It all started with an article in my local newspaper.
The article stated over the next 13 months Tennessee would carry out 11 executions! It had been over a decade since the last execution. Now, in a relatively short time, Tennessee would murder 15% of the total population of men and women on death row. Not long after I read the article, I heard the Spirit say, “Go to death row.” At the time I did not know where death row was in Tennessee. Knowing I heard God speak, I did some research, made some phone calls, and by the end of that summer, I made my first visit to Unit Two at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, the home of Tennessee’s death row. That was almost 10 years ago. While 11 executions over 13 months never happened, over the last five years there have been eight executions. I’ve said goodbye to eight friends, all of which were image bearers of the Divine.
I remember my first visit to death row. It was a Friday, and I was to meet with several of the men in Unit 2 who gathered for prayer at noon. While I had been involved in prison ministry off and on since I was a teenager, I knew visiting death row would be different. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. What was it like sitting in prison waiting to die? What would we talk about?
After clearing a metal detector, an x-ray machine, several secured gates and metal doors, I walked into a room where several guys in prison uniforms were sitting around a table. The prison’s chaplain introduced me, and before she could finish the introduction one of the men got up from his chair, approached me with a huge smile, hugged me tight and said, “I have been praying for you.” I was speechless. I stood there and wept. It was a holy moment. With that embrace I knew I was accepted and loved. I went to death row expecting to take Jesus with me. Instead, I met Jesus there.
The writer of Hebrews’ words became real, “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison.” (Hebrews 13:3)
The name of the man who said he had been praying for me was Kevin Burns, TDOC# 254315. (TDOC stands for “Tennessee Department of Corrections”.) Someone once told me when God gives a gift, God usually wraps it in a person. One of the greatest gifts God has given me is Kevin Burns, also known as “KB.”
KB has been on death row for over 25 years. During much of that time he has served as the chaplain’s assistant to the men in Unit 2. It’s a job in which he gets paid 50 cents an hour. KB and I quickly became friends and co-workers. At least once a week, KB would make his rounds, going cell to cell talking, praying, and encouraging each man on Unit 2. I started join him on these rounds. Over time, through KB, I met all the men on death row. I consider all them my friends. The conversations I have had with each man has been priceless. But the times I have spent talking and praying with KB are treasures I will hide in my heart as long as I live.
One day, after making our rounds, KB and I had an intimate conversation. He expressed how much our friendship meant to him and how all the guys respected me and how I had become the pastor of Unit 2. I told KB how much I loved him and what he meant to me, but I told him he was wrong. I said, “No. I’m not the pastor of Unit 2. You are the pastor to these men. Unit 2 is YOUR church, and you are an excellent pastor.” This time, KB wept.
As I drove home that day, reflecting on my visit, I heard God’s voice say, “Kevin, if you really believe KB is a pastor, you need to ordain him.” Now I’m weeping…uncontrollably. I pulled my truck to the side of the road and just sat in the presence of Almighty God.
I shared all this with the elders of my church. Without hesitation they agreed KB needed to be ordained. Over the next two years we licensed and ordained Kevin Bernard Burns for the full work of the Gospel Ministry. He is now Rev. Kevin Burns and is one of the associate pastors of Franklin Community Church. The first thing KB did after his ordination was to serve communion to the 40 plus people who witnessed his ordination service. There is nothing more sacred, biblical, and appropriate than receiving the Eucharist from a man condemned to die. If that is not a picture of Jesus, I don’t know what a picture of Jesus is. Personally, KB has become my pastor. I have shared my burdens and struggles with him and sought his wisdom and counsel numerous times. In God’s sovereignty, God allowed me to ordain my own pastor.
A few months after his ordination, I told KB we needed to start a church on death row. There are lots of groups and churches who minister beautifully on death row. There are several times over the course of any week where the men of Unit 2 can gather for Bible study, prayer, and group discussions. But there was no “official” church service. I told KB we needed to start a church, not another Bible study or small group meeting, but a church that followed a liturgy of prayers, Scripture readings, songs, communion, and sermon. Our vision was to start a church for the men on death row, led by the men on death row. And that’s what we did. The church is called The Church of Life and has been meeting now for five years. Pastor KB preaches every week. During COVID, there was an 18-month period where all programs stopped inside all Tennessee prisons. During that time no volunteers were allowed inside. There were no classes and no Bible studies. However, on Tennessee’s death row there was a church, with their own pastor, that continued to meet (The Church of Life.) Even the guards call Kevin Burns, “Pastor KB.”
Remember when KB hugged me and said, “I have been praying for you”? One day I asked KB what he meant by that. I asked, “How could you pray for me when you did not know me?”
KB said, “For several months I had been praying that God would send a local church pastor to Unit 2. We have a lot of good church volunteers who visit us, but there was no Senior Pastor who came to visit us. I prayed for God to send us a Senior Pastor. That day, when you walked into the room, God said to me, ‘This man is who you have been praying for. I have sent him here for you.’”
I am humbled how God has allowed me to minister to the men on death row, and how they have ministered to me. Recently, the men on Unit 2 gave $500 to my ministry to people experiencing homelessness in my city. These men, all created in the image of God, have changed my life. I will never be the same.
This year, during Lent, reach out to those behind prison walls. Not because they need you, but because you need them.
“May the groans of the prisoners come before you; with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.” (Psalm 79:11)