Everyone in this prison is a felon. I try to remember that but I can’t when I look at the faces of these women. I am hoping to see someone from my last visit 8 months ago. But I do not know them. Some of them look no older than 18. A few are over 60. One is pregnant. Some are mothers with three children. Some are beautiful, even in their baggy uniforms and their white socks and sandals.
But the first class is hard. The women are sitting in a computer classroom. I am standing. They turn their office swivel chairs to me, standing in the front, but it is 9 a.m. and I am a stranger to them. Some look at me with curiosity, a few smile, some look blank, a few look wary. I know before I start there will not be enough time. They will not have enough time to see who I am, to be comfortable with me, to get over my intensity, the way I speak, the way I use my hands, my own me-ness that takes some getting used to.
I start. I talk about forgiveness. I ask them questions. I tell my story about forgiving my father from my last book. I tell the gospel through the story of the Prodigal Son. Some are with me. They know the story. They nod their heads. I stand there forever, it feels, spilling blood and truth, waving and risking everything. They listen. They do not turn away. A few ask questions.
One woman, with blue eyes full of tears, asks, ‘What do I do about my daughter? She was 6 when I first got here. She’s 30 now and I’ve never met her. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Another woman says, “I know I need to forgive both my mother and my father, cause they left me, but I don’t know them. All I know is that My mother is crazy, and my father is too, but I don’t know anything about their lives.”
I lead them in a writing exercise, an empathy building exercise. Everyone participates. When they are done writing, I ask them to read their pieces to one another, but they shake their heads. I look at them and see: they do not want their masks to fall. They are not ready.
When the class is done, two hours later, I leave discouraged. Did these women hear, really hear what was offered to them---complete forgiveness, a new start, the invitation to real freedom?
I don’t know. My heart is heavy.
For the next class, I am escorted by two women chaplains, one a friend from the last time I was here. We are sent to a tiny room, a closet of a room. 14 of us sit on dirty plastic chairs. We are nearly thigh to thigh. This closet is designated as a program room. The prison is crowded. They are expanding, and bringing in more prisoners from other overcrowded prisons. Some of the women are close enough for me to touch. But I cannot touch them. It is always a prison rule.
I start. “Hi, I’m Leslie. Would you all tell me your names before we start. I probably won’t remember, but I’d love to know who you are.”
“Hey Leslie, “ the woman on my left calls out. “You got lipstick on your teeth,” she points. “That’s gonna bug the heck outta me and distract me.”
I laugh. “Yeah, that would bug me too.” I use the sleeve of my sweater then turn and bare my teeth at her. “Did I get it?”
“Nope. Still there.”
I try again, then show her my teeth. “That’s good enough,” she says.
“Thanks,” I say to her, sincerely. “That’s what friends do.”
Then we start. And within five minutes I know----these women are open. (I decide I’m going to make sure I have lipstick on my teeth every time I speak.) I put my notes away. I talk, they listen. They talk, I listen. There are stories of abuse, molestation, abandonment, violent husbands. One woman with a house full of children and a husband who didn’t support them---took to stealing to provide for her family. Stories of drugs, mental illness. Fifteen minutes in someone reaches for a roll of toilet paper (we’re sitting in a supply closet) and passes it around, there are so many tears. I am not following my notes---we are speaking about the ways we lock other people up in our own prisons, the ways anger and hate destroy us. How we want revenge on the ones who ruined our lives, but we know revenge will kill us. And we are nodding our heads at one another, listening to every word.
We write using my empathy exercise. This group wants to share their pieces with one another. After they read, the your-lipstick-is-on-your-teeth woman, my true friend, tells us all how it broke through her anger, her lifelong anger and helped her see her true issue. They all say how much they needed to hear each other’s stories and how they want to hear more.
“But I can’t forgive myself,” one woman says. I stop. I look at her beautiful face, this woman who could have been a model. I don’t know why she is here, but who doesn’t know about the dark terrible force of guilt and hate, how it rages hardest against our own fragile selves? Who doesn’t know how desperately unworthy we are to be given any good thing from a Holy God? Who does not struggle to believe that the God of all Gods has stooped to our tiny sordid lives and so loved us he chose to die in our guilty stead? Who does not wonder at the craziness of criminals set free, the dirty named clean, the prodigals forgiven and welcomed home as precious daughters? How can anything this good be true?
I know. I know. I turn to her. “I hope we never get over the wonder of that. Our unworthiness---and His mercy. But you have to believe that it’s true. You have to believe that God IS that good.”
My time is nearly up now. I don’t want to leave. The older woman with many children asks me, pleading, “Can we pray?” Another woman says, “I want church. We don’t get church enough here.” The woman beside her says, “We need it. But no one comes.” The others chorus agreement.
My chaplain friend sitting beside me says to all of them, “Pray for volunteers to come. We need more. A lot more. But we don’t have them.”
The older woman asks again, “Can we pray?”
So I pray. We pray in this tight circle, knees practically touching and I cry and I pray. I pray for God's mercy upon us all, I pray for us to be freed through Christ, for us to pass on God's forgiveness to the ones who deserve it least, for heaven to break upon us right now. I pray for the Holy Spirit to wake up his people and send them here. I pray and I am not stopping, I have not stopped because all of this is a prayer, a prayer for them, and a prayer for you. I think of Jesus on the shore of the lake, commissioning Peter to “feed my sheep. Take care of my lambs.” That’s what we’ve all been sent out to do. And the lambs and the sheep in this fold are starving, begging to be fed. On the outside, where we live, most people are running away from real food. Even in Christian venues where I speak, there’s often little appetite for God. But in there, so many are starving. How can we turn away?
If your church has a prison or jail ministry already, would you consider being part of it? It won’t be a sacrifice; it will be a joy. If you’re far from a prison or jail, you can still be involved through Prison Fellowship
or through Kairos Prison Ministry.
You have been fed so much. Won’t you feed others?
That’s my story this week. So many of you prayed for me and for those women. Your prayers were answered SO powerfully and SO beautifully. You were a part of the healing and the heaven that broke out in that closet room. Thank you!!! If you think of it, would you keep praying for these precious women, our sisters in Christ?