How Women's Ministry Behind Bars Change One Woman's Life for the Better
Anh remembers stepping through the gates of Central California Women’s Facility for the first time in March 1999. She was in her mid-20s and facing 25 years to life. It felt like the end of a long, dark road—a search for love that left her empty.
Raised in a Catholic family, Anh was a shy little girl who craved attention. Her mother and father worked hard to put food on the table for their large family. As a result, her parents were often away from home. Anh began acting out in middle school, ditching classes and trying alcohol.
After a relative molested her, Anh drank to numb the pain and confusion. She befriended people with the same reckless habits. "I don't know how I graduated, because most of the time, I was drinking," Anh says, looking back. "I slept around ... I wanted to feel loved, and to me, that was love."
One toxic relationship led Anh to gambling and deeper addiction. Soon she had gambled her money away and borrowed cash that she couldn't pay back fast enough. In desperation, Anh and her friend got involved in criminal activity to make ends meet. Then a drug deal went south, and Anh was convicted for her involvement in a confrontation that left one man dead.
LOOKING FOR LIGHT
Anh walked into prison hopeless and ashamed. For the first several years of her sentence, she was "just existing." She found distraction in reading books, going to therapy, and journaling. But Anh wasn't eating enough. Her self-esteem was at an all-time low. And she grew more depressed when she lost her sister to cancer and her mom began battling a serious illness.
Sometimes, kind cellmates offered bits of encouragement, but the overwhelming issues she faced left Anh feeling discouraged. "When somebody told me that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, I told them, 'I've never seen a light at the end of the tunnel. All I see is darkness.'"
Anh trudged through the hopelessness alone until she attended a four-day women's ministry event. Speakers shared about Jesus like she'd never heard before. She was stunned when a visiting pastor reminded her that her name means "light" in Vietnamese. Maybe there was a way out of the darkness after all.
The next morning, Anh awoke before the sun. She turned on a Christian radio show and tried to pray. "I sat there at that table and invited Jesus into my heart, without knowing anything [about faith]," Anh says. "I just knew that that was the right thing to do at that moment."
THE BEAUTY OF WOMEN’S MINISTRY AND FELLOWSHIP
Anh began reading the Bible from cover to cover. She sought out women's prison programs that would support her growth and joined one that would later be called the Prison Fellowship Academy®. Anh began forging relationships with volunteers and worked through deep struggles. Then The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), an intensive biblical studies program facilitated by Prison Fellowship volunteers, launched at the prison. It seemed like an answer to her prayers for a deeper relationship with God. Anh eagerly enrolled.
Just before TUMI classes began, she was diagnosed with a severe skin condition. "I felt like an outcast," Anh recalls, "but I knew that's where I was supposed to be. God gave me the strength to not be embarrassed. I went [to class] like that, with bumps all over."
Anh attended the TUMI program every Thursday and helped lead women's ministry and service projects behind bars. Classmates helped her learn the beauty of healthy friendships. In turn, she became a mentor to other women in prison. "Constantly being involved and fellowshipping with people and praying ... it has been such an amazing experience. To me, they were my family," she says.
GIVING BACK THROUGH WOMEN'S MINISTRY
Even as her appearance went back to normal, Anh knew her heart would never be the same. She finally wanted to live again, even as a woman in prison. "Having that relationship with the Lord is the key to contentment," says Anh. "It's the key to peace and joy."
When Anh was released, she ran straight to a church, motivated to grow deeper in her faith and find community in a Christian women's ministry. She completed her TUMI courses on the outside and joined Celebrate Recovery, a biblically based program for life's "hurts, habits, and hang-ups."
The days ahead would not be easy, but through every hardship, her faith grew. Anh recently completed radiation treatment for cancer—a victory she thanks God for every day. Today, she works as an addiction recovery counselor near her hometown in California, walking alongside others to help them tackle tough issues and find light in the darkness.
"You have to understand what happened to you, in order to heal," explains Anh. "You're not just existing here on this earth to take space. I want to be able to share my strength and hope with other people, through what Christ has done for me."
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