Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Prison Work is Messy Work

“On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

After a few months of hiatus, I recently started going back to Dallas Prison to serve the women of Lew Sterrit prison.  In the past year and a half a small team and I have taught a number of life skills classes to challenge the women to start taking the necessary steps towards getting their lives back on track.  We’ve taught on healing, forgiveness, finding life’s purpose and this semester on HIV/AIDS, all taught with the word of God as a foundation. 

Every new semester comes with its own challenges and new faces.  Of course I want to see old friends but this is not the kind of place you jump with excitement when you see old friends.  Instead your heart breaks wondering of all the failed promises they made and their shame for failing.  And I believe, the excited while disappointed feeling is mutual; you can see it in the half smile on their faces that say: I’m glad to see you but I’m so ashamed because I failed.

When I describe inside of the prison to eager friends who can’t fathom being inside of a prison serving, they walk away with their mouths wide open in complete disbelief.  Well this time around, it was my mouth that was left wide open, shocked by where I was and what I was doing.  The entire time I was there, I was thinking: “no one will ever believe where I was and what I was seeing”. 

So let me paint the picture for you of that first day back into prison.

In the past year and a half we’ve been serving in a multi-purpose room.  And this room is connected to the pod, where the women sleep, with plexiglass doors on both sides, to the left and the right; virtually soundproof and a guard has to buzz the women in and out.

This year, however, due to an influx of volunteers, we were pushed into the pod to conduct our class.  Now when you walk in the pod from the multi-purpose room, the guard sits on a raised staired concrete slab area right in the middle of the pod.  Directly in front of the guard is the common area and surrounding the common area are two floors of bunk beds with no bars (sorry not the drama you see on TV).  To the right of the common area are showers, toilets and, I think, a microwave. 

On our first day of serving, we walked in to conduct our class and instantly you can hear all of the voices from the different activities going on.  Some were playing cards and others in their “rooms” with their bunk mates, guard talking to the ladies, and others were cleaning up.  We announced the class and we began pulling round tables together to set enough chairs for about 20 women.  The women were not required to attend but about 15 showed up. 

And so we began our class.

 This was by far the most bizarre condition in which I have ever taught a class.  It seemed after every fifth sentence, someone who was not a class participant, was in desperate need to use the toilet which was maybe 20ft away from our “class” and that toilet flush had to be the loudest flush I have ever heard.  And it was also around that same time several women decided this was the best time to take a shower which by the way has a concrete “door” that covers up to their waste.  Yes you got it loud bathroom flushes and butt naked women right in the middle of our class while teaching from the top of our lungs on HIV/AIDS in prison. 

Oh I love prison work…no other ministry has stretched me to go beyond the pleasantries and get comfortable with the messy.

It was so odd that right there, in the midst of the messy, was the presence of God.  Sometimes I find that God’s presence is more felt in these messy places than many churches I have visited.  There is that reminder that this messy group is why Jesus came.  It forces me to see my limited power and God’s supernatural power to save, heal and restore.  As much as I like going to the prison to serve, 99 percent of the time, I feel completely helpless without any answers for the enormous problems I hear but those moments force me to realize that I am not God and only He can heal, save and restore.  My job is to just show up.  I guess the only credit I deserve is for showing up; everything else is God. 

No other job has taught me to sit with the messy than prison ministry.  No other job has taught me of my limited power than prison ministry.  No other job has taught me to look at broken people with compassion than prison ministry.

Though it is messy, the presence of Jesus is there.  And wherever Jesus is that’s where I want to be. 
Please Join me in praying for us as we learn to sit with the messy!


  1. keep on keeping on! sitting in the mess - that's living incarnational- that's Jesus!