For Susan Nutt, the very worst time to volunteer turned out to be exactly right.
The first time Susan Nutt walked into a men's prison, she was bald. Her eyelashes and eyebrows had fallen out. She had just been told that her breast cancer was now in her lymph nodes, and she was in the middle of a second round of chemotherapy. It was one of the lowest points of her life.
There are some seasons when volunteering feels doable—and others when the timing seems all wrong.
When Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer at 48, she was managing a dental practice. She and her husband Glenn had just bought a new home and were excited to start some renovation projects. They served at their church, and they were planning a trip to Dubai to visit their newlywed daughter and son-in-law.
All their plans came crashing down when Susan learned she had cancer. Glenn stepped in to oversee household tasks, scheduling medical appointments, and dealing with the insurance company. They focused on Susan's healing and on prayer, full of faith that God could help Susan beat the odds. Their lives revolved around surgery, recovery, chemo, and rest.
When they received news that the cancer was progressing, they were crushed. That's when Billy, the Nutts' close friend and spiritual mentor, asked if he could take them out to dinner.
A SHOCKING INVITATION
Susan and Glenn expected to be encouraged by their time with Billy—and they were. What they did not expect was the challenge that came at the end of their time together.
"Billy reached across the table and took both of our hands, and he said, 'Look, I'm going to be honest with you,'" Susan recalls. "'You've had to spend all these months concentrating on yourselves. But that's not really who you are, because you guys are givers, and it's time for you to give out.'"
Billy invited Susan and Glenn to join him at the Prison Fellowship Academy® at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas. The Academy is an intensive, biblically based program that takes incarcerated men and women through a holistic life transformation process guided by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers. There, he said, they would lead a small group of men through the book Experiencing the Father's Embrace by Jack Frost.
The Nutts were understandably reluctant.
"We kept telling him, 'No, no, no, we've got too much on our plate,'" Susan says. "But there was just something in me that said this was the right thing to do. And so, we did. We went in."
Susan had never known anyone in prison before she started volunteering at the Vance Unit. She expected to encounter withdrawn, suspicious attitudes. On top of that, she was self-conscious about her appearance. But Susan was met with nothing but kindness.
"I had this preconceived idea of what men in prison are like," she says. "And these men weren't anything at all like [that]. … They were kind and considerate and thoughtful and caring. They were always taking care, making sure I had everything that I needed, and never, ever once made me feel uncomfortable."
The men offered Susan water, inquired after her comfort, and helped her remember her coat and Bible when she left. And they also asked questions. Some of men had mothers who were facing breast cancer. Anxious and concerned, they wanted to know what their moms were experiencing.
"I was able to share with them what their mothers were going through, which I think brought a level of comfort to them—just to be able to know how to pray for them," Susan says.
The prisoners weren't just praying for their own family members. They were also interceding for Susan. Her name stayed on the prayer board for months, and Susan would reassure her parents by telling them that she had 300 guys lifting her up.
Through her friendships with the men at the Vance Unit, Susan experienced a spiritual healing she didn’t even know she needed.
“There was a healing that began to take place in my heart,” she explains. “The judgment of what people were like in prison began to just melt away because of the actions of these men.”
Six months after she started volunteering in prison, Susan finished chemotherapy. She received radiation for a couple more months and then began a course of medication that would last for seven years. Some of the men in the Nutts' very first small group saw them through the entire process. Susan was open with the prisoners about her journey.
"We knew it was important that they also believe that God is still in the business of performing miracles," Susan says.
Today, 17 years later, Susan is cancer-free. She works full-time for Prison Fellowship® as a manager of office administration. Her heart is still with men and women behind bars.
"If anybody sees this and is on the fence about whether or not they should volunteer, I want to push you off the fence and tell you, 'go volunteer,'" Susan says. "It will be the most rewarding thing you'll ever do. It may seem intimidating to come into a prison, but I can tell you with surety that God will use you, if you'll just be willing to go."
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