God is at work in the prisons. His love runs deep for those who are incarcerated. What happens there is near and dear to His heart, so much so that Christ said that assisting prisoners, strangers such as refugees, the poor, the hungry, and the needy is evidence that we belong to Him.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when…?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:34-40 NIV).
During my years of serving in prison, I’ve learned there isn’t any significant difference between our volunteer team and the women there. I want everyone to know this. As human beings, we all have the same struggles, we are all flawed, we are all in need of forgiveness and growth. If given the same life circumstances, we would probably find ourselves in the same place. They are our sisters, and I truly love them.
Do not be afraid to go there to serve them. The laborers in the prison are few, but the harvest is plentiful. There is a need for you to take Jesus’ love into the prison.
As volunteers, we aren’t allowed to publish the prisoners’ words outside the walls. My fellow volunteers usually have to remind me of this rule, because the sense of it eludes me. I believe prison conditions would improve, if we all could hear their voices. So, I yearn to quote them directly, but I can’t. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is. This is one of the many rules we must adhere to, if we wish to continue our ministry there.
Therefore, though their words are more eloquent than mine, I will merely summarize the thoughts they shared with us recently. As you read, you will see that they are just like us. Their stories are ours. I hope they feel I have done justice to their stories, since I couldn’t share their exact words.
They know they strayed from God’s guidance and direction for their lives. They are acutely aware that they followed a destructive path. On that path they were filled with loss, hurt, pain, and confusion. Their lives hurt. They lived selfishly to fulfill the desires of their flesh. They know this.
In that perilous place, they realized their souls could have become totally separated from God, only to be cast into outer darkness. Even though lost and blinded by deception, God enabled them to cry out to Him to save their souls and to pull them from dark, cold, and lonely streets, and He did. They are truly grateful!
They never expected prison to be part of how they came to salvation. God’s rescue didn’t happen exactly when or how they wanted or expected, but they are grateful that He saved them and gave them one more chance to repent, change, and surrender everything to Him.
In prison they are faced with the pain of the consequences of their actions. They know others have suffered for their wrongdoing. For this, they are deeply grieved. They pray for the people they have harmed. They often cannot forgive themselves for what they have done. There are many tears in prison. They pray that God will heal the hearts of those they have harmed. They hope and pray for their forgiveness. They have learned that God uses the most painful circumstances to get our full and complete attention.
The Lord is precious to them, and His love means everything. They cling to the fact that He has forgiven them, because His word says so. Most had never had anything else in this world to depend on before they placed their faith in Christ, but now they know for sure that they can depend on God’s Word. His promises are always true.
When they came to Christ, they learned that God is love. They need His love to endure and experience healing from painful pasts. They hope God will use them to help others, perhaps saving others from making horrible mistakes as they once did.
Have you ever felt like this? I know I have.
Prison has often destroyed their health. Their medications aren’t given as needed, or they have been switched to ineffective meds that are cheaper. Their right to make their own medical decisions is lost when they come to prison.
Imagine someone else making the decisions about your breast cancer, opting for the cheapest treatment, and simply removing your entire breast. Imagine losing your eyesight or developing thyroid cancer with all the fine-tuning of artificial hormones required, but discovering the usual medical options aren’t available to you because of budgetary concerns. Women’s bodies are often greatly damaged by prison.
Women in prison are typically people who fell on hard times or made a few tragic choices. They’re women just like us. When they arrived in prison, they never expected to witness the suicide or overdose of young women. But they have. Some of the things they’ve seen are so painful that they can’t even talk about it. They know prison has changed them forever.
In the community of God’s family inside the prison walls many have found love and true friendship for the first time. They have finally learned to trust. But the experience of prison often makes them angry with God. Platitudes make it worse. When people say, “God only gives you what you can handle,” they feel like giving up on God, because they are frequently pushed beyond what they can handle. They often feel that the more they pray, the more things go wrong.
But they are learning. In baby steps they come closer to Him and discover God’s patience with them. He doesn’t give up on them. He loves them all. He teaches them to rely on Him for strength when they are beyond what they can bear.
They’ve let God in and it feels good, really good. Scary, but good! They know He will walk with them wherever they go and in whatever they experience. Their greatest desire is to keep faith in God the way He has faith in them. They know this is going to be a struggle, like everything has been, but with God by their side, they feel a little stronger.
Have you experienced struggles like this? I have. Can you imagine these hardships? Do you want to help?
When the women first begin our Christian 12-step program they often ask themselves, “Why, am I doing this?” When they sign up, they know it will be a difficult journey. Then they remind themselves of all the benefits. Our program is powerful and life changing. It has a two-year-long waiting list. Of our graduates, only 15% ever return to prison. Eighty-five percent move forward and never return.
Working through the program unlocks issues and memories that are stored deep inside their hearts. They know the program will help them to know themselves better and that they will learn how much God cares. They want to know more about God and how He can change their lives for the better. Therefore, they know they need this.
The women who complete our program have been through a lot. They come out of the program wanting everyone to know about God’s kindness and mercy. They don’t want to give up because they know what the devil wants from them and how he tempts them. They love that the Bible tells them about God and how He is there for them no matter what they go through.
Many of them have memorized Jeremiah 29:11-13: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.'”
When they feel like giving up, they often say these words of truth over and over again in their minds. They ask God to show them what they need to know. They hold close this truth: As long as I know God loves me so much, and I am a child of His, I can go through anything.
Therefore, their hearts change and they are not so cold toward other people. They want everyone to know that God loves all of us very much, and He will not lie to us about anything. His promises are true.
Does this transformation sound like something you have experienced? It reminds me of the daily growth we all strive toward.
Their heart struggles are the same as ours. Their need for God’s love and forgiveness is the same as ours. Their voices cry out with equivalent cares, concerns, and hurts.
Do not be afraid to help in your local prison. You are needed. Consider investing your time and your life in a place where the love of God is moving mightily. Pray for these women. Pray for those who already serve in prison.
As you make your decisions and resolutions for the New Year, ask the Lord for guidance about what part He might have you play in reaching out in the prison with the light of the gospel.