faith-based prison ministry
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faith-based prison ministry
SISTERS IN SPIRIT
LESSONS LEARNED IN LOCKHART WOMEN’S PRISON
by Susan Strickland
What happens when four well-intentioned but somewhat-hesitant women visit a prison for the f
irst time? On February 5, 2010, we found out.
The goal of a faith-based prison ministry is not only to help prisoners understand God’s love for each and every one of them but also to help them understand how God transforms lives.
But how were we volunteers to know that the lives transformed that day would be our own?
Our adventure began on a cold, wet Friday at, literally, the crack of dawn. After meeting up at the Flying J truck stop in Brookshire, we ate a smidgen of breakfast while Grove briefed us on the game plan for the day. There were four women in our group–Teri Breckenridge, Gaby DeLuca, Randy Mullins, and Susan Strickland. We rode in Gaby’s “Big Bertha” SUV, while Grove and David Hanna rode in–what else?–a pickup truck. The caravan involved a pit stop and buying spree at Buc-cee’s before the final ten mile drive to the prison.
Randy Mullins verbalized what we all felt upon starting out on this commission. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “I guess I was a little afraid, not a lot, but a little, and I just didn’t know what we’d find there.” Gaby DeLuca felt that, despite a fear of the unknown, “there was this incredible pulling for me to do this.”
All four of us are social conservatives and have always been strong proponents of punishing criminals for their crimes. So, for each of us, this was the first time to actually meet prisoners face to face. “I worried a bit about being taken advantage of in the emotionalism of the moment,” Teri Breckenridge admitted. “But you could tell which ones were truly receptive. You could see it in their eyes.”
Upon arrival at the Lockhart Unit, we submitted our driver’s licenses to the guard. To put it mildly, surrendering one’s identity and being frisked for contraband is humbling and a bit humiliating. We also had to wait–a long, long, long, time before we were allowed into the auditorium with the women prisoners. They were watching “The Heart of Texas,” and we would not meet with them until they had finished the movie. In addition, the movie was stopped a couple of times while all the prisoners were summoned for a head count and roll call. For an hour or more, we sat in the prison lobby and conversed with a couple of the employees of The GEO Group. (Did you know that a few prisons outsource to private companies like The GEO Group for management and security? We didn’t know that.) We then moved to the library and had a wonderful conversation with the prison chaplain, Peggy Touissaint, who shared her faith as well as her frustrations over the almost overwhelming amount of paperwork required by the state bureaucracy.
Of the hundreds of women housed at the Lockhart Unit, fifty were chosen to spend six months in a faith-based program that separates them from the other inmates and that provides daily classes in Bible studies and Christian workshops.
After the prisoners had finished watching the film, we were allowed to enter the auditorium. “I was so surprised by the reception we received,” said Gaby DeLuca. None of us expected to be received the way we were. But, of course, the surprise and tears of joy from the prisoners were not for us; they were for Grove. The women never, despite watching the film, truly believed that Grove Norwood was a real person, that forgiveness like that portrayed in the film could actually happen–that this was, in fact, For Real! And, therein, lies the transformation that God has in store for us.
After Grove finished talking before the group, and after a few of the women had shared their stories and their pain, we had a few minutes with them before the routine of prison life once again took hold and conveyed them back to their cells and to the very structured existence their crimes against society had mandated.
But in those brief moments with the women prisoners, we learned some lessons about their lives and about their needs. “What has kept coming back to me about their stories,” Randy Mullins remembers, “is how very important it is that parents, and especially daddies, tell their children over and over how much they love them.” Of the women who spoke that day, each of their stories led back to their fathers. One always wanted her daddy to say that he loved her but, instead, all he did was beat her. Others reported begin raped by their fathers or by male relatives. As Randy added, “That one fact has kept them from having relationships with their own fathers and also with their Heavenly Father.”
Gaby DeLuca felt that the women knew what they had done wrong in life and what still needed to be done within them. One woman told us that the most important thing to her was that her kids and grandkids would not follow in her footsteps. “What affected me the most,” said Gaby, “was that even though they knew they had made bad choices, their biggest hurdle was in forgiving themselves and believing that God would forgive them.”
We all also realized the importance of bringing the gospel into the prisons. As Randy Mullins put it, “The one thing that our schools and prisons need is Christ, and those are the very places where Christ has not been allowed.” Teri Breckenridge agreed. “I think those women we met are hungry. They are already wired for redemption and understanding. They need to be shown the way. They need a chance.”
The director of Lockhart’s faith-based program extended an invitation for the women in our group to come back and spend a day with the female prisoners. And we definitely will. Something significant happened to the four of us, and we feel the pull to put that something into action. There is more to hear from the women of Lockhart, more to say, and more to share about life’s corroding anguish and God’s curative promises.
As Gaby DeLuca put it, “God knows his plan for our lives from beginning to end. He knows what we’re going through. And he knows that these women can make a difference to others in prison with them.”
Throughout the day, we all asked ourselves, “What is it that we are supposed to do here?” Were we at that prison to plant seeds of God’s love? Were we there to love those who are hard to love? As Teri Breckenridge put it, “All we have to give is encouragement.” So, whether we were equipped for this day of prison ministry or not, the fact is that we were simply meant to be there. We were to let the Lockhart women know that they are not forgotten and that there are women in the “free world” who care about their eternity. “Those girls we met,” said Teri, “they just want to be loved. They need human contact. They want to be heard, to be listened to. Even to be touched when they get the chance.”
As participants in this act of God’s work, we can’t even begin to see or know what, if anything, happened in that prison auditorium that day. Only the Holy Spirit moving in those prisoner’s lives can actually stir the flame within and prompt their wounded hearts to heal.
And yet, the curious phenomenon of volunteering for any kind of faith-based charity is that the gain is not always for the one receiving the “gift” but, rather, the blessing is for the one who simply reaches out and gives.