Our church commits to a Friday night chapel service once a month at a women’s prison about two hours from our campus. I had never been before, but when Dan returned from his visit a few months ago he told me I would love it. Love prison? Yeah, he kinda knows me.
What I love is being useful. What I love is doing things that make a difference in the way people feel or see the world or experience Jesus. Dan knew I would love visiting the prison. He even knew what I would speak about and what I would sing. We didn’t even need to practice.
When we first pulled up, it almost looked like a big farm. Dark red metal buildings were spaced out over several tracts of land. I had expected cinder block, I think. I barely noticed the tall fences with barbed wire on the top. The closer we got to the front door, however, the more of the tension I began to feel. It’s similar to the way I feel when I know a police car is cruising behind me: I don’t plan to do anything illegal, but its mere presence inspires a guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach anyway!
Gaining entrance is a series of security checks including badges that have to be swept over sensors at each stop, an “air lock”, and a personal alarm device that supposedly brings every guard to your assistance if you feel threatened at any moment. It weighed like a live bomb on my pants pocket. Once we finally made it into the open air of the prison commons area, I lost some of the nervousness for myself. Instead, my heart broke for the brokenness I saw in that yard.
Weary, wounded women were lined up like school children as they awaited permission to enter buildings. I saw lots of faces but didn’t hear a single laugh. Guards in every shape and size lined the criss-crossing paths of the open area. Most of them puffed silently on cigarettes and nodded solemnly as we passed.
Our “chapel” room was full of gray plastic chairs and lots of miscellaneous furniture that cluttered the space. A small stage was at the front of the room. On it we found our microphones and a plexiglass podium where I would later sit my Bible and my one page of notes and song lyrics.
The only item of real beauty in the room was concealed under a heavy canvas cover: a black grand piano. But as soon as Dan pulled off the cover, we discovered long, deep, systematic scratches across the glossy top of the instrument. It was scarred and imperfect, but it sounded beautiful. An omen, I hoped.
One by one, women began to file into the room. Not many, maybe ten. They wore gray jumpsuits and shoes that didn’t seem to fit. No make-up and a life of disappointments made them look older than they probably were. I don’t for sure. We were asked not to share personal details. But I didn’t need details to see the pain.
Their bravery to come at all surprised me. I was humbled by their willingness to subject themselves to the “ministry” of a stranger. I wondered if they were afraid of what I might say, of how I might treat them as less of a Christian than myself. I wondered if any of the visiting preachers had ever made them feel small or unworthy. I hoped not, but I know a lot preachers.
I opened with the story of my season of greatest pain: the loss of baby Ellery. I felt like it was the only fair way to enter the conversation – I couldn’t identify with their particular situations, but I knew we could all understand pain, disappointment, and fear. I told them about how burying a child changed me forever. I didn’t tell them that in that moment I was actually thankful to have a connection to them. I saw compassion in their eyes, empathy in their tears. Now they felt sorry for me – we were even.
I’ll share the points of the message in another post because this one is already too long. But at the end we sang a song that says, “Sometimes the sun stays hidden for years/ Sometimes the sky rains night after night/ When will it clear?/ But our hope endures/ The worst of conditions/ It’s more than our optimism/ Let the earth shake/ Our hope is unchanged.” And I sang it stronger than I’ve ever sung it before. And I meant it. I knew, looking upon tear filled eyes and vulnerable hearts, that it probably meant more in the barrenness of that room than it has ever meant in red-carpeted, stain-glass-windowed sanctuaries. At least, in that moment, that’s how it felt. It felt very, very useful.
And I think faith should feel that way more often.
*thanks to Still Burning Photography for the Flikr photo!