What made Lori a "perfect fit" for prison ministry?
About four years ago, Lori Hayter scoped out the empty front lobby of Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She, a volunteer, and Denise Harris, a Prison Fellowship® field director, had arrived at the facility with Prison Fellowship Academy® curriculum in hand.
It was Lori's first time doing something like this. She wondered who else might be joining them, since the curriculum indicated they would have some helpers. "So, who are the other volunteers?" she asked in earnest.
"It's the women," Denise replied, speaking of the prisoners. "The women are the volunteers."
Looking back, Lori says, "I sort of had an idea what I was getting into. But I had so much to learn."
VOLUNTEERING BEHIND BARS
Previously, Lori had a background in social work and children's mental health. She had visited a juvenile facility once in college, though it didn't spark an interest in prison ministry. It wasn't until later that she considered volunteering behind bars. A woman in her Bible study shared about her involvement in prison ministry.
"I thought, 'How interesting,'" Lori remembers. "It sounded so full of hope and faith … but I kind of shelved that [idea] away."
But the thought never left her mind completely. Before long, Lori discovered that the women’s prison in Ypsilanti wasn't far from her home. Once her youngest child went to school, she had more time to consider prison volunteer opportunities seriously.
Lori had heard of Chuck Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship in 1976 to restore those affected by crime and incarceration. Soon she found Prison Fellowship's website and applied to become a volunteer. Comprehensive online training sessions prepared her to serve behind bars. Soon she had the knowledge, skills, and confidence to start facilitating Prison Fellowship classes with Denise.
"I feel like I get to watch God at work when I go in there," says Lori. "[People] have this perception that we're going to go in there, and we're going to make something happen—we're going to bring the Lord to them. But God is already at work there, and we get to watch Him, and that's amazing."
'A PERFECT FIT'
"Lori is amazing and the ideal Academy volunteer—smart, organized, friendly, and engaging," says Denise. "She is a gifted teacher. The first day she started, I was convinced she was a perfect fit for this opportunity."
What made Lori a "perfect fit" wasn't only her education or experience. It was a willingness to be obedient and serve. Over the years, in the Academy, Lori has helped guide women to take ownership of their transformation and adopt biblical values. She has taught a number of classes on parenting, financial management, addiction recovery, and conflict resolution.
And she knows that the women had a lot to teach her in return.
"I'm learning stuff myself, so I don't come in there with all the answers," says Lori. "Take away the [prison] uniforms, and we're just studying God's Word together and talking about really hard things. … I really believe that God has given them the wisdom and the experience to share with each other."
Lori recalls an Academy participant who rarely said a word in class. By graduation day, this participant had the confidence to sing a solo for the audience. Then there was the woman whom Lori describes as "edgy" and closed-off. In time, she began to soften, and she had much to offer in group discussions. The Academy helped her to work through trauma and other issues she had carried to prison. This participant later shared her story at her own Academy cohort's graduation.
THE RADICAL TRUTH
Lori adds, "I just feel like that's really freedom: Because of the power of Christ, you can see that you’re not imprisoned even though you are physically. Spiritually, God has set you free."
Lori is always amazed to see radical transformation on display. And it's a group effort—an exchange of sorts. Not a group of volunteers swooping in to save the day, but a group of people walking alongside each other to seek Christ and grow together.
This, Lori realizes, is the radical truth of prison ministry. Whenever she walks through the gates of WHV, it's clear that God is already there.
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