Over spring break, I went on a mission trip with a campus ministry that I am involved with. It is a Wednesday night, non-denominational faith-based ministry for college students on our campus, and it is part of a bigger ministry involving lots of other college campuses across the nation. Our ministry went to Clearwater, Florida, for the week to work with a local church there.
While we were in Florida, we were leading a high school/middle school youth group for the week, as well as visiting the beach, doing some shopping, seeing dolphins (my favorite animal) and enjoying each other’s company, guitars in hand (guitars are constantly in hand – one of the things that I love about this group of crazy people.)
Leading up to this point, the trip had been relaxing, fun and relatively easy. We were teaching high school and middle school kids all about how to live their lives centered on Christ, making music, investing in a wonderful church with wonderful people inside and even attending sunrise services on the beach. I was comfortable and even felt kind of like I was on vacation. God created rest. He knows that we need it and wants us to enjoy time to rest and relax. For this trip, however, God had some other things up His sleeve too. He’s always up to something.
On Tuesday night, our leaders announced they wanted to stray from the original plan for the week and visit a prison instead. They knew a woman who ministers in this prison and hadn’t spoken to her in years. She called them out of the blue when she found out that we were in Florida and asked if we had any time to come work with her ministry. It was one of those serendipitous things you can’t ignore.
I’ve never been to a prison, and I was nervous because I didn’t know quite what to expect. Our purpose in being there was to work with a classroom of juvenile prisoners, talk with them, share stories, get to know each other, and hopefully, show them the love they need and deserve.
I’ve never been in prison myself, but I can imagine it would be kind of a lonely place at times. To me, loneliness is one of the worst things your heart can experience. I’ve always believed human beings were designed for relationships, and that is the desire at the center of all of our hearts: to know and love, and to be loved and known.
That is the basic premise of why we were there – to hopefully show these girls who are in a dark, lonely point in their lives that they aren’t alone or forgotten and that people know them, love them and believe in them. Hopefully through that, they would be able to find the hope they need to believe their lives can get better, and they’re not owned by the choices and mistakes they’ve made in the past.
That all sounds great, right? But as we were standing in line going through security, I still felt a bit of uneasiness, and all of these doubts kept creeping into my mind:
What if they’re mean? What if they hate us? What if they hurt us? What if we can’t help them? What if this was a big mistake? What if we’re not supposed to be here? What if it’s too hard? What if I can’t do this?
Right before we walked through the doors to the classroom, I remember saying a quick prayer to God, “What am I doing here? I’m scared, and I don’t think I can do this.”
Which is a pretty normal thought to have right before walking into a prison for the first time, I would say.
In that moment, He quietly reminded me, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think you could do it.”
That’s a simple truth that brought me all of the peace that I needed.
It seems like God always has a better plan and knows exactly what He’s doing at exactly the right time. I’ve always believed we are right where we are in every single moment of our lives for a reason, even if that reason doesn’t seem clear at the time.
I think that one sentence applies universally any time we are questioning our capacity to handle a given situation: You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t do it.
If that’s not comforting, I don’t know what is. It just eliminates all doubt.
After we entered the classroom, I was so surprised to find that we were greeted by bright, smiling faces and so much joy! These were completely normal girls, just like you and just like me. Nothing about them seemed threatening or unusual at all – they had just been through some difficult times which led them here.
After we spoke to them as a whole, played some music and hung out for a while, we began to talk with them one-on-one. I ended up sitting down with this girl named Abigail.
Abigail stood out to me as soon as we walked in, because she actually reminded me a lot of myself in high school. She was sitting quietly in the corner, twirling her hair and she was so tiny! I didn’t feel comfortable asking her to share her life story with me right away, so after we met, I just said I wanted to get to know her.
I asked her a few simple questions about herself and let her do the talking. I was surprised by how open she was. She spoke like somebody who had been through so much and had a lot of time to sort through her past. She seemed ready to move on from those things and talked about them like they were a distant part of her life now, which was inspiring to me. She was somebody who seemed to understand the importance of letting go, and she was so close to doing just that.
She explained to me that she was raised in a private, Christian school, but had strayed far away from the faith she once firmly believed in. A big part of that was the fact that her home life was messed up. Her dad was sexually and physically abusive, and she and her sister were in the emergency room many times because they were so badly beaten.
