by Lavanne Humphries
"Do the time, don't let the time do you." These are words I often hear from the women I visit each week at the local jail, a detention center for people awaiting trial. Those who participate with me in Bible study are the ones who have chosen to believe that this is the beginning of an experience that can have profound meaning in their lives.
They are open to the possibility that God is trying to get to them and they are willing to let go and let that happen. Some are further along in the journey than others, but all share in seeing that jail can be a womb of transformation.
Every Monday, when I open the Bible study session at two different PODs (places of domicile – sections of the jail, a large, circular structure with from ten to forty prisoners per POD), I begin by suggesting to the women that they see the cup half full rather than half empty because even in jail some good events can happen in their lives. They share their statements of gratitude with the group. More often than not some will say, "I'm grateful for being here," "I thank God that he put me here," "I'm glad I'm away from (the drug dealer, the abusive husband, the battles with family members, addictions, prostitution)." Many have come to see jail as "time out" – a space in their lives enabling them to begin moving in a different direction.
The women who come to Bible study are only a small percentage of the women incarcerated; of the two hundred locked up, five to ten percent get involved. They are of every age and condition – teenagers, pregnant women, grandmothers, many just coming off addictions. With few exceptions, all are in jail on drug-related charges.
The first POD houses women on short-term felony charges such as violating parole, prostitution, burglary, assault, or shoplifting. The average stay is short – seventeen days – but some are held for weeks or months. The other unit houses women charged with violent crimes – in a few cases murder. Some are held for up to two or three years while their cases are being prepared by overworked public defenders.
Due to our weekly encounters, I develop close relationships with many women, in some cases corresponding with them after they leave. I've seen several of these women grow and mature in amazing ways as we've shared love of Scripture, prayer and their deepest concerns.
The lessons I offer to both groups address several major themes presented in various ways using different scriptural references. We talk about prayer, how much they are loved by God, forgiveness, deification, suffering as it relates to life in Christ, and a strong emphasis on getting into a church when they leave. I always make the Orthodox option known to them – a part of Christianity many never knew about. I bring in icons of the feast days and give every woman I encounter an icon of Christ with a scripture verse on the back: "Be not afraid, for I am with you." (Isa. 41:10)
Above: I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (linocut by Ade Bethune)
The lessons always begin with a Psalm (I encourage them to read a Psalm every day). I include six or seven scripture texts relating to the theme as well as several readings from either contemporary sources or Church or Desert Fathers on the subject. We start with a prayer and end with all of us praying together, each woman voicing her special request to God, each one sharing concern for the others. They begin to see that incarceration is an opportunity to grow in prayer. The women with separate cells – those regarded as "high risk" – may follow the Desert Fathers, who say: "Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." I urge them to pray for each other, their families, the guards, the judges, their victims, their enemies.
As we close the session, I ask them to tell me one thing they want me to pray for and I will pray for them each day when I pray for my own children. Some of their prayer requests include: "Pray that my little children will remember me when I get out." "I want to be given wisdom to see my role in life and what God wants me to do when I leave here." (This came from a woman whose child was murdered.) "Protect me from negative influences in my life." "Ask God to protect and nourish me." "More than anything, I want to do God's will.'‘ "Pray that I won't give birth to my baby in jail."
In my four years of jail ministry, two women stand out as particularly open to God's healing love. Here, in their own words, are their accounts of their experiences while incarcerated.
As a young mother of three children, I was thrown into prison on some serious charges. I was heartbroken and suicidal at the thought of leaving behind my young children. I was placed on suicide watch for eight long excruciating weeks. [The prisoner is stripped, given a blanket, locked in a cell and isolated, except for being checked by another prisoner to report if she is engaging in head banging or other types of destructive behavior.] I lost all hope in life and simply gave up. Even when I moved upstairs with the other girls in my classification, I was still depressed. I stayed that way for six months until I was introduced to Bible study. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church but strayed. I finally decided to trust in the Lord with all my heart. I started gaining my hope back and it was enough to get me through .
