By Karen Ward Robertson
“Most of what you know about prison life you probably learned from movies,” I explain. “It’s OK if you feel a little bit uncomfortable or afraid right now.”
The college students going with us to the prison this week nod, unsure of what to expect in a minimum- to maximum-security prison.
My husband drives the van from the parking lot of the Mizzou Christian Campus House, out to the interstate, and on toward the state prison we visit every Monday night. We have a one-hour drive to let these young people know how much their visit will mean to the ladies at the prison.
As we tell stories of changed hearts, challenging experiences, and victorious worship, the students ask questions: “Nobody will hit me, will they?” “Will we be inside their cells?” “Will it smell bad?”
Fear is natural when stepping into any unknown ministry, but courage goes where God sends us. He has sent us to declare freedom to the captives, and I want the students we’re mentoring tonight to stretch out of their comfort zones in obedience. Comfort and confidence will come with knowledge and experience.
I want them to see beyond the gray and khaki clothes, beyond the crimes, into the hearts of the prisoners who will be in the chapel tonight. I know that this evening visit to the prison will change hearts forever—both our hearts and the hearts of the prisoners.
Sinners in Prison
Usually my husband and I go alone. It’s difficult to find people willing to go to a prison.
Often I don’t want to go either. I quote the Bible to myself: “I was in prison and you visited me . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:36, 40).
Sometimes I don’t want to be a person who serves for God. After a day crammed full of interruptions and the needs of others, I can be self-absorbed. On those Monday nights when I’m weak, running completely on empty, down in the dumps, and losing my grip, that’s when God has to do it all. In my weakness, he is made strong.
“[God] has forgiven me, but now what?” Ally spoke softly, drawing me aside in the prison chapel. “I’m such a mess. My heart is black inside.”
Fatigue and selfishness melt away. God’s words come alive in my head. His love opens wide my heart. I become the feet and hands, the voice of Jesus in a sad place.
And that feels more amazing than anything else in my life.
I grew up in a small-town Christian church, singing the hymns, listening to the sermons, reading The Lookout. My memories are filled with the faces of God’s people loving me to Jesus.
Many of the inmates attended church services when they were children too. A grandmother takes a child to church. A neighbor takes a child to Vacation Bible School. A friend tags along with a friend to church camp one summer.
“I went to Sunday school,” Kristin said. “I was so naughty! I would never listen and obey my teacher. I wish I could thank her.” Kristin’s face softened, remembering. “You know why I came tonight? Somebody mentioned oatmeal chocolate chip cookies today. My Sunday school teacher used to make them. She just loved on us. So I decided to finally come back to church.”
Sheep in prison need the Shepherd. They need to be rescued, brought safely into the fold, just like you and me.
“Our sins are why we’re in prison,” Carol explained to a newcomer, “But to know there’s enough grace that God can clean me up after all I’ve done? Wow. And now I’m God’s voice in this ugly world. How awesome is that?”
Seekers in Prison
I continue to go to the prison because I’m a seeker and being with the prisoners leads me into a deeper relationship with God than I have known before.
“I don’t even remember what I like and what I don’t like,” Letisha whispered to me. “In prison I’m a number. Out in the world, I’m not sure I was even that.”
“You like hummingbirds,” I began, noticing her tattoo. “You like making your hair look pretty.” “Yeah,” she agreed. “How did you know?”
I smiled. Though a stranger to me, my Father knows Letisha and he lights my way. My whole face lit up with his love. I wanted her to see herself as I see her—a person worthy of hope, of all the promises God offers her.
“You like being organized, neat and tidy. I noticed you like to sing and write things down. You especially liked the songs with rock rhythms. You like bright colors and feminine clothes.”
She laughed. “And jewelry. Oh, and lilacs! I had a teacher who kept some on her desk when I was a kid. I hadn’t thought of that in ages!”
Her face lit up with hope.
She told me she was going home in a few days. Those might be the only short minutes I ever have with her, but our hearts are eternally bound because faith showed up in a sad place, one seeker lighting the way for another seeker.
“You’re not just a number, here in prison or out there, Letisha. You are created by God for big dreams and amazing adventures. God gave you unique gifts. You matter in the world. God made you unique for a reason.”
“Is that in the Bible?” she asked, eyes widening, hugging her new Bible closer to her heart. “That God made me unique, is that in the Bible?”
I nodded yes, and through tears she asked, “Will you pray for me?”
I placed a marker in her Bible. Blue ink circled Psalm 139. I wrote, “Letisha’s Song” in the margin. I turned to Psalm 103, circled it, and wrote, “I am his and he is mine.”
I jotted down a list of Scriptures in her notebook, then we joined hands and prayed to the Creator, the God who wants to be found.
I trust God’s people to draw Letisha into his church, to walk alongside her as she takes the first wobbly steps in her newborn faith. God is faithful. He will grasp her hand through every step of her journey. No, she’s not just a number to him.
Saints in Prison
People ask me if I really think prisoners can change. Oh, yes, I tell them. You should see what I’ve seen—the things you wish you had a camera for: Empty eyes lighting up with jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, awestruck wonder. Hands lifted high, praising the God who requires complete sacrifice. Bitter, meth-aged faces turned youthful and hopeful. Grace like rain falling down on captives, setting them free.
Sarah is leaving prison soon. Her debt to society has been paid. Freedom has come through unimaginable sacrifice. She carries with her scars of guilt for her wrong deeds and scars leftover from the wrong deeds of others. But she leaves prison having been given her freedom from condemnation, a freedom bought by the unimaginable sacrifice of Christ.
Vivian is a quiet prisoner serving a life sentence. Nearly every Monday night for decades she has entered the chapel with yet another prisoner she has invited to church.
Sierra, a Jesus follower in prison, gripped my hand as she told me her story. She will die inside the prison walls. Society has rightly sentenced her to multiple life sentences. But she smiled through tears of compassion for her fellow prisoners, women who live in sadness, slaves to their sins and wrong choices.
“There is so much power in God’s love,” Sierra said. “I’m much more dangerous with a Bible than I ever was with a gun. Satan should be afraid. Very afraid.”
Prison life isn’t like it is in the movies. Bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for the captives, releasing prisoners from darkness is a drama much more thrilling.
“I don’t have a real big ministry in prison,” Marie explained to the other prisoners. “I just go around seeking out the lost and seems like I always find some. I just encourage folks. That’s all.”
Karen Ward Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.