“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
(Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
It was one of those weekend happenings that takes some time to process. I always seem to approach these events with a sense of trepidation but come away from them with emotions that run the gamut of sad to fearful and of heartbreaking to inspirational.
As part of a prison ministry, I have to say that I never come away empty and with nothing to share. I never come away with ambivalence or with an untouched heart. But, I do come away with something that I struggle to convey.
I’m involved in prison ministry through The Heart of Texas Foundation and, as such, we partner with another prison pastoral outreach from North Carolina called Forgiven Ministry. Forgiven Ministry is the brainchild of Scottie Barnes who knows, first hand, what life is like when one’s father is behind bars. She has spent her life learning to forgive and teaching others to forgive. Forgiven Ministry is dedicated to making sure that children of inmates have a chance to know their parents, to learn from the incarcerated parents’ mistakes, and to have a meaningful relationship with them despite forced separation.
And let me just say this: Over 5 million children in the United States have a parent in prison, and eighty-two percent of those children will end up in jail, themselves.
Frightening, huh? No, it’s downright criminal, and we cannot sit back and allow this to happen. We have to do something about it.
The event this weekend was called “One Day with God,” and to those who have never been involved with prison ministry—well, let me just say that this particular scenario seems odd, at best. Children of inmates are brought into the prison to spend a day with their incarcerated mom or dad. This past weekend was a day for children to spend with their mothers.
On Saturday, children had to cross a threshold into a world no child should ever have to cross. Several dozen children entered the razor-wired world of their mothers’ prison.
They come with all kinds of hope. Some come with a picture in their hearts of what their momma looks likes, a remembered soft fragrance that wafts around her, a warm memory of what her arms feel like. And, some come with resentment and anger and frightening memories that need to be examined and forgiven.
I had come for the two-day event but, after the first day, I didn’t want to face what was to come the next day. I wanted to go home. I was ready to cut and run. I wanted to take the easy but cowardly path of desertion.
Donald Miller wrote that Fear is the manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring story. And, yes, how I know that fear.
I want to live the story that God want’s me to live, the Bigger Story, the one that He has written and in which He is working. But, oh, how I long to live in comfort, in complacence, in denial, and in anonymity.
Thankfully, however, God decided to slap me around a bit and, after a few rough blows from Him, I finally said, “Okay. Okay, I’ll stay. I’m here. Okay. Are you happy now?”
Saturday, the children of the inmates, with whom we had been working all day on Friday, were coming to visit. For the whole day on Saturday, they would be there with their mothers—a day of games, songs, dances, crafts, meals, videos, magic shows, puppet shows, prayers, blessings…and…worst of all…
Nope. I didn’t want to be a part of it. I didn’t want to be there.
I must say that, with every one of these prison trips I make, I encounter the same fears, the same emotional conflicts. I’m excited about signing up. I put it on my calendar. As the day draws near, I come up with fake symptoms of illness. I start hoping that someone in my family will come down with some dire circumstance that will make me cancel out on the trip. (Seriously, I don’t really want something horrible to happen to anyone in my family—but I find myself searching anywhere and everywhere for a way out, for an excuse not to go.)
Alas, the day arrives, and I find myself in route to whatever prison is on the agenda for that weekend.
This past weekend was Plane State Jail in Dayton, Texas. One Day with God.
The inmates sign up for this visitation program months in advance. They can have no infractions in that time period. If they mess up even an hour before the program begins, they’re out. It’s over. No visitation. No kids.
At the same time, if a disgruntled spouse or mother or grandmother decides at the last minute not to bring the kids to visit, the inmate is out of luck. No game day. No visitation. Such is the life of the incarcerated.
One of those inmate moms was Amanda.
Excitement radiated from her face. Her two girls, ten and seven, were going to be coming on Saturday morning. On Friday, Amanda filled up toy bags for each of them. She wrote prayer requests. She inscribed a leather-bound book of devotionals for each child. We played music and danced, helping her to perfect the Electric Slide and the Cupid Slide so that she could teach the dance moves to her kids. She made a picture frame to house the photo that would be taken of her and her two children.
They were coming to see her. For the first time in a year.
But, over night, something happened. A change of heart with the children’s father, with the grandmother, with whomever was the primary caretaker of the children—I don’t really know—I know only that someone made the final decision not to bring them to Dayton. The children didn’t come.
Amanda stood aside, alone, with tears in her eyes and with the harsh realization that her children would not come. In her past, she had committed a crime, and this was a part of the price she would pay.
There was a sense of connection and of family that may never have been there before this day. On this one day, they were a family. They were mother and daughter, mother and son. They were connected in a way that might just change all of their lives forever. That was the hope. That was the chance that was taken. That was the place that God had chosen to change hearts.
If you really want to see God at work, join a prison ministry like Grove Norwood’s The Heart of Texas Foundation, Scottie Barnes’ Forgiven Ministry, Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, Joe McDonald Ministry, or John Sage’s Bridges to Life. I’m sure there are many other fine organizations that are affecting major change in the prison population of this country, but these organizations are at the forefront and are ones with which I am most familiar.
If one mother—even an incarcerated mother—can affect the life of her child in a positive way, if there is one life that wouldn’t have changed otherwise, then God has worked a mighty deed.
And I want to be there. I want to be a witness. So blessed!