Last winter I began volunteering in the Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility. It started as a way for me to do something that had nothing to do with money. I had begun to feel the pressures of career, income, lack of retirement, and fundraising. And the only way that I know how to combat those kind of life pressures is by getting myself outside of my normal and more into the communities that are named in Matthew 25:35-46:
“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.”
I emailed a friend who had recently launched a 10 week program serving women in prison (they have a men’s program that’s been around longer) who had been asking for people to volunteer and lead sessions. My degree is in Criminal Justice – Corrections and while this has never been my job, themes of redemption, justice, and restoration are what you would call an arch in the story of my life. And since visiting the prisoner somehow makes it onto this list, this felt like my next step.
When I first thought about meeting with women who were incarcerated, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to see them with eyes that see good. That if I knew what they did, I wouldn’t be able to love them or see hope in and for them.
And then they began to share their stories. Where they came from and what their lives were like before they got to prison. They shared stories of their upbringing and being abandoned by their parents. Of selling drugs and their bodies to support their children and their addictions. Of terminated pregnancies and affairs. They couldn’t picture what their lives would look like at 50 because they never considered that they would live that long.
They shared that they have never belonged to a family and didn’t know their name. How they didn’t feel like they could ever be forgiven and weren't worthy of another chance. That they are known by a number and called the property of the department of corrections.
I can’t tell them that they will ever be able to repair the damage that has been done. Or that they would ever get to know their children or reunite with their parents.
That the crime that got them put in prison or that they got away with would be forgiven by their communities where they had done harm and caused trauma. That the ache of bad decisions would resolve.
But, I could tell them that they were beloved. That they had worth simply because God made them. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are seen and known. And no matter what they have done or will do, he won’t leave them. And it felt very much like seeing them the way that God sees each us.
Sometimes I forget that the words that I spend a lot of time studying, interpreting and asking questions about, are an invitation to try. That trying something is like asking a question. Take all of who you are, your experiences, fears, successes and failures, and offer them into your next step. You might even find a prisoner who sees you the way God sees you.