I have been in and out of jail for well over a year.
I’m not there because I’ve broken a law or violated probation. I visit the barb wired facility to bring hope into a very dark place. It’s part of my healing process after losing my best friend six years ago in a plane crash. Hopelessness is the unwanted companion I share with the jail’s residents. We have something in common.
Jail sucks the light right out of the 120 female inmates. I, too, sat in darkness for years after the unexpected death of my friend Jody. The inmates think life over; joy is only a distant memory. I get that. Loss has its ways. Emptiness and sleeplessness—they are its escorts.
I tell my story to my new friends at the jail, and they tell me theirs. We laugh, we cry, we celebrate when someone is at last free to leave, and we grieve when someone returns again. But most of our time is spent exploring ways they can make life-long changes that will keep them out of this hell-hole forever.
For me and my inmates, that turns the conversation toward God. In the jail I visit, women can sign up for a Bible study I teach on Wednesdays, where we look at the many women in the Bible who made some pretty tragic decisions, only to find full forgiveness in a relationship with God.
I’ve written a book on that topic entitled Following Him When I Can’t See the End of the Road. It’s brought me great delight and personal healing to give a copy to each of the women. The book I wrote after the loss of Jody, Unexpected Turns: Leaning into the Losses of Life, I’m not allowed to give out because it’s a hard-cover book and thus a potential weapon. So I had my latest book, Grace & Guts: What It Takes to Forgive, published in a soft cover so I can give it out the day before Thanksgiving.
To give books of hope to women caught in dark places brings me unspeakable joy. One woman stands out in my mind. I’ll call her Doris. She joined my small group one Wednesday but could not look me in the eyes. She stared at the floor and shook her head. At the end of our study, I sat down next to her, so close we touched, because I wanted her to know that I loved her.
I asked her to tell me her story. With tears of shame and regret streaming down her pale cheeks, she said, “I am 70 years old and in jail! I am so humiliated and embarrassed.” I took her by the hand and told her I understood a bit of her sadness. I spoke to her of the hope I’d found after Jody was killed by talking to others about my feelings.
That’s all it took for her to open up. It wasn’t easy, but she told me afterwards it was exactly what she’d needed. I shall give Doris a copy of Grace & Guts this week to help her on the long journey to forgiving herself.
When I tell my inmates the whole story of my loss or of the places where I’ve failed and am in need of forgiveness, I can see them connect. I tell them the same thing each week: However great your loss or misdeed, it can be woven into the story of your life and used to help others in a worse place than you. In time, with that perspective, we all find healing—both the inmates and me.