I recently spent the weekend in a women’s prison. It was my first time in prison and I was there to assist with a two-day Catholic retreat. Around the same time, I was also invited to a movie junket to Beverly Hills to watch a movie, meet the stars, network with others in the media, and then write a review. Since I still have children at home, I pace myself and didn’t feel right about doing both. I love movie junkets, but I chose prison.
Those two days in prison gave me something not for sale on Rodeo Drive—love. Love is not what one might expect in prison, but there are a lot of things there that might surprise people. For me, it was an insider’s view at the other side of life. I have worked in the social work field, ran a group home and did foster care--the results of mothers who did not have their act together. Meeting these women who are mothers, wives, and daughters, humanized the people I previously viewed from a distance with not a little judgment.
As a mother myself, I have never been able to understand women who choose a boyfriend, a drug, or a crime over her children. I’ve seen the results of children thrust into the world without a stable mommy or daddy. Yet, my compassion for them—the ones who let children down—began many years ago in a social work class.
Contemplating the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, I asked myself how I could possibly muster such love for someone who abused or neglected children. Immediately, I felt a divine answer: Those are the former children of neglect and abuse—the ones you have such a heart for.
Suddenly, seeing the cycle clearly before me, I understood better how God could still love his children and through such a lens, how I could love them--my neighbor. Still, I did not expect the flood of compassion and love I experienced for them in prison.
The retreat was an optional activity the women had signed up for ahead of time. Initially, only 25 came. By the second day, that number dwindled to 19. But those 19 were fierce in seeking the Lord. My friend and fellow retreat helper, Shellie, and I got to know four women who sat at our table; Marion, Delores, Jessica and Shandra (names have been changed to respect their privacy). Together, we grew to love these women who loved God and their family beyond anything we would have imagined. These women were not monsters or uncaring mothers. They were frail human beings with struggles and hardships. Every woman I met that weekend, blamed no one but herself for her bad decisions, but my heart broke for them just the same. We cried together for their pain and regrets.
The poor women at our table often looked for little ways to be nice to us, like brings us coffee at lunch and cookies during a snack time. They felt like friends; fellow sisters-in-Christ with a love for Jesus and one another.
Marion got mixed up with the wrong guy. She thought he loved her. Looking sadly at me she confided, “My friends warned me. They told me I could end up in trouble.” Marion paused with tears in her eyes. "I thought I might get a DUI or something like that, but I never imagined this." She said the apartment was in her name, so she is paying the penalty for the drugs that were found there. Her ex-boyfriend walks free. Yet, I imagine Marion has greater freedom. When asked what times in her life brought her closer to God, her answer was immediate, “Coming to prison.” She attends Bible study and shared with us the many spiritual books she reads to find God’s comfort.
Delores is thin and soft-spoken. I don't know what she is in for. Her "significant other" of 30 years was injured in a horse riding accident and ended up on a ventilator. She had to make the decision to pull the plug which her youngest of three children has not forgiven her for. Shandra had been arrested for drugs previously. She went to treatment and was straight for 5 years then relapsed. During her relapse, she tried to get help. She was on a waiting list for treatment when she got busted again. Shandra’s heart breaks that she will be away from her young grandson whom she adores. Her own son was also sent to prison the day after she was. She writes and encourages him to turn to God.
Then, there was Jessica. She cried more than she spoke. Several times we prayed together as a group. She prayed about her younger siblings and how proud she is of them and that she hopes they know. She prayed for safety for her younger siblings that they would stay away and protected from one relative--guessing some child sex abuse might be involved.
No Excuses, Just Grace
I know that many of these women have had hard lives, but not all. One women I met was selling meth and cocaine (they were not users) with her husband, bringing it in from Texas. “The money was so good,” she explained. She knew it was wrong but gave into temptation. She and her husband were both sentenced to 5 years. Both have turned to God and often share Scripture passages in their letters to each other.
So often, those with compassionate hearts will consider those in prison and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But I do not say that. In my talk to the group, I explained that such a saying would mean they did not get the graces they needed to stay out of prison but God favored me with such graces. That is not true. God gives us all the grace we need for our state of life. And he gives us the graces we need when we repent of our sins and seek him.
Sherry Grace, the founder of Mother’s for Incarcerated Sons, tells the men she speaks to in prison, “God loves you so much that he took you out of the world and brought you to this institution of higher learning, where you can give your life to the Lord and begin to serve him for the rest of your lives.”
The couple from middle class, educated families, brought humiliation upon themselves and their relatives when they were caught selling drugs. But they have repented and are seeking God now. What of all those out of prison who sin in secret? What of those in high positions who have extramarital affairs, are hooked on porn or have their own drug problems? Society holds them in high esteem while heaping scorn on prisoners.
God sees all and surely, in God’s eyes there are some in prison living in freedom and those on the outside chained to sin. There will be prisoners who will be saved in the end and those never convicted of a single crime who will spend eternity in bondage.
Christ came to set the captives free. As his followers, we are called not to judge but to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we pray for the conversion of sinners, we are often praying for those we least suspect are at risk for eternal damnation.
I am thankful for a criminal justice system that exists to protect society. I am also thankful for a merciful God who forgives and grants mercy to sinners and sets us all free. It is truly an honor to partake in God’s mercy through prison ministry.
Copyright 2013 Patti Maguire Armstrong
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is host of the TV talk show Ladies of Another View and an award-winning author and journalist. She was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Patti and her husband, Mark, live in North Dakota, where they raised their 10 children.