The Gift of Dignity
In this blog post, Darlene LaPlue reflects on a recent visit to a wheelchair restoration workshop behind prison walls in Clifton, Tennessee.
South Central Correctional Institution, Clifton, Tennessee. December 11, 2018.
Our group was met at the door by the Chaplain of the prison, Randall Runions, who put us through something akin to Airport Security before gates and doors started to open. Chaplain Runions let us know that “This place is for the bad boys.” High security. Razor wire. 1,700 inmates. Sterile and a bit scary.
Chaplain Runions buzzed through half a dozen doors and gates, finally opening one and saying, “This is our Workshop.” Our party of 7 walked into a huge warehouse building, filled to overflowing with wheelchairs, stacked to the ceiling! 1,700 to be exact! Our mouths gaped open as we all gasped, “WOW!” This is a Joni & Friends Wheelchair Workshop, the largest in the country, employing 87 prison inmates.
Joni & Friends Wheels for the World program collects old, broken down wheelchairs all over the country and sends them to one of 15 workshops nationwide, where inmates are taught how to break down the chairs, clean them, repair them, and rebuild them so that they end up looking like new! The last thing the inmate does is to put a Joni & Friends sticker on the chair he has refurbished and sign his name. The chairs are then sent to a developing nation, along with a team of therapists, medical staff, and mechanics who custom fit these chairs to the recipients.
It was the highlight of my Christmas to get to meet the prisoners who refurbished the chairs we distributed in Kenya last summer! They had come from the South Central Correctional Institution in Clifton, TN! We got to look them in the eyes and say “Thank You!”
Pastor Hudson Bande and his wife, Jane, who were visiting from Nairobi, Kenya were with us. Pastor Hudson spoke to the men and told them, “You guys are doing the work of the Great Commission, right here behind these walls, even though no one on the other side even knows what you are doing here!” “We could not be doing what we are doing unless you all were doing what you are doing right here!” “You are participating in the Gospel! We are partners in the Gospel!” He told them that these chairs are bringing dignity to his people as they are picked up out of the dirt and placed in a wheelchair and made to feel like a human again.
When he had finished, a man who still has 45 years left to serve asked to speak. “Sir, these chairs are giving us dignity, too. We take a lot of pride in our work here and it means the world to us that you would come here and personally thank us.” We found out that no one from a receiving country had ever been to the prison before to thank them.
We all left very humbled, realizing that these men are busy doing the Work of the Kingdom, even in these bleak circumstances! It was an honor to get to meet them, show our gratitude, and even hug a few necks. Who could have imagined where this ministry would take us?