How do you even begin to describe a day that thrilled and broke your heart, which brought laughter one moment and tears the next? That is exactly what happened today at the Returning Hearts Celebration at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The numbers themselves are overwhelming: over 1000 children, more than 400 dad’s and around 700 volunteers descended on the rodeo grounds behind barbed wire and overlooked by guard towers. Some of the children came by bus, some were brought by a family member. The family I worked with drove 6 hours to be a part of the day.
We began the day at 7:15 or so getting into our places, as we entered the prison gates the air was filled with excited voices and laughter. The men filed out of their camps to join us on the bleachers and wait for their children. After a few short announcements the hellos began. As children arrived we were called from our seats in groups of 25 to go to the check in area and wait to be matched up with a family. As the children arrived they were greeted enthusiastically and matched up with a family assistant who walked them through the paperwork and brought them into the rodeo arena.
I was matched with a girl, age 12, and a boy, 11 who were very excited to be seeing their dad. As we walked onto the field in front of the bleachers where the dads waited, they both eagerly searched for sight of their dad. As the announcer called for their father by name he ran out of the bleachers and into the arms of his children, hugs and tears and “I love you” flowed freely. As the dad turned and introduced himself to me, he expressed his gratitude that I was there to allow him time to be with his children.
As we went through our day I had the blessing of interacting with this family, hearing about their lives and having fun with them. For one day this man was seen not as a criminal but as a dad. I don’t think there was a time during the day when he wasn’t holding hands with his daughter or putting his arm around his son. What I saw today was a good father and a gentleman, he encouraged his kids to do better in their schoolwork, asked about their friends, their teachers, their growing up. He made sure that they were having fun and that they each received attention from him. He flew a kite with his son and played catch with his daughter and he made sure that they each went home with a Bible, tracing his hand print on the inside front cover and writing a personal note to them both. He then opened that Bible and showed them where Malachi 4:6 the theme verse for Malachi Dad’s which was printed on the back of our shirts could be found.
After a full day of games and water balloon fights, we made our way into the pavilion where the men were encouraged to take a printout of the Gospel Wheel and share with their children how to trust Christ. What a beautiful sound hearing men all over the arena sharing verses with their kids, asking their children to forgive them for tearing the family apart and in some cases leading them to the Lord.
One of the men in our group shared that in prison if you are sorry that you have killed someone you tattoo a tear drop under your eye in their honor. What joy he experienced watching a man with 2 tear drop tattoos sharing the Gospel with his children!
As for my dad, he pulled his children to him and walked them through the Gospel verse by verse, telling them that he wanted them to come to Christ now rather than wait until they had messed up like he had. This man truly was a repentant sinner, taking responsibility for his family.
As we walked to the area where goodbyes were to be said, he asked me to join him in praying over his children. What utter joy!!
Then I had to do what is quite possibly the hardest thing I have ever done, I had to tell the kids to say goodbye to their dad because it was time to go. I stood back and had to turn away from their tearful goodbye so that my own tears, very close to the surface would not escape.
I walked the children back out of the gates, met up with their grandma and as I walked away, I cried and I prayed.
I prayed for the dads who were left behind, for the dads whose children never showed up, for the children who just didn’t want to leave, for the administration who put this event together, the volunteers who made it possible, and that more would step forward for next year. Most of all, I thanked God for the privilege of joining him in making it possible for children to stand up and say, today, my dad, led me to the Lord for the first time.