Tag Archive | worship in jail

Maria’s Story

Abbey is a good listener.

Abbey is a good listener.

“Hey, Abbey. Can you come here a minute? I need to talk, and I need someone to just listen.”

“OK, Mom. You know I’m always ready to just sit beside you and listen. What’s up?”

“I’m really sad today. I heard on the news that a woman in Madison was sentenced to 13 years in prison for killing her three-year-old son. I know that woman.”

“You do? How would you know a a person who killed a child?”

“She’s Maria. She’s been in the county jail for two years – from the time she was arrested, during her trial, and then waiting and waiting and waiting for the sentence.  She comes to the women’s worship service almost every other week, whenever she is allowed to come to the chapel.”

“Wow. You worship God with people who have killed people?”

“Abbey, God loves every man and woman in the county jail. There are lots of nice people in jail. Some of them have made mistakes and are sorry for them, and others are in jail by mistake – they really aren’t guilty. And some are in jail for good reason. God loves all of them.”

Abbey looked thoughtful as she said, “I know God loves them, but do they even think about God? I suppose maybe the ones that choose to go to “church” while they’re in jail think about God some. Maybe they are some of the nicer ones.”

“I wouldn’t describe every inmate that I see as I walk through the jail hallways to get to the chapel as a nice person, Abbey. But I wouldn’t describe every person I see as I walk down the street in Cambridge as a nice person either.”

“Boy, that’s for sure. I tried to say ‘good morning’ to a cat when Mim and I were out walking this morning, and the cat hissed something awful. I was just being friendly. That was not a nice cat! But tell me about Maria. Is she a nice person?”

jail - hand cuffs“Yes, she is. That’s partly why I was so sad to hear she was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Maria is from Mexico and has had a hard life. I don’t know many details, other than that she had a job, a boyfriend, and two children – the three-year-old boy who died and a baby. She didn’t speak much English, although she’s been learning enough to understand and speak it a little in jail out of necessity. Two years ago her son was injured. She took him to the hospital, where he died after a few days. She was blamed for his death. She claims her boyfriend is the one who injured the little boy, although she feels guilty for not protecting her son from her boyfriend. Two years ago when she was arrested, her other child, the baby, was taken from her and placed in foster care. She has not seen, nor heard anything about her baby since she was arrested.

“Can you imagine that, Abbey? Her three-year-old son was killed, her baby was taken away from her, and she’s been sitting in jail for two years waiting to find out what’s going to become of her life. And now she just learned that up to thirteen years in prison are ahead of her. I don’t know anything about the status of the relationship with her boyfriend, other than that he has not been charged with any crime related to the death of her son. I don’t know if he has visited her in jail, or not.”

“Wow, Mom. I see why you’re sad. And you said that Maria is a nice person. With all that’s happened to her, I wonder how she can be nice. I’d be so angry I’d growl at everyone around me!”

“I know it’s hard to understand, Abbey. Maria is very soft-spoken. Sometimes she looks really sad, but usually she tries to maintain a positive attitude, and she has such a pretty smile. She trusts that God will take care of her and she is thankful for that promise of God. Maria is also especially thankful that one of the jail chaplains arranged for her son’s ashes to be brought into the jail and that he held a funeral for her little boy. That was so important for Maria emotionally and spiritually. The chaplain even made all the arrangements necessary to have her son’s ashes sent to her family in Mexico for his final resting place.

“When Maria first started coming to the women’s worship service, another inmate who was bilingual interpreted everything for her. More recently, Maria has been giving her testimony in English, although she still prays in Spanish. A few weeks ago, Maria served as an interpreter for a new inmate who didn’t speak any English. Maria is so kind and gentle and caring. She’s a wonderful example of kindness and gentleness to other inmates.”

Abbey Profile 2“You know what that reminds me of, Mom?”

“What, Abbey?”

“You’ve told me that Pastor Jeff often says in his sermons that we may be the only ‘Jesus’ some people will ever see. Maybe God has allowed Maria to spend so much time in jail because she’s such a good ‘Jesus,’ and she may be the only ‘Jesus’ some inmates will ever see.”

“You may be right, Abbey. I certainly don’t know. But I do know that I am inspired by Maria’s gentleness, peacefulness, and loving attitude despite the twists and turns her life has taken. I also know she will need our prayers to be able to keep strong in her faith as she moves on to this next phase of her life as a prisoner.”

“Will you see her the next time you play the piano for the women’s worship service in jail?”

“I don’t know, Abbey. I don’t know if she’s been moved to the women’s prison yet, or if she’s still in the county jail? And, if she’s still here, it may or may not be the week for the women in her cell block to be able to go to “church.”

A prison cell door“Well, if you see her, tell her that I’ll be praying three things for her:  1) that God will keep her safe in prison;  2) that God will continue to comfort her and help her understand how much God loves her; and 3) that she will be a shining example of God’s presence in prison.”

“I’ll be sure to tell her, Abbey. And, thanks for listening to me. I really needed to talk about this today.”

Abbey-Marian

Getting Together with God and Some Friends in Jail

Singing behind bars.

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,
conceited people.

[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.