“So yes, God is full of surprises. Every single one of us should walk around all the time laughing hilariously, because God has put so much surprising goodness in our lives by His grace, faithfulness, and love!”
Those were the final words of my lesson at the Monday morning jail worship service. I had taught on the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18 and 21. We focused on how our surprising God continues to show grace, faithfulness, and love to us even when we are unfaithful to him. I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
Another woman on our team had pressed play on the last song (we use DVD’s because none of us is a great worship leader J). The song was “Come to Jesus.” Before the women had come to the end of the first line,
“Weak and wounded sinner, lost and left to die …”
I suddenly became aware that one of the women in the front pew on the other side had fallen to her knees. Her forehead lay on the grimy carpet, and her body heaved gut-wrenching sobs. A fellow prisoner, an older woman with stringy gray hair who had been with us for a while, had knelt next to her and was rubbing her back.
It was one of the many times in jail ministry I felt entirely incompetent for the situation. I crossed the room and sat on the bottom step of the platform directly in front of the grieving woman.
“No touching the inmates,” I recalled from our volunteer orientation. “You can fist bump them, but no hugging or pats on the back. …” ran through my mind.
“How,” I wondered, “do I communicate love and compassion without touching her?” “Somehow,” I mused, “a fist bump just doesn’t feel right for the moment.”
Another team member had joined me on the steps. Chris Rice and the women sang on. The woman continued to cry loudly. The older inmate continued to rub her back. Another inmate had knelt next to the hurting woman and was stroking her hair.
My team member and I sat near, as near as we could be without touching her. I mumbled prayers, some aloud, some silently, “Be near her, Lord Jesus.” “Bring comfort.” “Lord, help.”
The inmate was quieting. The song ended, and she and the other two moved back to their seats. I stood up and looked out at the other women. Several were now crying, and many looked stricken. Two of the women were speaking to other team members, asking for prayer.
Five minutes later, the officers arrived, and the women lined up to return to their pods. I just shook my head, unnerved by the response, yet so very grateful for a God who surprised me in “my” message on surprise.
Five days later, I am still wondering about that day. I honestly expected women to feel encouraged in a “happy” way, not to feel somber and sad. I still wish I could have “done more” for the woman in pain.
And yet I know that God had us all right where he wanted us. Every time I go in to the jail or the work release center, I tell myself, “Planting seeds, planting seeds.” I may never know the end of the particular stories. But I do KNOW that God is writing a story of redemption, and His story ends well, with restoration and renewal. This is the joy of ministry to the incarcerated.
Elizabeth Turnage is a writer, story coach, and teacher. Please visit her website, www.elizabethturnage.com.