Thanksgiving Behind Bars

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I joined a ministry team in January of this year (2019) that goes to the Hernando Correctional Institute once a month on Sunday evenings and on the 5th Sunday morning. I previously mentored for several years at this same women’s prison. A few years ago it became a “faith and character” based prison and has become a model for other prisons, because of it’s high success and low infraction rates, since instituting this program. There are many different ministries who volunteer to minister to the women, teach weekly classes, etc. and they have a library of Christian books and Bibles, which the women can check out.

The Chaplain is a remarkable woman who shared her story last year at the volunteer’s banquet that the prison puts on every year. She shared that when her children were both young, a man who was their neighbor, broke into their home, robbed them, killed both of her children and beat her and left her for dead. She was not a Christian at the time, but became one a couple of years later. I believe she said the incident occurred about 20 years ago. Last year she traveled to the prison where the man is housed and met with him and told him that she wanted to know if he was going to heaven or not, because if he was, she wanted to introduce him to her children. This was such an amazing story of forgiveness of the highest degree. Only God can give a person that kind of love and forgiveness for someone who murdered their children and tried to murder her also. I can tell that she has had an amazing affect upon the women. It is very evident that she loves the women and is a great role model for them.

When we come into the chapel, the women always greet us with smiles and are so happy to see us. Pastor Byron goes around and talks to all the women, shaking their hands and telling them that he loves them. You can tell that he is very sincere and the women really love him too. So many of the women have not had good fathers or men in their lives and Pastor Byron is like a spiritual father and role model to them of how a godly man should treat a woman.

We never know exactly how the service is going to go. Pastor Byron is spontaneous and he allows freedom and flexibility. We usually start with a few worship songs. He called for any who felt that they needed to come to the altar and repent and get their hearts right with the Lord to do so and some came forward and prayed and cried and we prayed for them, but there was one young woman who seemed so despondent, she just couldn’t seem to shake the heaviness in her heart. While others were worshiping with the flags, she stayed back and continued to grieve. Then someone encouraged her to pick up the flags and worship and she did so with all of her might. She picked up two red flags (representing the blood of Jesus) and whirled them around over her head, turning them many different ways, as tears flowed down her face. It reminded me of how the Bible says that David danced before the Lord with all of his might (II Samuel 6).

Afterwards, when Pastor Byron asked if any of them wanted to share a testimony or song, she stood up and shared that someone had criticized the way she worshiped with the flags, so she had resolved not to do it anymore. I told her how beautiful her expression of worship was and that the reason the enemy tried to take her worship from her is because of how powerful it is. I said “don’t ever let the enemy steal your worship”.

Next Pastor Byron shared some of his story with the women about feeling rejected by his father at a very young age and contemplating suicide. He called for any who had been having suicidal thoughts to raise their hands and be prayed for and a couple of people raised their hands and were ministered to.

Afterwards, I shared with them that people have four basic needs; to be loved, accepted and forgiven and to have a sense of purpose in their lives and that the enemy starts working very early in people’s lives to try to establish a root of rejection, because if he can get his foot in the door with that, it can open the door for a lot of other things, like alcohol and drugs. I asked how many of them ever got drunk or started doing drugs because they wanted to be accepted by their friends and most of them raised their hands (I have been told that 90% of the women in the prison are there because of drug charges). I then shared a message about grace and of no condemnation in Christ.

By the time we left, all the women who had formerly been sad or crying now had smiles on their faces and expressed how much they appreciated what we shared with them and wished us a Happy Thanksgiving.

I think most of us take for granted our freedom and don’t worship with the same level that these women worship. It makes me think of the story in Luke 7:36-50 of the sinful woman who came up behind Jesus while he was attending a dinner at a Pharisee’s house. Verse 37 says: And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, 38 and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” Jesus tells the Pharisee in verse 47, …her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the sames loves little, (NKJV).

Although some would argue that the women did things that caused them to end up in prison and deserve to be there and that is true to some degree (the women are taught to take responsibility for what they have done wrong), the Lord is taking these women with broken lives and working everything that has happened to them together for good and turning them into those who “love much.” There is a saying “there go I, but for the grace of God.” I think many of us, if we were placed in similar circumstances to what these women have been through could also have ended up behind bars, but I am thankful to see the wonderful work the Lord is doing in their lives. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Kelly Rowe