It was difficult to listen to her detailed stories of she and her dad’s dysfunctional relationship, but she seemed to almost want to talk about it, so I listened. Later, she described to me that she ran away from home and became involved with drugs as a way to forget her painful past.
This girl had been in more desperate situations than most people face in their entire lives.
She was homeless for a while, then she lived in a couple of drug houses. She was committing crimes in order to fuel her addiction and was arrested and in this prison just a year later. All of this happened between the time she turned 12 and 13 years old. Intense, right?
You would think this sounds like the ultimate low point, but it was actually the beginning of a big change for her.
She told me the night after she was arrested, the drug house where she had been living was burned to the ground and everyone was killed. As difficult as it was to be arrested and taken to prison the day before, it was a big wake up call that otherwise, she could have died the very next day.
She still struggles with her addictions and periods of relapse, but she is trying so hard. She told me she and her mom used to surf all the time when she was younger, and her eyes lit up explaining those memories. She said that was a major motivation for her to turn her life around – just to see her mom again. She’s 17 years old now and has been in prison for four years.
After conversing about all of this for about an hour, she told me something I didn’t expect at all. Seemingly out of nowhere, she said, “I really miss God. I used to always spend time with Him, and even if my life was chaotic, everything just made so much more sense when I felt close to Him – like He always had a plan and that was something I used to cling to. I’ve gotten so far away from my faith, and I feel distant from Him now. I don’t know what to do. I just feel really lost.”
I asked her what she knew about God, and she said not much. We talked about the Gospel, and I made sure to emphasize how much God loves her, no matter where she is in her life or what she’s been through.
I wanted to make it clear to her that she wasn’t a project. I wasn’t this Christian coming into her life, only to make changes and force my beliefs down her throat because I feel that’s my job. I have always believed that our first and foremost duty is to love. Plain and simple. To love the way Christ loved us: unconditionally and with no agenda.
I think if we just love people not because we think we should, but because we genuinely do, the result can be mind-blowing.
We talked about how priceless and irreplaceable she is to God.
One of my favorite verses is from Hebrews 12: “For the joy set before Him, He endured the Cross.”
Earlier, we asked the girls what they thought “the joy set before Him” was. Most of them answered that it was the thought of going to heaven or being with God.
But the truth is, that joy is them.
And you and I.
And all of us.
He endured the Cross because His immeasurable love for us is greater than any of the pain.
I asked what she thought about that, and she told me she felt like God couldn’t love her or accept her because of all of the mistakes she’s made and because of her past.
A statement like that shouldn’t awaken any kind of excitement, because it’s kind of a heavy statement. But I have to admit, at this point, I was excited. I won’t even pretend to have all of the answers to every question you could ask me. I would just be kidding myself, because I absolutely don’t. But this was something I definitely knew the answer to. Not because it’s what I’ve heard from others, but because it’s what I’ve experienced many times myself.
The most important thing about what Abigail said is that it’s an enormous lie. It’s such a toxic way of thinking about ourselves and especially about God, because it undermines all of His capabilities.
The truth that is constantly lost behind this lie is that we don’t serve a God of human nature. We have a God so much greater than all of humanity, who is consistently capable of extending to us something way better than we give ourselves: infinite Grace.
After we talked for a while, I asked if she would like to pray, and she said yes. So we held hands and prayed together, asking God for forgiveness and asking Him to make us new.
Right there, Abigail made the best decision of her life.
After we finished praying, I asked her how she felt. She said she felt a lot calmer, like a weight had been lifted. As she was talking, it was obvious that she didn’t just feel a change, but you could see it. Honestly, I’ve never seen that much hope in someone’s eyes.
She said, “I know that because God is with me, there’s nothing stopping me from getting out of here soon.”
And I felt like she was talking about a lot more than the physical prison she was currently in.
As we were getting ready to leave, we said goodbye and she told me she would be praying for us. As soon as she said that, I realized that we went into that prison to challenge and encourage these girls, but Abigail ended up challenging and encouraging me even more.
Mostly because she reminded me of something that is so amazing about God’s love: it’s unconditional.
It’s not dependent on circumstances, or anything, for that matter.
God can reach you anywhere.
You don’t have to be in a peaceful church sanctuary kneeling at the alter to surrender your heart.
Even if you’re in the middle of a chaotic, dirty, lonely prison full of anger, hatred and darkness, whether literally or figuratively…
He’ll meet you there.