It has been rewarding and exciting to get to know the ladies who come regularly to our Monday night Bible study at the Edmonton Institution for Women. We decided to throw a little “celebration” evening to wrap up before the summer break. Since we had been studying sinful women of the Bible, we told the ladies that we would be enjoying “sinful desserts” on that final night. We expected 5 or 6 ladies.
We arrived armed with mini-chocolate bars, cans of real Coca Cola (a luxury item that is always appreciated in the institution), chips, and cookies – a veritable carb-fest! To our delight, there were at least a dozen women there, many of whom we had never met before.
One of the young ladies who has been attending regularly had offered to perform a rap song (or two) in the chapel on this special “wind up” evening. We have long suspected that she had a solid Christian upbringing, as her Scriptural knowledge seems endless. When an inmate asks an obscure theological question, this young lady often pipes up, quoting Scripture from memory and offering amazing insight. I have learned a lot from her.
While she is very young, she still has several long years in the institution ahead of her. She shared with us that she spent two full years in another institution – a place not really designed for long-term incarceration. It was a difficult, violent, and depressing place, and time served there did NOT go towards the inmate’s sentence. It’s not hard to believe that many women hit their “bottom” there, as it is a place filled with despair and realization of a long road ahead. She describes it as a very dark time in her young life, and realized she needed to “dig in” in order to keep her faith alive, so she wrote rap songs there.
We were all excited about hearing this young lady perform one of her rap songs. She came in and stood up with great confidence, then started her song. It was poetry – reams and reams of pure Scripture poured out of her and off the page – Scripture after Scripture, with prison vernacular thrown in, about the intense guilt and suffering, and redemptive power of Christ. It was AMAZING!!! You could have heard a pin drop in that sanctuary. No one even ate a bite or took a sip of pop during the long, inspiring performance. It was incredible!
We urged her on and eventually got to hear four of her “songs” – written in tiny words on pages and pages of paper. They were prayers, begging people to turn from sin to the only One who can save. She told us that when she feels filled with the Spirit, she just “gets out of the way” and lets Him flow through her. She claimed that SHE did not really write these pieces at all – that it was God working through her. After hearing the incredibly meaningful lyrics about pain, forgiveness, need, hunger, and truth…I believed her.
After the accolades and excitement of the performances died down, Caroline (our Monday night leader) asked each woman to explain what she thought “grace” was. We went around the room, one by one, each woman stating what she thought the word meant and sharing incredible stories of times of grace in their own, often violent and hard, lives. One young woman who wasn’t a Christian said that she didn’t know exactly what grace meant, but thought perhaps it was having the privilege of hearing about other women’s stories of grace.
The Holy Spirit was clearly in the place. We had a couple of women break down. Another amazing young woman who has Scriptural knowledge galore started to cry. She’s a happy, strong, cheerful young woman who comes regularly, often asks for prayer for others, and always shares her deep theological knowledge with all of us. When she got emotional, she confessed that she’s getting closer to her release time (though it’s still months away) and that she’s afraid — afraid she will use drugs again, afraid of the people she knew on the streets, longing to go back to where her family “needs” her, but knowing that it’s a toxic place for her. She received hugs and understanding all around.
At one point, Nancy (another Connecting Streams volunteer) played a song about how beautiful we are to Christ. More women were moved to tears.
After a long, sometimes frustrating year where we didn’t really know how much progress we were making at times, it was incredible to see God moving in this place that can be so dark and unforgiving. These ladies are truly being called to give their hearts and to be light in the institution. It was amazingly humbling to see how God had used us, the Monday night team, to speak His message into the hearts of these women – no matter how unworthy or ill-equipped we often felt.
It is a place where people are in crisis, and often struggling to come to terms with what they have done. It CAN be a place of healing though, and a place where the smallest kindness is appreciated. I am always surprised to see how many of these women grew up in solid Christian homes, and are now somehow trying to stumble back to Christ. I am grateful for the opportunity to help take them by the hand, to lead them to His feet — a place where even the worst things imaginable, can be forgiven and new life can start. TRUE freedom IS available to those who seek it – even behind bars!