Last Thursday I had a glimpse into some of the unfairness and viciousness experienced by the women spending time in the county jail. As usual, I went through security to get into the jail and walked down the long hallway to the chapel to play the piano for the women’s worship service. Chaplain Julia was already there, arranging the chairs into a small circle. I turned on the digital piano and confirmed with Julia the songs we would sing – “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and “Arise, Your Light Is Come.”
A few minutes later a guard escorted five inmates into the chapel and locked the door behind them. As soon as we were all seated in the circle, one of the inmates, Georgiana, said, “I know we will have a chance to share what’s on our hearts later, but can I talk now? I really need to talk about what’s weighing so heavily on me.” There were tears in her eyes.
Chaplain Julia said, “Sure. You can talk now.”
Georgiana told us about what was happening in her cell block. “Our cell block is the most dysfunctional cell block in the jail. We’re completely full. There are eight of us. The women in there are so loud and abusive. One woman, in particular, is always yelling at me, telling me to do this, do that – get her some cold water, get this – whatever she wants. And I just get up and do it. Then she yells at me about something else. Anyone who doesn’t do what she says gets beaten up. And she’s so loud, and always yelling about something. I can’t even read my Bible. I can’t concentrate with her always yelling at someone – usually me.”
The other inmates sitting in the circle listened sympathetically. Maria confirmed how bad that cell block is. She said, “I’m in the next cell block and can hear the yelling through the wall. It’s really bad in there.”
Georgiana said, “I know I’m just venting. But it’s so good to be here among Christians and feel their support. I’m just praying it will get better in there. One of the deputies said that the worst woman is going to be moved out. I just pray that will happen, and soon.”
After about 15 minutes of this unscheduled time of sharing and support, Chaplain Julia began the planned service with a short reading about stories in the Bible where God helps women arise out of their circumstances. After the reading we sang our opening hymn together, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The women sang heartily.
Then God spoke to us. Just like that. The Scripture readings included Psalm 123. We all were astounded as we heard one of the inmates read these words:
Our Lord and our God,
I turn my eyes to you,
on your throne in heaven.
Servants look to their master,
but we will look to you,
until you have mercy on us.
Please have mercy, Lord!
We have been insulted
more than we can stand,
and we can’t take more abuse
from those proud,
[Psalm 123, Contemporary English Version]
It was like God had been listening to our conversation and knew just what we needed to hear. A few thousand years ago the writer of this Psalm was crying out to God with almost exactly the same words Georgiana had used today. God has been listening to us crying out for help for a long time.
We continued with the rest of the Bible readings and our testimony time. We went around the circle and each shared what the Scripture readings meant to us personally in the context of what’s going on in our own lives. When it was Georgiana’s turn, she asked us to pray for Lisa, another inmate, whose sister was on life support. Lisa was trying to get a pass from jail to go see her sister and say good-by before they discontinued life support for her. Lisa’s sister had had an aneurism and had suffered considerable brain damage.
After the testimony time and some quiet time for writing down prayer requests we went around the circle again, praying for the person on our right. I prayed for Georgiana. Then we sang our closing hymn. Chaplain Julia ended the service with a blessing, and I went back to the piano to play some uplifting hymns as a postlude of sorts while we waited for a guard to come to escort the women back to their cells.
Since our worship time together had gone a little longer than usual, we happened to hit the change-of-shift time for the guards. That meant we had about a 15-minute wait for a guard to come to take the women back to their cells.
While we waited, I just kept playing more hymns on the piano. When I started to play “How Great Thou Art” I heard a soft, beautiful soprano voice singing behind me. It was Georgiana. For the next ten minutes she sang along as I played. She requested a few praise songs. The ones I knew, I played and she sang. The ones I didn’t know, I listened as she sang a capella. For a few of the well-known hymns – like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace” – several of the women sang along. By the time the guard finally came, we had quite a “choir of angels” singing praise to God.
Whenever two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them. [Matthew 18:20]
Last Thursday, that’s what happened in the county jail. I was richly blessed to be a part of the gathering.