I've suffered many losses while incarcerated which brought me to my knees. I prayed non-stop for my children's father to change his negative ways. I didn't want to lose my children to strangers. The more I stayed in the Word, the more I saw myself grow. My outlook on life changed dramatically. I can finally see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. I've regained all hope again and I have tremendous joy in my heart. I'm able to see the good in all things and learn lessons that come along the way. I'm so thankful that the Lord has given me another chance and not given up on me. He's been coming through for me time after time. After a year and a half of consistent prayer, my children's father is finally doing what he's supposed to do for our children. As long as everything continues this way, he'll get them back from the state for good. It's a huge relief for me. The Lord continues to prove that he can indeed move mountains for those who believe. I'm proud to say that I love the good Lord with all my heart and soul. I try every day to apply his words to my life. I notice that as I move closer to him my perspective has changed as well as my desires. I'm able to handle situations a lot better and I strive to be sin free. Although I still mess up I know that my loving Father in heaven will forgive me. He's helped me put the pieces back together and now I know that it's not over. I'll be released when God says I'm ready.
Helen is an extremely bright, lively woman, very articulate and more than eager to change. She wanted to learn, and stood out as a candidate for rich spiritual growth in that constricted environment. In Bible study, she was always taking an active role, sharing reflectively on the passages and questions. She was eager to know how to pray. As she grew over the months, she became very committed to keeping peace among the "little community" in the POD and would ask for prayers that they could live together in harmony.
As Helen mentioned, she grew up in the Catholic Church. Recently another woman came into the POD, also Catholic though having attended no services since she was five. I asked if either of them had ever prayed the Rosary. They remembered it from years ago and asked if I could get rosaries and teach them how to use it. We spent the hour I was there that day looking up all the scriptural bases for the Glorious, Sorrowful and Joyful Mysteries. I was describing to them my understanding of the Dormition of the Mother of God, showing them the icon. "Oh, could you bring us a copy of that icon? And can you please pray that we can forgive each other when we have disagreements so we can live in peace?"
Above: A “Panopticon” Prison in Arnhem, The Netherlands
After two years of incarceration, Helen asked if I could arrange for a priest to come so they could make their confession and receive communion. The priest visited them just before my last visit, and Helen was ecstatic that she could begin her confession and take communion for the first time in many years.
Louise was another prisoner I encountered who showed such remarkable growth while in jail. I knew her for about a year and half during her time in the high risk POD. She was moved to a women's prison across the state over a year ago. We still correspond.
This is what she wrote to me in a letter sent just after arriving at prison:
Well, I'm finally here … it is beautiful. We're in the middle of a 300 acre wildlife sanctuary. There are trees and grass, flowers and birds everywhere. And that beautiful sky! My heart sings, it is full of the beauty of God's creation around me! [I wrote to you about how] God is now in my heart, but not where he took me from. Like the violent life that I had been living riddled with drugs and alcohol, the life of owning things and working two jobs to have it "all" and yet didn't own a Bible! How I had gone from being a freshly saved teenager, wanting to be in the ministry – into a downward spiral over a period of 40 years to end up in prison for stabbing another human being in a drunken blackout! That's where I came from. Here's where I am today, with the joy of Jesus in my heart and it all started with prayer!... I look at this time of incarceration as an opportunity to magnify and glorify the Father and his Son Jesus.
I am (and always will be, until I join the Father) a work in progress. My life only gets better with each day as I meditate on God's word. In surrendering my will to Him I have the greatest peace in my spirit and love for all in my heart. I can't imagine ever living any other way than in obedience to the Lord and living in His light! One of the greatest gifts I've ever received other than salvation is learning how to pray, because prayer is the answer to everything. Whenever anyone comes to me with a problem, my answer is always - "let's pray." I know that there is no problem too large or too small for my God. All we need to do is talk to Him. Prayer - that is the answer! I give Him all the praise and glory for all the changes He's made in me and my life. I was once a prisoner of sin, but now I am set free! Praise God!
