The day is cloudy as we approach the prison gate. We navigate the maze of searches and corrections officers. We are here to visit the women incarcerated in the medical unit and offer them a chance to participate in Prison Fellowship®'s Angel Tree® program.
When you first see the women, you know why you are here: to share the love of Christ in a dark and often sinister world. The women are so glad to see us that they are almost giddy with excitement.
I approach a woman who sits at a table filling out an Angel Tree application. I can't help but notice her rough appearance.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" I ask.
She says, "Yes," and I sit down.
Her name is Deidre, she has colon cancer, and beneath that tough exterior is a tender spirit.
Deidre's first experience with Angel Tree occurred one Christmas when her husband was incarcerated on drug charges. He signed up their children for Angel Tree, and Deidre remembers how excited her kids were when they received their presents.
"The kids were there when the federal marshals came and took [their father] to jail, so they were surprised to receive the gifts," Deidre explains. "It was so rewarding to see the look on their faces … It almost seemed like they made a connection again. Their daddy loved them."
Angel Tree was not only a blessing to the children, but to Deidre as well. Because of others' generosity, she was comforted to know that "he really cared" about them.
The conversation turns to her. "Why are you here?" I ask.
After her husband was arrested, Deidre took over "the business." Having been raised in the projects, she saw drug dealing as the way out of her troubles: "I had bills to pay and children to raise, so it only seemed natural to carry on."
The drug business was violent, and she was incarcerated on charges for aggravated assault. She tells me about the woman she hurt. "I was a little afraid of her," she admits, but her fear of losing her source of income was greater.
"I wasn't going to sign up for Angel Tree because my husband did, and I didn't want my kids to see a pattern," she tells me. "But after thinking about it for a while, I decided that it was the thought that counts, and I am excited about my kids getting presents from me."
'I WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS CHRIST'
We talk about the Angel Tree program. I ask her what she thought of the volunteers visiting. She says she thought at first that they pitied her and the other incarcerated women. But after talking to the volunteers, she shares, "I see people who help others just for the pure joy of helping."
It's not something Deidre is used to. "These people are showing me that there are good people in the world—not out for what they can get but what they can give."
She pauses, and then adds, "I want to learn more about this Christ that they talk about."
I know an opening when I see one, so I share with her about my experiences. My rough upbringing, the years of struggle, the years in prison—she relates to what I'm saying.
The conversation turns to the life I live now. I describe the peace and successes that I am having in meaningful relationships and life. As I describe the love, forgiveness, and acceptance of Christ, she is obviously moved.
With tears in her eyes, she says, "I want a life like that."
I start weeping, and we just look at each other for a moment.
Finally, I say, "If He did it for me, He will do it for you. You are the reason I came here today. I have to share what He was done for me because I am so very grateful. I want everyone to feel the way I feel."
I share with her about God's commandment to love Him with all our hearts, mind, soul, and strength. We discuss how our addictions and our selfish natures try to keep us from loving God. I tell her to seek God and she will find Him.
And suddenly it's time to leave. I tell her that God loves her. She smiles and says, "Thank you."
There are smiles all around. I realize that my perspective has changed—I was here to minister to people, but instead I got ministered to. When God flows through you into other people, it changes you.
I walk outside and see that the sun is out. It's a beautiful day. And I am so very grateful.
Thank you, Jesus.