It had been a day full of laughter, songs, and skits as Prison Fellowship’s Operation Starting Line® event began to wind down. This party had brought family members into prison to spend some time with their incarcerated loved ones.
Being not only a Prison Fellowship staff member but also a Department of Corrections chaplain at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, I served in a variety of capacities that day.
I approached two women—a prisoner and her guest—as they sat at a table chatting.
“You wanted to speak with a chaplain?” I asked, having been directed to the guest by one of the volunteers.
They both smiled as the older woman said, “No.”
Apparently, I’d misunderstood the direction―but, I was soon to discover that in God’s economy, I was right where I was supposed to be.
Connections of Encouragement
I looked at the young female prisoner and nodded to the guest. “Is this your mother?”
Again smiling, the young woman said, “No―just a family friend.”
I had never met the prisoner before and asked her name. Upon hearing her response, “Natasha,” I realized she had an accent. I asked “Where are you from?”
“South Africa” was her reply.
“I spent some time in South Africa,” I told her.
Both women looked surprised, and the guest, Susan, asked what had taken me to South Africa. I told them I’d served with a missionary organization called Youth with a Mission.
“You were with YWAM?” Susan asked. The fact that she called the organization by its nickname told me she knew something about it.
Natasha lost no time and asked, “Where in South Africa were you?”
When I told them I was based out of Muizenburg, Natasha’s eyes grew wide and began to fill with tears. She excitedly spoke. “Perhaps you knew my parents, Triston and Ruth. They were both missionaries with YWAM at the Muizenburg base.”
I was stunned.
Natasha went on, “What year were you there?”
When I told her 1991, her eyes brimmed with tears as she said, “I was there then. I would have been 11.”
I tried to picture the young woman as an 11-year-old child. Although the years and adventures had made it difficult for me to remember her parents, I could almost imagine her upbringing. More than likely, she’d been raised learning all the Bible stories and singing songs about Jesus. She most likely had accompanied her parents on many outreaches and had witnessed the changed lives that Jesus ushers in. ‘What had gone wrong?’ I wondered.
Natasha explained that upon completing school, she’d met an American man, married him, and moved to New York to start their life together. Her husband began experimenting with drugs and eventually convinced her to do the same. It was not an unusual story for me to hear as a prison chaplain. One thing led to another and before she knew it, she was in prison. Her small children now lived in South Africa with her parents.
As Natasha shared her story, and Susan sat close, nodding at every turn in her sad tale, I couldn’t help but think how amazing it was that I was sitting there, years later hearing the twists and turns of this young woman’s journey. I couldn’t help but wonder how arduously her parents and family friends must have prayed for the return of their prodigal.
I asked her how she was doing now.
She announced that God was doing wonderful things in her life. She spoke about being a student in Prison Fellowship’s seminary-level program, TUMI, as well as her hope to receive parole in the next few months. She said that upon parole, she would be deported back home to South Africa where she would report to authorities. Her hope is to then enroll in a discipleship training classes to pursue missions like her parents.
For a few moments, the three of us sat there just marveling at the fact we were all there together sharing a God-wink. Natasha said it was so amazing to have God bring someone from her childhood years back into her life to remind her of where she came from. It was then I asked if I could pray for her.
I felt led to encourage her before praying and said, “Natasha, this is no surprise to the Lord. He knew you’d be here today and that I would too.”
I suddenly remembered that I’d almost not come, but something opened up at the last minute in my schedule, allowing me to be there.
Then I spoke what I believe were God’s words specifically for her: “Natasha, God began your story so long ago … even before you were born. He has plans for you that He’s never forgotten, nor does He want you to forget. I believe God sent me here today to remind you of this. Many people have been praying for you for a long time, and God will fulfill His purposes for you. These are purposes for the good of many—and God wants to use you in so many lives. … Are you prepared to let God fulfill His plans for you?”
Tears streaming down Natasha’s face as Susan and I stood on either side with our hands on her shoulders, she nodded yes. Together, the three of us prayed for God to complete the good work He began in her so long ago. When we said goodbye that day, I smiled as I walked away, knowing that God does not forget or easily relinquish what He has planned for those who love Him and are called according to His Word.
Mary Ellen Armbruster is a program support specialist for Prison Fellowship.
Names have been changed.