For those who may not have had the opportunity to visit a prison, I like to share some of my experiences as a speaker in these settings, where I often find what I would have to call holy ground. Recently I spoke at a women’s prison in Ohio that houses inmates convicted of some fairly serious crimes. Some of these ladies are serving life sentences.
At first I was concerned about how our attendance would be because there was a large scale religious event scheduled at the same time. About thirty volunteers lined up to enter the prison for this gathering, and they brought in cookies, a major draw for inmates eager to eat anything not made in the prison kitchen. I prayed to let go of my worry and trust that the ladies who needed to be there to hear this message would find their way despite the appeal of cookies. A hymn came to mind:
O do not bar your mind
Against the light of good;
But open wide, let in the Word,
And Truth will be your food.
(#201, Christian Science Hymnal)
I wish you could have walked with me from the main entrance over to the chapel building. It’s hard to describe that experience. Whenever I go into a prison setting, I make a specific effort to see the innate purity and innocence of all the men or women I meet there, despite how society has labeled them. On this walk, this practice was effortless. It was probably one of the visual moments in my life that has best captured the concept of redemption.
It was a warm, sunny day, and I walked past some lovely gardens that women had planted and were tending. Then I passed a group of women who were training rescued greyhounds through a special program at the prison. The ladies beamed at me as I looked at the sweet faces of the dogs gazing up at them with reverence. As I turned down the long walkway to the chapel, women lined either side of the path serenading the volunteers and me as we walked in. Their eyes were bright as they smiled and sang these words: “God loves you, and I love you, and that’s how it’s gonna be. God loves you, and I love you, and that you’ll surely see.” It was impossible not to tear up as I looked into the faces of these women, some of whom had been convicted of heinous crimes, all of whom shone in the light of the sun like free, innocent little girls. Their expressions matched the words they were singing.
The women filed into our room and filled the chairs. One of them said she had brought about ten others to hear this message. The competition of the large event appeared to be a non-issue. After I spoke, I asked if there were questions or comments or if any of them had a testimony to share. One woman asked how she should respond to a friend who wondered why we should believe that God is real when so many bad things happen. I felt led to step back and allow the women to share their thoughts on this challenging topic.
A lively discussion followed, with women sharing various viewpoints, some of which differed from what I would have said. Finally one woman, who I later learned had attended some of the programs offered by the Christian Science volunteers who come into the prison regularly, firmly stated that she didn’t believe that God makes anything bad happen, that these things are not God’s will, and that we can bear witness to God’s goodness and expect to see it in our lives. She spoke with such conviction that the discussion ended there, and the woman who had asked the question seemed uplifted. I was grateful I had been quiet, since it was perfect for this response to come from one of her peers.
Finally, in response to my invitation to share any testimonies they had, one woman told a very moving story. She shared that prior to coming to prison she had been in a very bad car accident and was in a coma. During this time, her husband passed on. After some serious struggles with prescription drug addiction, she ended up being convicted of a crime. At that point she was so angry at God and so bitter toward others that she would lash out at people who approached her.
Through prayer and reading the Bible she had a complete turnaround and was going to be getting baptized the next day. She said that while she may be in prison, she finally feels free in a way she never has before. This was a fitting way to end our time together, since the title of the talk was The Way Out for You. It was about finding our freedom regardless of what our circumstances may be.
It is a privilege to be able to visit people who are not able to interact with the wider society because they are behind bars but are experiencing freedom and grace in profound ways. It brings me a deeper gratitude for my own freedom and reveals what is possible through grace. I am very thankful for these opportunities to witness the presence and power of Love. Truly these women embodied the words they sang as we entered the chapel, and truly they are free. Free to be what God created them to be. May we all be able to live lives that say, “God loves you, and I love you, and that’s how it’s gonna be. God loves you, and I love you, and that you’ll surely see.”