Visiting the Prisoner by, Jackie Halstead
“ …For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
This verse makes sense to me. It is logical that we care for those in need out of our abundance. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” I have known since I was a child that I am richly blessed. I have health, intelligence, abilities, and I am wealthy in comparison to the rest of the world. It has been pressed upon me that with this great blessing comes responsibility. I don’t remember specifically being taught this—it just seemed to be a theme in our family. We were required to be hospitable to those who were in need or marginalized. I am so grateful for these internalized lessons.
Unfortunately, one area was off the radar–the one about visiting those in prison. I did have one experience when I did a stint of tutoring those in a minimum-security prison in preparation for the GED. That was during college and was a short-term project. Visiting those in prison has been on the back burner since then—partly due to discomfort and unfamiliarity, partly due to a lack of know-how. It is largely an invisible population and I allowed myself to forget. It is easy to forget.
God stepped in and changed this lack of concern when I was given the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course at the Tennessee Prison for Women (TPW). Lipscomb University offers the opportunity for inmates to earn both an Associates of Arts degree and then a Bachelors degree. The inmates take classes for seven years for the AA. Professors come in on Wednesday nights to teach classes which are comprised of half inmates (inside students) and half traditional Lipscomb students (outside students). There are generally around thirty in a class. The students at Lipscomb are required to take courses in Bible, so I taught one of these requirements to each of three cohorts of inmates. The first course was Disciplines for Christian Living and the next two were Faith and Culture.
I love to teach and tend to enjoy every class, regardless of the topic. These three classes at the TPW, however, rank in the top 5%. The inmates are grateful for the opportunity to get an education. They are eager and motivated and love coming to class. It makes an impression on the outside students who join them. During each class, I divided them into groups of half inside and half outside students. They were required to practice Christian disciplines throughout the semester. They are at different places in their faith journeys and their faith is inspiring. It was an honor to get to walk alongside them as they grappled with issues of faith.
This is fresh on my mind today as I had the pleasure of going to the second graduation for this program. A graduation is held every two years and it is the most touching ritual I get to witness. The faculty serves them breakfast and then we have a full-blown graduation ceremony with them. We are in full academic regalia and they are in graduation caps and gowns. Their family and friends have come from near and far to celebrate with them. Today there were seven who graduated. Each said a few words after she was handed her diploma. It was tremendously moving and such an honor to have been part of their education. One of the speakers said that tomorrow there would be another graduation ceremony on the Lipscomb campus with 400 students graduating. He mentioned that one difference was that the faculty would not be crying tomorrow. There were a lot of tears.
News crews and reporters were in attendance to interview and take video and photos. The ceremony would be displayed to the world in the coming days. Unlike the broadcast of this day, everything in the prison system is meant to keep these people invisible. They are a menace to society, so we are pleased to forget about them. I have contributed to this through my lack of interest in years past. Yet that has changed. Now I know these precious souls. I learned that these are not static beings. They have made horrible mistakes but that is not who they are. They grow and change, they have relationships, they parent from prison and learn of God and grow in their faith. Just as I hope people will recognize that I am not the same person that I was twenty or thirty years ago, I accept that neither are they. And even if they have not changed, they are God’s children and are made in God’s image. They deserve to be loved—God requires that we love them.
In addition to the joy of the graduation ceremony, I have seen much. The faith of these women is inspiring. I have seen their hearts and the manner in which they serve. I’ve had classes that gathered huge boxes of primarily commissary items for the homeless. I’ve watched as they have chosen to work on forgiveness throughout the semester and let go of bitterness toward people who have abused them in unimaginable ways. I have seen their kindness to the outside students who are struggling with school or relationships or parents. My own daughter has been deeply impacted by the two courses she took with them. I am richer because of knowing these “inside students.”
Jesus tells us to visit those in prison and it is right that we do so. The remarkable secret is that it is we who are blessed by obeying this command. I trust that I bless these friends as I teach and love them. I know without a doubt that I am blessed exponentially more than I bless them. So thank you Melissa, Crystal, Cyntoia, Shelly, Riesha, Michelle, and Joni. You are an inspiration!
Grace and peace to you,
 Matthew 25:35-36
 Luke 12:48
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