December 12, 2012

Crocs and Prison Garb

The loud buzz always startled me, even though I’d heard it before. My friend Rhonda reached for the heavy door, and pulled it open, and the three of us women entered the cement-block hallway. Pausing at the second door, I steeled myself for the buzz again. When it came, I almost jumped. 

The guards knew us by now, so they no longer looked at our books or Bibles for inspection. We proceeded to the little room where we held the Bible study. A simple desk, a few chairs, an old filing cabinet in the corner, the same whitewashed block walls, a security camera. The same smell—was it antiseptic? 

I glanced through the glass window at the desk where a guard sat. No sign of Christmas here at the jail. No wreaths or lights or color. No music, no remembrance of His birth. Just block walls, swept floors, and the couple of solitary cells we could see from our room. 

We laid out our literature and Bible studies on the ledge of the small window and waited for the women prisoners to arrive. It was always voluntary. The women could choose whether they wanted to get out of their cells and attend our hourlong weekly Bible study. Nobody forced them. Just the gentle prompting of His Spirit, or maybe the desire for fellowship, or maybe just sheer boredom. 

Suddenly we heard them: the murmur of their voices and the slap of their croc shoes on the cement floor as they swept around the corner and into our little room. We greeted them with hugs—if they wanted—or pats on the arm, or even a simple smile and nod of the head. Some were new; others we had seen before. There were eight in attendance tonight. Eight women bound together through their own choices—or was it the choices passed down through the years from parents and grandparents, boyfriends and husbands, environments and dysfunctional homes, habits and addictions, that had bound them tighter and tighter until they could hardly breathe? 

2012 1534 page24I looked around the circle of women as they each shared their name and prayer needs. Almost all were young; many younger than I. For some, years of drug use and alcohol abuse had left a stamp on their faces. Others looked innocent and scared. As they spoke of upcoming trials and court dates, of children in the homes of their moms or husbands or even social services, of boyfriends and husbands in prison, of rehab and sobriety, I thought of the charges against them. They ranged from driving under the influence to drug use to murder. And none of them could go home for Christmas—only six days away. They’d spend it here, while I would be home with my husband, Greg, and we’d have carols and color, music and twinkling lights, laughter and love, food and fellowship. And what would they have? Nothing but whitewashed cement-block walls and a TV for company. No family, no friends, no music. What was left? 

The tears began to flow as we prayed for the women’s loved ones, for their babies and their safety, for their sobriety and decisions, for their baby steps as Christians, or the decisions that weren’t yet made. We then began to sing the age-old carols “Silent Night” and “The First Noel.” The voices wandered and wavered—sometimes on key, sometimes off—but from hearts that were full. Here we were praying and singing together: eight women in navy blue prison garb and orange crocs, and three street-dressed women from church.

We pulled out our Bibles and began to read from Luke 2: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (verse 1, KJV). I glanced up from the reading of that beautiful story to meet blank stares. Oh, that’s right, King James English isn’t the easiest to grasp. So Rhonda began to read that age-old story again, but this time in a clearer, more modern translation. The women followed along in their versions, and I could see nods and understanding in their eyes. Was it sinking in? The world’s greatest Gift, the gift of God’s Son, Jesus, was available to them—to all of us. It came freely to a world lost in sin, violence, addiction, and strife—but at what cost? Oh, how He loves us! Oh, how He wants to set us free!

We held hands at the end and prayed. Some were just beginning this walk with Jesus; others were unsure whether to take that step; and still others were resisting the call of His Spirit. Oh, God, will You break through to their hearts? Oh, help them to accept You! Our circle broke up, final hugs went around, and they were escorted back to their cells. 

We walked out past the guard’s desk and waited by the door for that startling buzzer. We moved down the cement-block hall and out into freedom. Had we said the right things? Had God’s love shone through? Had the Holy Spirit poured light into darkened minds and awakened a desire for Him? 

A Stark Contrast
The next morning Greg and I gathered for worship at Three Angels Broadcasting Network (3ABN), where we work. As we gathered in a circle in one of our studios, the harshness of the prison lights and the whitewashed cement walls seemed a distant memory. I let my mind drift as our vice president, Mollie Steenson, began to read, but her first words jolted me back to reality.  “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” Luke 2! Why, we had just read that the night before! As Mollie continued reading that beautiful passage, the stark contrast between our Christmas jail service and this one pulled at my heart. There were lights here, and color; texture and beauty; painted walls and curtains; pillows and chairs; decorations and rugs—and even a baby grand piano. 

My tear-filled eyes traveled around the circle of people standing there. Women leaned against their husbands’ arms; some held hands; others linked arm in arm; still others stood next to friends and coworkers. They would all have Christmas in their homes with their children and families, with friends and food and fellowship. And what would my eight sisters clad in blue have? Nothing—nothing of the simple things in life, the things that really mattered. Nothing of home, or the touch of a spouse, or the kiss of a child. Nothing in the way of cards or candy or carols. Nothing meaningful.

The beautiful story in Luke 2 ended, the story of that Baby who came to earth so long ago, and we gathered around the piano to sing the beloved carols; this time, “Joy to the Word” and “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” I looked around at the happy faces, saw the contentment and joy written there. No sin-scarred faces here, no anguished eyes, no yearning for the children ripped from their arms. The voices soared, rich with harmony: “Peace on earth, to men good will.” That was it! Jesus had come into these hearts and lives, had transformed homes and marriages, had given the joy that is found in serving Him and others.

Who Will Go?
Jesus could do the same for those eight women. He could enter those whitewashed cement rooms and transform them, too. Oh, the clothes might not change—they’d still be clad in prison garb; neither would the surroundings be different—no lights or music allowed; and their families wouldn’t be there—they’d still be separated by the consequences of their choices. But this change would trump all others. Jesus could take their worry and bring them peace; He could wipe away their tears and bring them joy; He could transform their lives and hearts and faces; and He could set them free!

But in order for this to happen, someone has to share. How can they accept if they never know? How can they learn if they are never taught? Who is willing to go? Several people in our church are involved in the weekly Bible studies at our local jail, but what about the next county? What about other cities in the state? the nation? What about those women and men across the globe who sit in darkness, in chains, and desperately want to be set free? Who will go to them? 

O Father, I breathed, send forth workers. Not just to the upstanding citizens of our society, but to the downtrodden, the outcast, the incarcerated. To those in jail cells wearing prison garb, to the hopeless and despondent who long to see their families again, to those who are reaching out for a hand to grasp. 

O, God, may You send us! 

Jill Morikone is a music teacher, a church pianist, and a host on the 3ABN Today cooking segments. This article was published December 13, 2012.