Sunday, April 11, 2010

Going to Jail

I was sitting in church about a year ago, and one of our ministers talked about his experience at the jail that morning during his afternoon sermon. Every Sunday morning, one of our ministers will visit the jail and have church with the inmates there.

As I was listening, his story touched me. Something about hearing about these individuals who were incarcerated struck a chord in my heart. I'm not sure why; I have had little to no experience with those in jail or prison, nor have I ever been surrounded by those who would live a lifestyle that would put them there. So the fact that I was so intrigued didn't really make sense. But then, God's calling never usually does, does it?

I shared my thoughts with a close friend, and she expressed the same interest. We decided to research the jail ministry in our church further. I spoke to a woman at our church who I knew was involved with the women's jail ministry. She pointed me to another older brother in our church, who was very excited to hear of our interest and got the ball rolling for us.

Part of the process included a lot of paperwork and a background check. Once this was all finalized, I drove over to the facility to get a badge that would allow me to go into the jail as a volunteer. All of this went down over the course of about 3-4 months, and by this time, my friend who had also been interested had been accepted at Focus on the Family Institute in Colorado and had moved out there.

Part of me was a little apprehensive that I was now in this alone, but the other part of me was determined to stick it out and see what God had in store. So I did. I attended the jail with the lady I had initially talked to, just to get a taste. After that Fall, I would be put on the 2010 Jail Schedule for the year, which meant I would be the leader of the women's "church" on the Sunday mornings that I was scheduled.

My first time there was an experience. The way it works is this... upon arrival, we wait for everyone else from our church who is coming to be a part of that morning (a minister comes to do the mens' service, as well as a song leader and another support person). Also, an older couple from our church whom I have come to adore over the past several months, always come. They have both been involved in the ministry for years and really have a heart for it.

As people arrive, you sign in with the lady behind the glass window at the front. She is usually quite chipper and happy to see us. There is a little box that she puts a clipboard and sign-in sheet in, as well as "volunteer" necklace tags, and those get transferred over to us. After we sign in and put on our tag, we wait by the big, solid door on our right. It clicks, and then you can open it. You then step into a small vault area where there are little boxes with keys to put your cell phone in, if you brought it. You cannot advance into the next area without the door completely shutting behind you. In fact, the door will not open unless the other is closed.

Once you hear it click, you open that door to step into a long hallway with several doors and rooms. One of the rooms contains a bunch of Bibles and Christian literature that we stack up on before heading off to our separate areas.

You then walk down the hallway. The women that we see are in an area on that level, so we walk to this room, wait for the door to click, and open it. There is a big open area with security in the middle. All around you are glass windows with people who have been brought in overnight. There are sometimes people who just stare out the glass at you as you walk by. You have to pass through this area to get to the pod where our women are. You go through another door, and talk to the security at the desk in that room.

She will call for anyone interested in coming to "church." There is a multi-purpose room with a table and chairs in which we use. We enter through the door from the open area; the inmates enter from the door connected to the multi-purpose room.

Some Sundays, there is 1 interested in coming, and some days there are 6-8. It just depends. Usually, there are 2 groups that come, so there may be 1 in one group and 5 in another.

"Church" is comprised of having a prayer, reading a passage from the Bible, sharing thoughts and discussing it, and then closing with prayer requests and another prayer. I have found that on the mornings that I go to lead church, it really causes me to study the Bible in a different way than ever before. As I prepare a study for these ladies, I really have to search the Word; not just merely read it, but study it, know it, and be able to explain what it is saying. It is challenging and rewarding for me.

I love it. I really do. There have been some sad, sad stories. It has really been eye-opening for me and has allowed my perspective on life to get a little bit broader. I really have a heart for these women and have compassion for their circumstances. I realize that there are 2 sides to every story, and chances are, when you are behind bars, your story will always come out in favor of yourself. However, I have sympathy because there are so many who have made terrible choices due to the background they grew up in, the people they associated with, and the only lifestyle they knew. You do what you know. Not to make excuses for poor decision-making and foolish choices, but I have realized that just because I grew up in a loving Christian home with good morals instilled in my heart doesn't mean I wouldn't have made the same bad choices as some of these women had I been in a different situation.

The bottom line is that we are all sinners. It doesn't matter if you live in a Christian community with a Bible-believing church and a wonderful circle of friends or if you are behind bars; either way, you were born a sinner and have a choice to make.

I have seen heartache and loss. I have seen mothers cry because they are separated from their children. I have seen hearts that struggle to forgive, faces that are beat up and bruised, and women who are 6 months pregnant with nowhere to go. I have seen hurt caused by divorce, and women who have been thrown out on the road with only the shirt on their back.

When I am there, I feel like I am in a whole other world. I feel like I take the journey with these women as they tell their stories, sometimes in anger, sometimes in tears, and sometimes in remorse.

