Most professionals will have attended a leadership training at some point in their careers. This is no exception for the staff at Prison Fellowship, who, for the past several years, have had the privilege of attending Willow Creek's Global Leadership Summit (GLS). This two-day telecast workshop featuring world-recognized influencers such as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer; Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of people operations at Google and author of Work Rules!; and Andy Stanley, pastor and leadership author.
This was my first year attending GLS. Most of the host sites for the conference are large churches, but I opted to attend in prison instead. For the past seven years, Willow Creek has been working hard to raise money to stream the GLS into as many prisons across the country as possible. This year, prisoners from more than 40 facilities across the country attended.
THE GLOBAL LEADERSHIP SUMMIT … IN PRISON
I attended at a prison outside of Indianapolis. I knew attending a simulcast in prison would be different than attending at a comfortable church building, but the two days I spent at the prison gave me a greater awareness of the things I take for granted. We sat on hard pews in a prison chapel, not soft stadium-style seating. There was cold water available during breaks, but no coffee or snacks or event swag. Since cell phones aren't allowed on prison grounds, there was no checking the GLS app, my email, or even the time.
In attendance were between 50 and 75 incarcerated men, all in khaki coveralls. Most were there because they were participating or had participated in a faith and character-based reentry initiative. Attendance at the GLS is considered an honor. Most sat upright in the pews, a few slouched out of fatigue, boredom, or comfort.
From a large screen at the front of the chapel, Bill Hybels, Willow Creek's founding and senior pastor, kicked off the first session with a welcome to people of all kinds, including those who hold other religious beliefs. Two pews in front of me, a young man was wearing a Muslim taqiyah (cap). Later, the young man told me that although he was Muslim, he was excited to learn what he could from each of the speakers, even the Christian ones. He told me later that he was preparing to be released the following Monday.
As each speaker took their turn at the podium, I couldn't help but wonder how a prisoner audience was taking everything in.
How many of those sitting near me would love the opportunity to open up a full inbox? I wondered.
But then Bryan Stevenson, activist and lawyer, took the podium and shared a heartbreaking story of trying to save the life of an innocent man on death row, adding at the end of his talk, “It takes courage to stay hopeful.” His story shook and inspired me. I imagined it did for the men too.
How many of the guys in the room had been told at one point that they were worthless or that they were a failure? How many believed that their sentence sentenced them to a life of disgrace and shame? How many could see themselves as men who could make a difference in the lives of others, could envision themselves as leaders?
'WE BELIEVE YOU ARE LEADERS'
At the end of two very packed days, the assistance chaplain of the prison spoke directly to the men in the room: “You are here because we believe you are a leader,” he said. He went on to tell them that they had an opportunity to set an example for those in their dorms, and then some day walk out of prison and become a leader in their communities. I couldn't see the faces of those who had heard these words, but I hope that at least a few of them believed it.
Over the past decade in my work at Prison Fellowship, I have met formerly incarcerated men and women who have started dry cleaning businesses, pastored churches, or mentored young people in their neighborhoods. They are mothers, fathers, returning citizens.
They are leaders.
To learn more about the impact that the Global Leadership Summit is having on those inside prison, check out this story written by a prisoner in Missouri.