my Thursdays…serving in a prison

Every Thursday, I park my car beside several others and stand outside of it waiting to hear what the plan is. I’m always willing to drive, of course, but if I didn’t have to remove the car seats and brush off the crumbs and pick off the food with my fingernail before someone needed to sit there, that would always be preferable…know what I’m saying?

So I wait and watch, and then I get into whatever car I need to at the end. And we drive an hour. Honestly, if all we did was drive an hour and get out and be done, it would be worth it to me. To sit and listen to them talk, trying SO hard to shut my mouth and soak in their wisdom and love. But of course, I can’t always shut my mouth, because these women have been trained through this ministry. Not only have their hearts swelled with compassion and grace, but they have become amazing at asking questions; asking theĀ right question that will cause you to open your heart, leaning into their comfort and trustworthiness.

But the hour drive isn’t the end. Once we arrive, I step out of the car to greet the others from other cars. I laugh in that parking lot more than I have since last Thursday. One of my very favorite places is that parking lot and inside the doors, but I know most others don’t feel the same. Because it’s a prison. And inside of it are lots of women color coded by clothing, looking the same, and feeling even less special.

After a quick leader meeting, we file into a chapel and sit in the midst of 70 women dressed in yellow. We listen to one of those women I tried soaking up on the drive as she teaches and shares from one of the best Bible studies I’ve ever had the opportunity to go through. Then we pray and I watch 70 heads bow. Then, we stand up and separate into groups.

And I go to the same room, with the same girls. And I know them by heart. I know what they look like, their names, their children’s names. I know where they’re from, sometimes, why they’re there. And I want SO badly to say, “I get it.” Because though I have never had to walk in straight lines, dressed the same as everyone else, and taking orders from someone who may or may not be kind, I know what shame is. I know what sin is. and I know what it’s like to walk with the visible evidence of your sin. I want to say, “I understand what it is to want to change your life, but keep failing.” There are many that are closed off to us, many that are open books from the start, and then there are some that in the beginning look as if they’re shamed for us to even see them there. And I want to take their face in my hands and say, “girl, last week, I stood in the middle of a church with thousands of people and saw someone from my past I haven’t seen in ten years. And knowing my freedom from that sin. knowing my life and my heart and even more, knowing God’s grace, I looked down and away in shame. I didn’t want to be seen there…in church. because, who am I to worship a holy God? I am His child. And so are you.” The phrase we speak to them the most is “you were created ON purpose FOR a purpose.” And for those who have never heard anything except that they were “an accident,” this truth alone can be amazing.

And I get to do that a lot in pieces, but…I’m learning. I’m learning how to be like those other women andĀ listen. For the first time in my life, maybe, I listen more than I speak. The Bible study these girls are doing throughout the week says more into their soul and hurt than I ever could, because the Holy Spirit is blowing all through it. They don’t need an amazing teacher (luckily). They don’t need wise words and a pat on the back or a rescue (though they probably want it. who wouldn’t?) They need me sitting, there in that chair straight across from them. They need to tell their story, one at a time, while the tears pour and they sort through their lives. Then they say things like, “I’ve never had to deal with this. I’ve never dealt with my miscarriages and stillbirths. I’ve never dealt with my mama’s death. I just got high and dulled it away. and now…now it’s all flooding me and I have no idea what to do with all this.” And you offer them God’s love. And when they look at you with tortured eyes, and say, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want this life. I had everything in the world and threw it all away. Do you think I’m a horrible person, Mrs. Heather??” you look them dead in the eyes, and say, “no. no, sweetie. I don’t. I think you are beautiful, and I love you. and more than that, God loves you. Right here. Right now.” and then you hurt for them as they crumble and nod as tears pour.

And the worst part of it all, is when the security guard walks over to let you know with her presence that your time is up. And you hug them, and promise to pray for them and their children and families. And that you will see them next week. And you gather with the leaders, and you walk out past the lined up women in yellow, and they wave with arms high over their heads yelling, “bye!!! thank yall so much for coming! thank you!” And you get back in the car, and process. and luckily, you get to process with others who were there too. you process things like, “she was 14 when she had her first baby? how old did she say she was when she first started being molested?” and heavy things like that. and not once do you excuse the laws that were broken for them to end up there, but dang. where would I be if I had the same life? I would hope I would make different choices, but I am aware that it is by the grace of God alone that I made better ones even with a better life.

and we pray all week long, that God is working through them. That He is changing their lives. All the while, I’m always aware that they aren’t alone, and that my heart is being transformed every Thursday the moment I step out of that car and my foot touches the parking lot, while my heart jumps in excitement ready to see my girls again.

All this to show you what prison ministry can really be like. I know that for so many, prison ministry carries such a presupposition with so many. It did for me, anyway. But I wanted to badly to give you a glimpse into my Thursdays, and allow the Spirit to show you even more than I could write while respecting my girls and their privacy. If you have any questions, concerns, or want to hear more, please message me!