How a Godly Mama is Changing Lives Behind Bars
She walked with a limp as she packed the car. She has walked with a limp for a long time and says she doesn't notice it much anymore. Although I did as she placed heavy boxes loaded with strawberries, cheese, and a graduation cake into her car.
Prison Fellowship® volunteer Ankie Nielsen has driven the 25 miles to and from the women's correctional facility every week for the past 14 years—rain or shine. She blames her strong Dutch temperament for not allowing her to skip, but it's obvious that it's her love for the Lord and the women behind those bars.
ANKIE, A GODLY MAMA
I was there to witness that love as Ankie, her faithful assistant Kauley, and I entered the women's prison. First, a hug to the officer that has observed her consistent service week after week for 14 years; then the broad smiles on the faces of the correctional officers as they greeted her: "Hey Ankie!" But that love was even more so evident on the faces of the women prisoners as they filed in for their last Celebrate Recovery class.
Hugs are forbidden behind bars, but that never stops Ankie from a heartfelt handshake, a bright grin, and a sincere "How's it going? I've missed you!" in her strong Dutch accent. With high-fives and "I'm so glad you're here! There's so much to tell you!" the women act as though their best friend has just walked through the door. And for many, Ankie Nielsen has become just that over her long tenure—if not more so as a godly mama-figure for women that so seldom had one growing up.
CELEBRATE RECOVERY GRADUATION
I watched as the prisoners helped set up tables and chairs, and ready the refreshments for their graduation. Many of the women tell me that no other class serves up a graduation like Ankie and Kauley.
For the past seven years, Ankie's church has helped to purchase goodies for graduation. Ankie did so out of her own pocket for the years before. Ankie's pastor, who had come in with them that night, explained that Ankie always offers baptism at the end of her five-month-long Celebrate Recovery class.
I sat among the prisoners as Ankie spoke from up front explaining how proud she was of all of them for completing Celebrate Recovery. I smiled as they "secretly" passed a home-made card amongst themselves for each student to sign, telling Ankie and Kauley how much the class meant to them. Like little girls wanting to surprise their favorite teacher, they motioned for me not to say anything as I passed it to the woman next to me to sign.
One of the students tearfully shared her story of domestic abuse: how her front teeth were knocked out amid a drug-induced rage, how she lost her children, and how she had been in and out of prison over the course of her lifetime. With tears streaming down her face, the student admitted that recovery was only a pipe dream until she found Ankie, Kauley, and Celebrate Recovery. Her life was given back the day she committed her life to Christ and began the recovery He gave her through the class. I watched as the women loudly applauded their classmate, nodding in approval and wiping tears away, remembering their own stories.
I marveled watching four women proclaim their faith through baptism that night. Later all 18 women stood proudly, signing a song in sign language about chains being broken after receiving their certificates of completion. Most of the women had perfect attendance.
'ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT GOD HAS DONE?'
As we drove home that night, I couldn't shake the comments I'd heard from the women. They said that God had smiled on them and given them His grace. They experienced this through Prison Fellowship volunteers, and through the program that consistently had a long list of offenders waiting to get in. They told me how they looked forward to the Celebrate Recovery class week after week, knowing Ankie and Kauley would be there for them. I couldn't help but smile as I looked at this woman behind the wheel, pushing aside her own pain of Parkinson's and everyday concerns to say, "Isn't it amazing what God has done in their lives?"
Just a week after this event, I sat in a group of Celebrate Recovery leaders who had gathered from across the state. As I told the story of Ankie's class and her faithfulness throughout the years, one of the women in the group began to wipe away tears. When she later introduced herself, she said "I know Ankie. She was there when I was a prisoner there, and her witness to the women is legendary at that prison! I'm here today because of people like her!"
I am once again humbled and reminded that we never know the story being written through our lives, and through the faithful service of unseen heroes!
ABOUT MARY ELLEN ARMBRUSTER
Mary Ellen Armbruster is a former field director for Prison Fellowship.
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