Last week 10 people from Church of the Resurrection followed the gospel call to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison” (Hebrews 13:3). We entered Lincoln Correctional Facility to share the light of Christ and the love of the church to 150 incarcerated women. Since most of us had never been in a prison, we were apprehensive about what—and whom—we might encounter there. Would they listen to our message? Would they join us in worship? Would they accept this Christmas gift we were offering? Would they, so hardened by life’s disappointments, care at all?
Lincoln Correctional Facility, located about three hours south of Chicago, is a medium-security prison that houses about 1,000 women. When we arrived, we were greeted by several tall watchtowers, steely guards, and the eerie hum of a massive electrified barbed wire fence. It was, in a word, terrifying. If this is what it took to keep these women inside this place, what must they be like?
After a lengthy round of security checks and humiliating pat downs, we were ready to enter. The facility’s chaplain led us through a series of doors, through a sparse courtyard, into a multi-purpose gym, and upstairs to a carpeted room where we would set up for our program. Surprisingly, the room was quite warm and welcoming: Comfortable chairs. Inspirational pictures and messages on the cinder block walls. They even had a cheery Christmas tree with lights!
The women filed in very slowly, due to individual pat downs at the entrance to the room. As they sat down by housing unit, we had the opportunity to talk to them. We were all immediately surprised by their friendliness and their candor. They were eager to share about their daily lives in prison, which apparently includes very bad cafeteria food. They were excited we were there and seemed to feel safe with us, which was a significant answer to prayer for our team. Even before the program began, an exchange of acceptance and love was taking place, a relationship that would only strengthen as the night went on.
As our worship team led the women in song, I was blown away by their enthusiasm—and their volume! Their love for the Lord was evident, but it was something else that profoundly struck me, a gift that the women gave our team: They’re broken—and they know it. When you’re in prison, there’s no hiding those parts that are ugly or sinful. There’s no hiding anything, for that matter, as our team became rudely aware of during our pre-entrance shakedown.
Because these women realize their brokenness, they also realized their need for Christ. They are desperately in need of a savior, in the most holistic sense. They long for freedom from the darkness of prison, of course, but they want to be set free in their hearts and in their families, or they deeply desire deliverance from their addictions that tightly grip them.
Their brokenness is out in the open for these women, but at the same time, our team witnessed a palpable hope in that place. They do not want their crimes, their sin, to define them. I will never forget the way that one woman looked into my eyes and said, “We’re not dangerous.” It was almost a plea. Please believe that I can be better. Please believe that I’m capable of good. Please believe that my mistakes don’t mean I’m a bad person.
That goodness is what Margaret Philbrick, who organized the trip, and her mom, Sarah, focused on in their presentation. It was a message of encouragement, that we believe these women are capable of good, not only in their hearts and actions, but in creative expressions of hope, through writing, art, music, dance, or other ways that God has gifted each one of them.
That hope for wholeness is really what Advent is all about. We all open our eyes to our own brokenness, our imprisonment to sin; we cannot hide from it. And yet, Christ enters those places of captivity, opening eyes that are blind, freeing us from our own personal and societal prisons, and releasing those who sit in dark dungeons (Isaiah 42:7).
Story by Bonnie McMaken
Click here to read about the story that Margaret Philbrick wrote and her mom Sarah illustrated that the team from Resurrection gave to the women at Lincoln Correctional Facility.