Today, I was scheduled to go to the jail. It was by far the most touching, eventful morning I have had. When I arrived, the waiting area was busy. There were quite a few people there. People will often wait there on Sunday mornings to bail out those who came in on Saturday evening. We all signed in, and as we were opening the door to go into the vault area, the older man from our church whom I respect a lot and who has his heart 100% in this ministry turned to me.

"There is a young lady over there who is crying," he told me, motioning over to one of the chairs. "I tried talking to her but I just can't connect. Would you want to try talking to her?"

I looked over. Sure enough, there was a young girl who was in tears.

"Right now?"

"It's up to you," he said.

I turned and walked over to where she sat and took a seat next to her.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

I felt like anything I would say or ask was trite at this point, but I didn't know what else to do.

From that question, I received a jumbled stream of emotion and tears as this girl explained a fragmented version of what was going on. I looked at her; She had a tattoo on her right arm, and fuzzy pink slippers on her feet. She smelled like alcohol, and it was 9:3o in the morning. From the looks of it, she had been crying and was pretty upset.

The first time around, I didn't really understand what exactly was going on. I eventually gathered that her boyfriend, who had just returned from Iraq last month, was brought in last night. Most likely, he had gotten in the middle of a fight with his stepmom, who was a piece of work, and had taken the blame for whatever public disturbance had occurred.

"It's not fair!" the girl said. "I just don't understand why this happened. How could this happen? He has done nothing. He never gets angry, why is he here? They should take me, they should just take me," she said.

She kept cursing, and as she talked, she became angrier and angrier.

"Seriously, I am so angry right now, I am so close to punching that wall right in front of me," she threatened.

The lady behind her then turned. It was at this point that I realized she was with her.

"I know you are angry right now, but you need to try to stay calm. If you get upset and do anything, you will just end up where he is," she pointed out.

"I know, I know," she said.

During all of this, I knew I needed the Spirit's help. What do you say to a girl like this, with this situation? It's hard enough to comfort someone in a situation you yourself have been through. But this?

Somehow, I was able to offer words of comfort and agreed with the lady with her, telling her that she was wise to stay calm, even though it was hard, and even when emotions are high and anger is so potent, to remember that everything happens for a reason.

"It doesn't seem fair that he's in there," I said, "But you'll soon know why, and even if it wasn't his fault, maybe it happened this way for a reason," I said. "If he isn't the type to get upset or angry, then perhaps he is the one who will handle the situation best."

"I'm so sorry," the girl kept apologizing, "I know I'm just being a baby. I'm just crying like a baby. I'm sorry."

I looked at this girl, who was so torn up and a little uninhibited. Behind all of her turmoil and her "rough and tough" facade, she was a beautiful person. For a moment, I imagined what this girl could do as someone who turned her life around to Christ. How influential this fiery, passionate girl could be.

I told her that I had to go conduct church for the women.

"Before I leave, would you like me to pray with you?"

At this, a split-second transformation took place in her and her eyes lit up as if that was the best idea she had heard all week. And perhaps it was.

"I would love that," she said, and grabbed a hold of my hand.

As I prayed, she had a death grip on my hand and I could tell that she took in every word that I said. It was such a Spirit-filled experience.

Afterwards, she gave me a huge hug and kissed my cheek.

"Thank you SO much," she said.

"You are welcome. I hope everything works out for you," I told her.

"No, I hope everything works out for you. God bless you for talking to me," she said.

With that, I received another huge hug.

"I'll be praying for you," I told her.

I then headed back to do church with some other women. I walked in on another emotional experience. Three women were there waiting with the other older woman (from the couple) that I am with on Sunday mornings.

I sat and listened to a story of how one of these women was beaten, tried to drink away her sorrows, and ended up in jail. She has 3 kids who she have never been apart from for more than 4 days, and she has no idea where they are. She sobbed to us.

At times like those, it is hard to offer comfort because I feel so unseasoned. Yet, that is all I can do. And with the Spirit's help, I can do it. Often, all these women want and need is someone to listen and to care, and to take the time to be there, if only for 20 minutes. I think after every single church service I have been at, every woman will look me in the eye and thank me sincerely for my time. The security guards and staff at the jail are not trained to be warm and fuzzy. They are trained to protect themselves and the other inmates from each other. And most of the individuals who arrive at jail aren't ending up there because they were nice. So these women are daily surrounded by people who don't care, and it's a rare treasure to find someone who does.

If anything, though, these women are teaching me more than they know. I am privileged to have 20 minutes of their time. Some of them are Christians who have veered off the path; others have heard of God and believe in Him and the Bible but have not made a commitment; and some are completely lost. Whatever the case, they are all souls, just like me. And there is something about the brokenhearted and vulnerable that just squeezes my heart and makes me want to be there.

After all, had I grown up in a different environment than I did, I could be sitting there, too.

Love you all...


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