Or at least their prisons are!
I just got back from my mission trip to West Virginia, and it was nothing short of INCREDIBLE. I learned more than I ever could have imagined! In addition to the many spiritual truths and insights that God revealed during the last several days, I also learned how to whip a large van around sharp mountain curves at dangerously high speeds, and I learned that I won’t actually die if I can’t use my cell phone for a week (we had to drive an hour from where we were staying just to get a signal).
But back to the spiritual stuff. Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin. I’m going to spend the next several posts reflecting on the various stories and revelations I happened upon, but until then, let me give you the details on how I spent my time so that you have a little bit of background.
To begin, I ventured into the middle-of-nowhere West Virginia with 8 students from UNC-Greensboro. We worked with a church in the area, and we spent the majority of our days in a federal prison for women. However, this was no ordinary prison–this particular facility was for women who had been pregnant at the time of their sentencing, and had since given birth. All of the women in this prison had children between the ages of 3 weeks to 15 months, and were raising them in federal confinement.
As a mission team, our job was to go in there and simply care for the women and their children–we did crafts, I played my guitar, we went on walks, we held the babies, and listened to the moms. We had a blast, and I was heart-broken to leave them behind. I feel as though I made some true friends there, so it’s difficult to leave when you know that they can’t.
But in addition to working with the women’s prison, we also spent some time at the medium security men’s prison, which was considerably more intense. A number of the men there had been convicted of very serious crimes, including some fairly heinous murders. But the crazy thing is that you would have never guessed it! Granted, I only spent time with the prisoners who were Christian (on Tuesday and Thursday nights we led some of the inmates in a worship service) but they were a remarkable testimony to the transformational power of the Gospel! Let me leave you with one story…
On Tuesday night I had the privilege of leading worship, so I stood in front of about 40 prisoners with my guitar and one of my students, and we sang. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. While I stood up there I looked out at the group and saw tough men, covered in tattoos, grinning ear to ear, and bouncing their heads along to the music. Some of them had their eyes closed as they worshiped, and there was such joy on their faces!…in prison of all places! It reminded me of Paul’s words in Philippians–”Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice!” Paul wrote those very words when he was in prison. Clearly Paul, and those inmates, knew something I did not.
Afterwards, many of the men came up to shake my hand and thank me for coming. They spoke of their testimonies, when and how they got saved, and what a blessing it was to worship with me and my students. And as I looked into each man’s eyes, I did not see the face of a murderer–I saw the face of a prodigal son who was overcome with joy and humility at having been welcomed back by his father. I also saw the face of a brother…..and I mean that quite literally. I felt as if we were family. I guess we are.
One final thought. Jesus once told the disciples that a certain sinful woman “loved much because she’d been forgiven much.” Well these inmates loved much, and you could see it in their faces. Though they lived in a dark, dark place, the light of their faith was blindingly bright. It was a magnificent thing to behold.
So as I think back to the time I spent in a prison in West Virginia, I am humbled by the knowledge that I have brothers and sisters there. We may come from very different backgrounds, and our culture may label them as irredeemable, but I have more in common with them than some members of my own family. We are one in Christ. And while society may tell them that they’re without hope, God gave hope to the hopeless. I think those men and women understand the magnitude of that gift far more than I ever could.
For that, and many other reasons, it was a good week. More stories to follow…