Jail is a tough place for those not fortunate enough to land on the “just visiting” space in life’s equivalent of the Monopoly board. However, sometimes a bright ray of hope passes through the locked gates, like on the day of the annual Returning Hearts Celebration. This occasion involves a joint effort between the ministries of Awana Lifeline and local churches. For one day, incarcerated fathers and mothers involved in specific programs can spend the afternoon with their children. In the instance of my visit to the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, the people of Grace Baptist Church were there in full force to assist the families of the incarcerated. These servants of Christ gave up their whole day and contributed financially to help Awana Lifeline put the event together.
Our team arrived mid-morning on April 29th and were greeted by Mike Broyles from Awana. After meeting some of the volunteers, we were driven into Pitchess, where the children were being entertained with relay games in a small field. Numerous tents encircled the area where crafts, carnival games, face painting, and other activities were prepped and ready. Each tent was manned by at least one or two helpers.
The mood began to shift when the fathers were escorted in by the guards. Lining one side of the field, the men appeared nervous as they searched for their families amongst the volunteers. As their names were called one by one, they raced to the middle for a joyful reunification. I noticed that one of the men standing closest to us looked particularly emotional, a fact not diminished by the slow thinning of the group around him. The second to last name was called, then came a long pause; the man now stood alone at the end of the grass and looked almost panicked. Finally, the announcement was made and father and son were finally together. For the next five minutes, he couldn’t bring himself to let his child go.
The day included all sorts of fun: a rock wall for climbing, carnival games with prizes, a face painting station, and a cookout. However, it’s important to understand that Returning Hearts isn’t simply a reunion. It’s a carefully planned time during which parents seek to reconcile with their children and break a negative cycle before it becomes their legacy. To achieve this goal, the conclusion includes a message in the chapel about forgiveness and a segment where fathers give their children a personal Bible.
As I watched the interactions on this special day, I was reminded of Colossians 1:13-14:
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Pitchess may contain people, but sin enslaves them. It’s wonderful to know that through the grace of God true freedom can be found, even in a physical jail.