Instead I chose to be here.
The spirit of God was alive in this place. I sat on my cheap plastic chair and soaked it in. It was here I saw Jesus clearer than ever, without clutter and distraction. It was here I felt His love. Understood His forgiveness. Marveled at His grace.
I gazed at the sea of faces, not a single one of which looked like me, as they sang and clapped with joy, shouted “Amen,” and lifted praise to the Lord. I felt I could reach out and touch the truth of Jesus and what He’s given us. The sermon was delivered with passion and conviction—and seemed aimed right at my heart. A few came forward to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation. We all gathered around to lay hands on these new members of God’s family, ending the evening in prayer that shook the rafters of heaven.
This familiar scene could have taken place in almost any church on any given evening. But we weren’t in church.
We were in prison.
And not a “country club” prison, but an urban, maximum security men’s correctional facility. The real deal. Of the 60 or so faces at worship that night, four belonged to our ministry. I was the only female. The rest were inmates. Many of them did truly awful things to earn their way in here. Some will never get out.
Of all the places I could choose to be on a weeknight, how did I find myself here?
Because God said, “Go.”
About six months ago, our couples’ Bible study searched for an outreach project. The typical ideas were tossed around, most having to do with food, women and children. Nothing seemed to fit right. Who are the most overlooked in our society? We searched our minds.
Breaking the silence, someone (who happened to be my husband) spoke up, “How about prison?”
We let his words sink in as we tried to make sense of this outrageous suggestion. Strangely, it felt right. We excitedly planned our next steps. Within a day, one of our friends “happened upon” someone who put us in contact with a nearby prison ministry. A few weeks later the two men who run the ministry—who are the ministry—came and spoke to us.
These guys were so filled with God’s purpose and Spirit; we listened to their stories, transfixed. By the end of the night, we were hooked.
A year’s passed since that meeting. Some in our group have moved on to other things, but a core remains. We’re still figuring out our place and our purpose among those inmates. But God keeps drawing us back. His hand gently nudges.
Being in prison reveals a startlingly simple picture of grace. One we may not want to accept: Jesus died for those prisoners as much as he died for you and me. Our God is one and the same.
On Tuesday after the worship service concluded, guards escorted the four of us out. We chatted amiably as we walked through the prison hallways. And do you know what one of the guards spoke about the entire time? How much she loved Jesus. Isn’t it amazing that even inside a maximum security prison, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, God’s love can still get in?
Once on the outside, the four of us rehashed the evening. As we stood in the parking lot, underneath the interstate, we held hands and prayed. Amid the scattered garbage, roar of cars overhead and prison looming in the background, we praised God for showing Himself to us through this experience.
Even here, in this most unlikely place, Jesus lives.
“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.” (Matthew 25:36)