mr. F slid off his shoes with the kids and they disappeared into the inflatable obstacle course. A few minutes later they all came tumbling out laughing and hugging each other. I saw true joy that cannot be expressed.
Soon after, I was suddenly reminded we were in a prison, when Mr. F guided the kids to a fast hard right turn to an out of the way game in sight of guards nearby. That carefree smile had left his face as he looked over his shoulder a few times while trying to get the kids involved in a game. I asked quietly if anything was wrong. Mr. F said nothing, then looked up at me, then looked to where we came from. I did not see any threat, but prayed a quick prayer that the Holy Spirit for protection. I put my hand on his shoulder, “Focus on the kids and have a good time. He’s got this!” as I pointed upward. Nothing more was said as the tension soon dissipated.
The smiles and laughter soon reappeared and the kids had a great time with games and occasional introductions to other inmates and their families until we were called to the Rodeo Arena.
After we were seated and the rest were filing in, the markers soon came out and kids were writing on the shirts of the inmates or the inmates were writing on the kid’s shirts. This was the time for most men, that the “parent instinct” seemed to take over, and things got more serious. True love was shown by the Fathers, Uncles and Grandfathers to those kids. What was written on the shirts was more than kind cordialities. “I love you Dad.”, “I miss you everyday Son.”, “I’m here, You’re there…but you will always be with me in my (heart)”. The 6 year old girl looked to me and said “I don’t know what to write.” I suggested she draw a picture. So, she drew a duck – but it took up half of Mr. F’s shirt.
The Malachi Dad’s portion of the closing program seemed to make the biggest impression on Mr. F. He could not stand with the other men as he had a sleeping 5 year old in his lap, but he enthusiastically echoed back the Pledge. “As a Malachi Dad, I solemnly pledge…” Half way through, he looked up to his 11 year old nephew who had put his arm around Mr. F and was echoing the pledge as boldly as Mr. F was. “…Finally, I believe – that my end goal – is not only for my children to walk in the Lord, – but that this God-given vision – would impact multi-generations to come….”. It was a proud moment for Mr. F.
Even in prison…the Lord was in this place. Everywhere, you could see inmates become Dads – at least for a short time. Sons, Daughters, nephews, nieces, and men, arm in arm, hugging tighter and tighter, as the time approaches to leave. There were families in clusters instead of evenly spread out over the benches in rows.
Mr. F did his best to explain the Gospel to the kids. He did follow the Gospel wheel the best he could and did ask if the kids understood. A seed was planted and Mr. F made it clear that belief in Christ was important as he gave the Gospel Wheel card to his nephew. “Please keep this.” he said as Mr. F put it in the boy’s back pack. Then he asked me if I thought Jesus was the most important thing – inviting me to help him with the Gospel presentation. I told the kids that what Mr. F said was absolutely right and could be trusted. I added that all of us have done something wrong, and all sin needs to be paid for. But God still loves us, so he sent His Son, Jesus, to pay for our sins. All we need to do is ask for forgiveness, thank Him, believe, and follow Jesus’ example. The nephew said he does not go to church, so I made a mental note to encourage the mom to look into church – at least for the kids.
Later, down on the field, the four of them each had a balloon – all yellow. Mr. F wanted the family to stay together and take care of each other. But soon the time came to release the balloons. ….5 4 3 2 1 …they hesitated, each knowing this was the end of their time together. Then the four yellow balloons were let go at the same time, into the sea of multi colored polka dots in the sky. Rising together about 30 feet before the wind started to separate them. I can only imagine as our eyes began to tear up again, that he probably wished he had tied the strings together.
“We have about 5 minutes left, so start saying your good-byes.” Mr. F started to draw everyone together for what seemed like a 5 minute hug. No one wanted to break that bond and let go. But the bond did break, except Mr. F asked me to join them and pray with them. (What a privilege!)
Oh! That was a hard prayer as everyone was crying. Finally, I ended the prayer as Mr. F dried the eyes of the kids with his wash cloth, and started for the exit. About 20 feet from the exit, I said “Last hug you guys.” One quick hug and he told the little girl that he had carried all day that he had to go, and that she needs to stay with the other two kids. Mr. F took my hand and I felt the trembling as he gave me a hug, but could not say anything. His eyes said it all. So I said, “God bless you, and I’ll be praying for you and the family. Next year at Malachi Dads?” . He shook his head to affirm – but couldn’t say anything as his eyes watered up again. Then I turned and headed out with the kids.
Shortly, the moms found us at the gate. “Come on…we gotta go!” And after a hurried “thank you” and returned paperwork, the kids were gone in the crowd. ‘Church!’ I wanted to call to them – but they were gone.
I hope I’ll see you next year Mr. F !! … At Malachi Dad’s graduation.
I want to thank Chris for sharing his experience. Below is a video produced by Awana recapping the 2016 Returning Hearts event in Angola.
If you are interested in more information about, or participating in Returning Hearts, visit awanalifeline.org.