THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD."…
|Our prison ministry crew at Jackson Correctional Institution.|
This past weekend, my husband and I had the privilege to give our testimonies to inmates in Jackson Correctional Institution with a local group that does prison ministry. The trip was truly God ordained, and the spiritual impact on both the inmates and ourselves was something that we weren't prepared for. I left in total awe of God, and with a renewed fire in my spirit, and the inmates there had more or an impact on me than they will ever know.
People have asked us before if we had ever considered doing prison ministry, and it was something that we were very interested in, but quite honestly weren't sure if we were going to be able to do. With both my husband and I being former addicts, we were positive that we would never be given clearance to go into prisons. On top of that, we have so much going on as it is, we were questioning if we had the ability to take on another aspect of ministry. However, our hearts were strong for people in prison- those who are isolated, alone, and hopeless- much like drug addicts are during their addictions. In fact, up to 85% of the prison population in fact have addiction and mental health issues.
The tug on our hearts for those and prison kept getting stronger and stronger, and then we were approached and asked if we would go along with a group from another church in town to give our testimonies. The leaders of the group know our stories, and thought we could really give hope to the inmates. So we agreed to try. We filled out the paperwork to get cleared to go in, and waited for what we knew would be a rejection letter saying that we were a security risk. Because of our addiction backgrounds, we both have criminal histories, and my husband was actually IN the prison 16 years ago that we were going to visit. Surely that HAD to be a security issue. We waited, and were given the word that we were CLEARED by the department of corrections to come in for prison ministry. I was floored. God was opening doors that logically shouldn't have been open. We took that as a very clear sign that God wanted us to go and share our stories of hope and freedom through Jesus to a group of men who have lived lives very similar to ours.
It was obvious that God wanted us to go. But, as anyone in ministry knows, the devil was not going to let it go out without a hitch. First, our applications got lost, and we had to send them in two more times. Then, we weren't able to find a babysitter for our son, so we had to drive 3 1/2 hours one way to drop him off with family for the weekend. On top of that, it was made VERY CLEAR that we HAD to have a valid state issued I.D. during check in at the prison, or we would not be allowed in. The day before, I made sure that my I.D. was in my purse so that we would be all set to leave at 5:30 A.M. In the morning, as we were getting ready to leave to grab some quick breakfast before the trip, I double checked my purse, and low and behold, my I.D. was gone. My husband and I ripped the house apart looking for it. Two minutes before we had to meet with the ministry team to leave, we still hadn't found it. I started crying and told my husband to go alone, because there was no way they were going to let me in. He responded that he wasn't going to leave me, because we are a team. He grabbed my birth certificate, social security card and marriage certificate as well as my college I.D. in a desperate hope that they would let me in with that, and said that we would have to trust God to get me in.
We met up with the ministry team, who was taking everyone on their ministry bus up there. We followed in our car, in case I couldn't get in and we had to leave early, or so that I would have somewhere to sit outside of the prison while the rest of the team was ministering. Once we were about a block away from the prison (after an hour and a half), Ben noticed that there was a purse in our back seat. It belonged to an addict that we had taken somewhere the day before, and had been over at our house. He told me that maybe I should check her purse, just in case she had taken the I.D., in one last ditch attempt to try and get in. I opened her purse, and I didn't find my I.D., but I DID find a baggie with white residue on it. I smelled it, and realized it was heroin. I said "Ben, look at this!", and he started freaking out. He said "Oh no, you have to go past the drug dogs in prison and now you have heroin residue on your hands! They are going to hit on you and think you are trying to smuggle stuff in!" JUST GREAT. Now there was ABSOLUTELY no way I was getting in. We pulled over, I threw the baggie away, and I scrubbed my hands in the bathroom, desperately praying that all of the smell came off (WOW- is the devil SCANDELOUS or what? He will do ANYTHING to try and stop God!)