My encounter with Louise in the high-risk POD revealed a very responsive person, always eager for the Bible study and instructions on how to pray. I always pass out a sheet of instructions on how to do contemplative prayer – 10 to 20 minutes morning and evening using a word – Jesus, love, peace – to calm the mind and to allow God to take over. I've not heard responses from many on doing this, but Louise took to it like a duck to water. She reported to me after having done it for several months how it had changed her. She was becoming more forgiving and also realizing the pain her offense had caused others. She felt laid on her heart the need to pray for her victim and the victim's family. When she left the high-risk POD unit and was moved to another and found there was no Bible study there, she wrote both to the chaplain and to me. "We have to have Bible study here," she said. "Send someone to do Bible study!" I arranged to go to her POD rather than another one I was visiting at the time.
We went through the nine fruits of the Spirit, spending an hour each week on each of them. Always prepared, having read about and pondered the next lesson, she co-taught this with me. As we concluded the study, she informed me that she had been sentenced and was on the way to the women's prison across the state. Eager to get there, she told me, "I have a ministry to share God's word with others. I always wanted to do prison ministry, but didn't realize I'd have to be sentenced to prison to be able to do it!"
Not all the women who attend Bible study and appear to respond maintain their growth after they leave. If they go back to the same environment they left, they will find drug dealers waiting on their doorstep, the abusive spouse, the poverty, the lack of jobs, homelessness, the loss of children. Many return to jail – recidivism is sixty to seventy percent. However, seeds have been planted by those of us who study the Bible with them and our Lord has promised that his Word will not return to him void. We have faith that what we have offered will not be in vain.
To truly be with these women, I must practice being with God in my own life. In fact, it took twenty years of setting apart time during my day to practice silence and the Jesus prayer to develop in my heart a compassion for these prisoners, the "least of these." To continue the silence and the "listening" enables me to listen to them and to their deepest needs, to be consistent with weekly visits, and also to set boundaries, as one can easily be manipulated in this work. Consistency in being there is important. Several women have said, "Lavanne, it's not so much what you teach us as it is your coming out here every Monday, week after and week and ‘being' with us."
Prayer in the context of the Orthodox Church led me there, gives me strength to be there, keeps me going back and prompts me to hold my sisters up to God in intercessory prayer for mercy for us all, bound together in the Spirit and the love of Christ.
I sometimes sense that I'm entering the real world out there, a world of real people who have hit bottom, who admit they've done wrong, who face it, who own it, who are willing and eager to grow. Real people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. When I leave the jail to head home, I encounter all around me the chimera of addiction, denial, falseness, materialism. The unholy drive for total satiety of the senses this culture demands makes me wonder: who are the real prisoners?
Two primary realities have impressed me – at times overwhelmed me – in these four years of jail ministry: first, the power of God to lift up the fallen, to put within them a hunger and thirst for righteousness and a desire for real change; and second, the resiliency, courage, faith and hope of these women to welcome and embrace that change despite their having come from the most circumscribed, negative, demeaning circumstances where they have been betrayed by friends, abused by family members, treated poorly (at times unjustly) by the courts, and imprisoned for the sickness of addiction, instead of enrolled in rehabilitation. In spite of all this, some manifest an acceptance, serenity and determination with God's help to move forward toward the Light. They are truly women on the glory road!
There was one beautiful soul I encountered several years ago whose inner tranquility I will never forget. Sexually abused during childhood by the men in her family, she became a prostitute at fourteen (probably to support a drug habit) and was gang-raped by a group of boys the day before she was sent to jail. She sat there with the most peaceful look on her face, her eyes calm. As she told me her story, her well-worn Bible in front of her, she said to me in a voice filled with confidence and trust, "And I've given it all to God."
Would that we all could follow the example of this terribly wounded young woman who surrendered her suffering to the Great Healer and gained peace. Certainly, her witness gave to me a new meaning to our Lord's words, "the last shall be first and the first last." (Matt. 20:16)
Lavanne Humphries (nom de plume) is a retired college chaplain who has been involved in jail ministry for four years. She joined the Orthodox Church in 1982 and is currently active in Bible study and the parish choir. Names have been changed to preserve privacy.
❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60