It had been a few weeks since I had a chance to visit the women at the Correctional Facility because they had been on lockdown every time I would come. When that happens, I sit in the waiting room with other family members awaiting their visits, and literally stare at the clock until enough minutes pass by so that I can get up and ask the officer if the lockdown had been lifted. You don’t want to annoy them, you know.
Past few visits, the lockdown was in effect for the whole night so I would be sent home after an hour. When that happens, I feel terrible for many reasons….but mostly because the women who I usually spend time with on Monday nights don’t get the memo that no visitors are being allowed inside, and they end up thinking, “Oh, they decided not to come tonight.” Which is totally not the case!
Tonight, I headed over to the jail and said multiple prayers to God asking that a lockdown would not be taking place. And it wasn’t. It was the complete opposite! I remember before I went through the doors thinking to myself, “Mother Cabrini, Jesus, you are with me. This is what you would do, right? Let’s do this!”
Tonight was totally seamless, super nice officers, and my usual 8-person Bible study group tonight was a whoppin’ 13! That’s a big deal…especially when you’re in a super small room with an awkwardly large table on the side too filling up half of it. The circle was complete and if we added any more people, it would have been standing room only. As soon as the women started coming in, I couldn’t help but start smiling! I was immediately filled with joy to see them again and catch up with them. One of the other girls couldn’t join us but she asked me where I had been cause it had been such a long time! Ah, but she understood. Phew!
The Holy Spirit showed up tonight. And Joy and Hope too. I started off by having them do an icebreaker (the teacher in me) with their name, and the rose and thorn from the past week. They seemed to enjoy it. Gotta take advantage of opportunities to build community, you know! It was awesome. We started off with lots of laughing, some serious stories, and then thanksgiving for the gift of being able to be in that space with one another. They all had their Bibles with them, but I told them I had a different plan and I wanted to go over the address that Pope Francis gave to the Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. They were so excited to read it because they only read bits and pieces of his U.S. visit in magazines. We talked a little about the Pope, I gave some background on who he was, and then we were about to get started. The women were in good spirits and it was a lively bunch. That always makes it easy!
Before I passed out the texts though, one of the women stopped me and said, “Crystal, sorry to interrupt, but can you share with us why you’re here? Like, do you choose to be here?” One of the other girls next to her gave her a push and was like, “Do you see her smiling so big? She totally wants to be here!” And the other girl said, “But why? I don’t get it.” I immediately thought to myself, “Dang. That’s a good question – how do I articulate this?” I then shared with them my thoughts and they were grateful. There were a lot of “awwws” and more smiles. So that was a good thing.
We went through the text from Pope Francis then went around each reading a paragraph. I had never seen the women so engaged in a text before. It was absolutely quiet when one woman would be reading. As soon as we finished, I heard deep breaths and lots of, “Wow”s and “That was so good” and “Can I keep this paper?” We discussed the text and they were comforted to know that they were not forgotten. They are truly a beautiful group of women – some my age, others younger than me, and others who are older moms with multiple children.
I had marked up my paper with highlighter and blue pen marks with questions and scriptures and tried to touch on as much of it as possible, but one part really stood out to me:
Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion. – Pope Francis (Full Text here)
We spent some time discussing these last few sentences and I kept going back to the same thing: inherent dignity and mission. Yes, perhaps crimes were committed, wrongdoings had taken place, but dignity from God…that is there to stay. Amen? Amen. Mission sure may look different inside the walls than from the outside, but it’s in the little things that can make a difference. And mission never ends – no matter where we are. We shared examples of what that could look like within their cells. How could they serve one another in the midst of their circumstances? We talked about these things.
Repeating these phrases to the women tonight confirmed and affirmed my belief in God’s desires for each one of us. Whether or not the women recognize God’s presence in their lives, I felt the Spirit affirm and celebrate their presence in that room. For some, it was their first time being there tonight, and one of the women shared how grateful she was that she decided to come. In that moment, I was so certain that God loved each and every one of them – and that message from Pope Francis was meant for them too. Each one of them.
I closed us in prayer and some were wiping their eyes when we ended. In a way, it was an out of body experience for me, in that I felt the Spirit’s presence in the room, and it was filled with hope and such a joy to be with them. The conviction that I felt of their dignity and their call to love and service in the world was/is indescribable. It was a very powerful night. They prayed for one another, and to me, they reflected what a supportive community could look like.
I feel incredibly grateful for this ministry and for the opportunity to spend time with others in this capacity. There is so much work to be done and I am so grateful to be a part of it in the smallest of ways.