“County Jail,” read the sign, and for the first time in my life, rather than driving past it, I put on my blinker and pulled into the entrance. My heart was racing. It was a beautiful summer day, and as I stood outside the jail with two other women, I wondered if I was making a mistake.
Cautiously, I proceeded inside. The corrections officers sat in a octagonal booth that had windows on every angle. Security monitors filled the office, and the guards paced back and forth. “I need your license, please. Then sign in,” the man behind the wall responded.
After signing in, the three of us entered a small corridor with a door on either end. As the door closed, it locked — loudly, abrasively — making me jump. I held my breath and waited for the other door to open. When we crossed to the other side, a guard met us. Smiling, she brought us to the room we’d be using for our sessions. “Remember, don’t ask about why they’re in here, don’t touch them, and if you need anything, or if any disruptions occur, hit this button and a guard will come to you. The females will be here shortly.”
As she left, the door locked behind her. I glanced around the room taking in my surroundings — the white washed concrete walls, the florescent lights. Something bothered me about the fact that she had called the women ‘females.’ Everything seemed so cold, so detached. I exhaled, not realizing I’d been holding my breath. “Breathe,” I told myself, “you’ve taught this lesson before, it’s just a different setting, it’s fine.” But I couldn’t control my racing heart, or shaking, sweating hands.
Visiting The Imprisoned
The truth is, I’d never planned on doing prison ministry, at least not at the age of 24. But when my wonderful, faithful friend, Wanda, approached me and asked me to be a part of a women’s prison ministry, I couldn’t help but say yes. It was, after all, a work of mercy, and the program we were running, “Discovering Christ”, was one I’d helped to lead many times in our Church. The best part, was that it was only an 8 week commitment. “How hard could it be?” I (foolishly) thought.
The first week was hard. Teaching had always come naturally to me, but everything from the introductions, to the lesson, to the discussion felt awkward, stilted, and forced. I didn’t know how to relate to these women, how to interact with them. Though each week became less uncomfortable as the women opened up to us, I still felt as though I wasn’t connecting with them. When the 8 weeks concluded, I was relieved to be free of the commitment. But the women wanted us to keep coming, and once again, I felt compelled to say yes. 8 weeks turned into 12 weeks, and soon it became clear that God was calling us to be here every week for the foreseeable future. With that realization, I knew something needed to change.
Change My Heart
As I knelt in Adoration, I brought my frustrations to God. It seemed so simple: share the love of Christ with them. But something was preventing me from truly communicating the joy. Earnestly, I asked God to reveal my stumbling block: “open my eyes, Lord, help me to see,” I prayed.
Jesus tells us, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). I thought of the prison — cold and institutional. I thought of the women, and as I did, words started to rise to my mind: Prisoner. Inmate. Convict. Suddenly, my problem became so clear. I was letting their status define them, which was hindering me from seeing the unique persons made in the image of God. I was failing to see Jesus in each of these people, who, despite whatever crimes they’d committed, had inherent dignity. In this moment, I realized that an act of mercy is only an act of mercy when we are willing to see Jesus in the people we are serving.
Heart of God
Jesus teaches His disciples: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” Living out the works of mercy, of which there are two main types: corporal and spiritual, is an opportunity for us to answer this call. In fact, “these works of mercy are the features of the face of Jesus Christ, who takes care of his littlest brethren in order to bring the tenderness and closeness of God to each of them” (Pope Francis, General Audience 12 October 2016).
I entered the prison thinking that, as I helped to reveal the love of Christ, I would be changing these women’s lives. However, the opposite happened. Through this act of mercy, I came to know myself more fully, and in turn, the love of our Father more profoundly. I am the prisoner — trapped in my shortcomings, my failures, my weaknesses, my shame. God knows all of this. Still, He does not identify me by my sin. Instead, He looks beyond my brokenness and acknowledges my deepest identity, my inherent dignity.
As the veil of judgement began to be lifted from my eyes, and I as began to listen with a heart that was more aligned with Christ, I realized a beautiful thing: these women were courageously and breathtakingly vulnerable. So many of them had experienced and witnessed things no one should ever have to feel or see. Still, they entrusted me with their stories, their wounds, their shortcomings–the things most of us try and hide. But it was this openness, and acknowledgment that they needed a Savior, that enabled them to earnestly pursue Jesus, to yearn for Him and depend on Him in ways I am still struggling to do.
As I began to see Christ in the marginalized, in the outcast members of our society, I also began to see hope–something I never expected to find inside the whitewashed walls of the jail. These women had all made mistakes–that much was obvious. But rather than bemoaning and judging their broken past, as I once had, I started to rejoice in the fact that, despite their past, God was still pursuing their hearts and they were turning back to Him. And I was reminded that we all have our stories, that we are all in a constant state of becoming, and that no matter how many times we stumble, God continues pursue us.
This is the God we have: One of mercy and love. He calls us by our name, not our sin. He calls us His beloved children and continuously beckons us into a deeper relationship with Him. Because we have received mercy, we must show mercy. And the beautiful thing is that when we do this, when we encounter people — especially those who are weak and vulnerable — in a way that recognizes their God-given dignity, we come to know the heart of God more deeply.
To dive more fully into the mystery of the Heart of God, check out Heart of God: a 28 Day Personal Retreat, and allow His heart to transform your own.
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