I sat around a table of 12 minimum security inmates who wore ill fitted uniforms of faded broad black and white stripes. It was my first time in jail as a volunteer chaplain and it took a full 30 minutes for me to feel present instead of nervous, self-conscious, and hyper-alert. I had been trained on what to do in case of a fight or lockdown, I was educated on no-hostage zones, I left my wedding ring at home and didn’t wear anything around my neck.
Still, I was not prepared.
I was not prepared for the tenderness at that table. As our small group discussed trusting God it slowly became apparent that every single woman at the table beside my co-leader and myself had been physically or sexually abused. Some of them had been homeless before coming to jail, many had prior records or were illiterate making them virtually unemployable, some were afraid to get out. Getting out means being on the streets again, trying to change with little support, having to make a hard choice to stay or leave an abusive spouse without the safe distance of jail between you.
“You don’t get it, we’re from the street.” she tried to explain her life to me gently. “We don’t talk like you and nobody out there cares about us.”
It’s so incredibly complicated. The cycles of violence, poverty, and racism. The impact of drugs and alcohol and limited education. I asked one of the women about a prayer request she had on a prior week, but she was more excited to show me her fingernails. “Look! The food here makes my fingernails grow- I’ve never had fingernails before!” She was so thankful for the nutrition that the food in jail provided her.
It’s a building full of hurting people. Maybe that’s why I sense God so strongly there.
It’s like nothing else when four of us volunteers stand beneath the barbed wire of the chain link fence and pray (with our eyes open) before walking into the dormitories. We have seen miracles happen. We have seen impossible prayers answered seconds later. We have watched imprisoned women with partially shaved heads and tattoos sing “I Can Only Imagine” at the top of their lungs and dancing together, desperate for the words of God to be true.
It’s a brutally beautiful thing to carry light into the darkness: to trust that it is bright enough, true enough, strong enough, and to watch it SHINE radiantly beyond expectation. I’ve learned that walking into that dorm is as much walking into the darkness as it is walking towards the light. I get to hear the women recite their hard learned memory verses, to talk to the woman who is teaching herself to write by copying chapters out of the Bible given to her by the chaplain, and weekly I rediscover that this whole Jesus thing is GOOD NEWS. Powerful, freeing, life changing, hope instilling, incredible news. My faith feels so small in those walls, and the Spirit feels so big, and I remember so much more clearly how I need Him to give me words and teach me to love.
Will you carry the light with me?
You don’t have to come inside the jail with me. I volunteer with CIC Ministries and they are working hard to expand their reach into the darkest parts of the jails.
This #GivingTuesday would you consider sending them a gift? CIC provides classes, training, reading glasses, Bibles, and SO MUCH more to inmates in our Bay Area community who desperately need it. Right now you can even choose a thoughtful thank you gift from CIC to correspond with your tax deductible donation.
For the inmate who told me out loud that no one cares, and for every one of the voiceless and defeated woman in jail who thinks the same thing, I want to show up- and I hope you join me:
Sisters, you may be from the street but you are one of us humans with more dignity than you can imagine. You are not only dearly loved by God, but I care about you. We care about you. All of us who carry God’s Spirit cannot help but care deeply about you.
Let’s walk- even run- in our freedom together.