We finally got to the prison, and the crew got checked in and went through the metal detector. My husband went up, he showed them his driver's license, and then he gave them my papers and went into the story about how I had lost my I.D. that morning. The very unfriendly looking guard glanced at the papers skeptically, looked at my husband, and then said "are you SERIOUS?" My heart sank. No way was this going to work. The fact that they had even let us in there with our backgrounds was pushing it, but now I was trying to come in with no identification? Oh well, at least we tried. But then, he looked at me and said "do you REALLY think that I am going to check you that hard when you are coming in here to do ministry? We did an extensive background check. You're good."
I couldn't believe it. God had literally opened the prison doors for us to be able to go in.
That's when the true excitement started. We were really here- and it was obvious that God wanted us here. I knew that something amazing was going to happen in that prison that day. Little did I know just how amazing it would be. We met with the Chaplin, and he gave us a rundown on how things were going to go, what we could and couldn't do, safety protocols and so on. There were three inmates there when we got there. I thought "well, at least there's three! These are the three that are supposed to be here!" Slowly, though, they started filtering in, and we ended up with at LEAST 80 men in there.
We started with prayer followed by praise and worship. The worship left me absolutely astounded. These men in prison- a dark, hopeless place that some of them were never going to come out of- these men who had absolutely nothing, had lost their freedom, their families, all of their material possessions- were praising God with a fire and passion that I have NEVER seen from a congregation during a Sunday morning church service on the outside. Shouting, raising their hands, jumping up and down- their voices booming, arms raised, with no fear of what anyone thought of them. They were worshipping God with their entire hearts and complete abandon. These men who had NOTHING but Jesus were satisfied with it- while those of us that have everything we need and then some sit in pews on Sunday and can't be bothered to raise our hands and worship God. It made me ashamed of Christians on the outside that are SO blessed in many ways, yet are no where near as in love with God as these men that are alone behind prison walls. We complain so much when we are so blessed, while these men are ecstatically grateful just because God gave them breath and broke their chains- even though they're in prison. They were free from any spirit of religion. They were worshipping God for who he is, not because they needed to make sure that people saw them in church.
After that, we had a morning of teaching and testimonies by the ministry crew. My husband and I were giving our testimonies after lunch, so we really got to enjoy the morning and bask in the light of God that was shining in that place. During the break, there were multiple men that came up to my husband that knew him from when he had been in prison 16 years ago, and they were so grateful that he was there. Most people who leave prison don't come back. He, however, knew that the impact of his story- that he had been in the EXACT seats that they were sitting in, could resonate with them in a way that other people's stories couldn't. The look of hope on their faces were soul melting. That my husband not only came back to minister to them- but was coming back a Godly, married man who God had redeemed by totally turning his life around, giving him a second chance at being a father, and using his past for GOOD for others who are going through the same thing was something that they absolutely needed to hear. He was there to tell them that their stories aren't over. In fact, it was just the beginning. Just like it was for him. To hear someone give a testimony is one thing, but to have KNOWN someone and then see the changes in them speaks louder than words.
During lunch, we ate the prison food and ate WITH the trustee prisoners. They all shared their stories about how they got to prison, and how they had come to find God. These men were nothing short of AMAZING. You could see that God was using them as a light in the prison for those who were still lost. They had so much hope. Such a stark comparison to Christians on the outside- Christians whose hope in God gets dashed when a prayer isn't answered the way they want it to be. Christians who go through the motions of being a Christian but won't be bothered to live it out outside of church. Christians who seem like the walking dead compared to the fire that is within these men. It was truly a humbling experience. I can honestly say, some of the greatest Christians that I have ever met are currently incarcerated. The ones that society labels as "bad", have a leg up on Christians on the outside.
