Kairos 55: One of SQ’s longest-running
programs holds four-day spiritual retreat
The Christian community known as Kairos returned to San Quentin State Prison and held a spiritual retreat for selected residents on President’s Day weekend. It was the first retreat since a three-year pandemic hiatus.
Kairos’ theme was to “Break the Chains” of human oppression and sin by following the teachings of Christ. San Quentin Kairos is one of the longest-running programs at the prison. A correctional officer employed at the prison and a chaplain who was a survivor of a shooting started the retreat in 1989.
The spiritual retreat serves as an initiation into Kairos and has introduced interdenominational faith to over 2,300 incarcerated people at the prison over the years.
“The weekend would never occur without the assistance of Raphaele Casale [San Quentin’s Assistant to the Warden]. She put up with our stress and listened to our concerns in a supportive way,” said Kairos’ Inside Coordinator Martin Coyne.
“Policies have changed and she magnificently navigated us through the new protocols. Raphaele should be a part of our team of Angels just for how she supported us and set up the new training that is required for all visitors.”
The initiation weekend happens twice a year — on President’s Day weekend and on Labor Day. Leadership from SQ’s Catholic and Protestant churches select 42 residents to attend from 240 applicants on a first-come, first-served basis.
Sixteen previous participants were servants at this year’s retreat. They also supported the outside leadership team, which consisted of 55 community volunteers — 13 core apostles, 28 clergy leaders, and 14 Angels.
Lead Servant Wyatt McMillian, who is scheduled to parole soon, said he felt honored to serve the Kairos community before he leaves.
“Through Kairos, my transformation reached a higher level. I connected with Christians who mentored me and showed me how to live with purpose by being an asset to my community through service to others,” McMillian said.
The volunteer team featured returned citizens Kevin Sykes, James Alexander, and David Boatwright. They served a collective total of 75 years in the California penal system.
“My walk with Christ started right here at San Quentin, and I am blessed to return every year with Kairos,” said Alexander, who performed the duties of head servant.
Tedrick Sims, who is paroling after 35 years, spoke about Kairos’ global influence. “At Kairos #37 in Vacaville [prison], I watched the Summer Olympics in London, England. In the stands, a man was wearing a Kairos cross. The next day at the retreat I discovered Kairos members are all over the planet,” he said.
This year’s event totaled 43 hours spread over the four-day weekend. New members benefited from synchronized prayer that gave them love and support from the global family of Kairos. Attendees learned about a type of love known as agape ― a nonromantic, unconditional spiritual love for one another. For some, it is the first time they have been truly accepted anywhere.
After the retreat, incarcerated persons shared insight regarding the influence of the life-changing event.
Resident Anthony Gomez said, “The most loving, supportive brotherhood I have ever experienced. I did a lot of soul searching and a little crying. I am … thankful to be able to take part in Kairos #55.”
“Coming into the weekend I had no idea what to expect,” said participant Lukas Healy. “Kairos blew my mind! It’s a weekend of deep emotional and spiritual revival, and allowed me to have a genuine brotherhood of faith and love. Thank you to everyone who made Kairos #55 possible.”
Nicholas Casteel said, “In my third year of incarceration, I find this miracle! Kairos was an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded Christians from the community … I hope everyone experiences it for themselves. I now have my grandmother and family joining Kairos on the outside.”
Spiritual adviser Deacon John Storm said that in addition to monthly reunions and the semiannual retreats, Kairos also provides other programs. This includes “Kairos Outside,” where retreats designed for the wives, girlfriends, daughters and sisters of incarcerated men allow family members to get closer to God.
Coming on the heels of the pandemic, there was concern if enough outside Kairos volunteers would be able to enter the prison to participate in the retreat to celebrate the new members’ graduation.
“In the past Kairos [retreats], hundreds came in for the graduation ceremony. Due to new restrictions, we were reliant on the incarcerated alumni who are here,” said resident and co-lead servant Pedro Benitez.
Benitez said there was uncertainty at the last minute as to whether the retreat would happen because the institution modified programming before the event.
According to volunteer Max Drever, approximately 150 past San Quentin graduates showed up to surprise the new graduates of Kairos #55. Together they celebrated the completion of the retreat.
During graduation, 88-year-old volunteer Vic Perella and 87-year-old incarcerated resident Peter Bomenrito expressed their feelings.
“It’s amazing to watch people grow into Godly people, and it was miraculous to see all the wonderful alumni,” said Perella, a 1991 alumnus.
Bomenrito, a 1997 alumnus, said, “Adding more candidates to God’s flock is what Kairos does. For this, we get to celebrate God.”