My testimony was the second to last session of the day. As I got up and walked to the podium, I scanned the room. I looked- REALLY looked- into the faces of all the men staring back at me. I have given my hour long (condensed version!) testimony dozens of times in front of people, but I really wanted to connect with these guys. Men are hard to read as it is, but men in prison- where emotions are even LESS acceptable than for men in society- are really hard to read. I honestly wasn't sure if my testimony was going to have an impact on them. I knew they would be able to relate- but I wasn't sure if it would actually emotionally get to them. I needed to connect with them emotionally so that they knew just how lost I was before I found Jesus. How much of a hard case. How desperate. How out of options. I needed them to know so that they could see themselves in my story, and see themselves in the hope in my story that I found in Jesus. Sometimes, people can get so used to pastors and ministers and teachers giving bible studies and sermons that they can tune them out. Especially if they feel like they haven't been through the same amount of junk. I remember before I was saved, thinking "yeah, of course God saved you, Mr. Preacher man. What, did you say a cuss word once when you were 16? That's easy to forgive. But when you do the sort of things I have done- the things drug addicts do- that's a different story. It's hard to believe that God wants anything to do with that." I needed to let these guys know that I had been exactly where they had been, and that God did in fact want something to do with THAT. That he wanted something to do with them. If I could be saved and forgiven, anyone could.
When I started speaking, I am positive that they thought I was a "church person." A good person who had grown up in the church and was just coming to share the love of Jesus with them. I started off telling them how I just graduated college, have a family, do outreach ministry, and have a pretty good life now. But, I told them, it wasn't always like that. I was in the hell of drug addiction for years before Jesus saved me from it. I then went into my hour long testimony about where I came from, what my life was like before God, how desperate and broken and lost I was. I talked about all of the things I had done, all of the people I had hurt, all of the crimes I had committed. I talked about all my failures, all of the people who gave up on me, and how hopeless I was. I laid my soul bare, with no pretense, no hiding any part of me, no covering things up to look like a good Christian. For me, the power of my testimony is in the gory details. It's in the story of just how awful I was, so that the contrast can be seen to what Jesus has made me. It's letting people know that I was the worst of the worst, and that there is hope for them. It's showing people that you are never too far gone or have messed things up to the point where God can turn your life into what he wants it to become. That is my husband and I's calling, and why we are able to tell people about all of the junk in our pasts- because that is where God's glory is seen. The darker it is, the brighter the light shines. We tell people about our darkness so that they can see how different things are in the light.
I scanned the audience again as I finished my testimony, and saw at least ten men crying. When it ended, I was given a standing ovation by all of the prisoners. I was surprised, to say the least. Afterwards, I had many of the men come up to me and shake my hand and talk to me and thank me for coming, talk about how it related to their lives, how it gave them hope, and about how their situations were similar to mine. A HUGE (6;5!)guy came up to me, thanked me, and told me that I had both of the guys next to him crying, and that it was quite a feat since they were "hard dudes" (his words, not mine!). The Chaplin came up to me and asked if I would ever be willing to come back and speak with an AODA group, because my testimony had cracked them. It had gotten through the walls that they have spent so much of their lives building. God used my story to show them that there is hope for the hopeless. There is freedom for prisoners. To show that God loves drug addicts and criminals just as much as the person who has been good all of their lives or the pastor that preaches every Sunday morning. He redeems and forgives and restores and empowers no matter what you have done. It is never too late.
The ministry team walked out of the prison doors that day, and we went back to our normal lives- but I have not been able to stop thinking about those men. About how they touched me, and about how God had used me to touch them- and what a humbling experience it was to be able to be used to spread hope. I broke down into tears of joy and gratitude when I started thinking about when all of the horrible, painful, loneliness of my past was happening- I didn't understand it and thought that God didn't care. But walking into that prison and seeing God use that same painful past to help someone else reminded me that He was there with me all along, even when I didn't know it. Knowing that I didn't go through it for no reason- but to help others- reminds me of how good God is and how blessed I am to be loved by Him. Knowing that I once lived in the darkness, but now I help bring God's light to the darkness, just floors me. God is good, He is faithful, and He is there through it all. I am humbled, and I am in awe of His goodness and His ways- and I can't wait to see where He will have me going next.