The Most Unlikely Place

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The Most Unlikely Place
This story is featured in “The Ultimate Christian Living, Faith and Fellowship Celebrated Through Stories and Photos.”

 “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)

I stood at the podium and took a deep breath. As I looked out on the sea of expectant faces waiting for me to lead the prayer, my stomach clenched. How in the world did I get here?

Terrified to speak in public and the only woman in a room full of men—clearly I didn’t belong. But together we sang, clapped with joy, delved into Scripture, shouted “Amen!” and uttered prayers that shook the rafters of heaven. In that place I felt Jesus’ love, understood His forgiveness and marveled at His grace.

I could have been in almost any church on any given evening.

But I wasn’t in church. I was in a maximum security men’s prison.

Nothing in my life experience qualified me to be there. Not my non-existent rap sheet, my culturally sanitized suburban lifestyle, my inexperience with addiction, my college education, my race and especially not my gender.

Yet here I was.

In the brightly-lit cinderblock room, the ninety congregants looked like a rag-tag team of hospital aides, melded into a homogenous mass of light blue, scrub-like shirts and one-size-fits-none black cotton drawstring pants. It was hard to tell one inmate from the next. But when I took a closer look I noticed details that revealed each man’s individuality. The feet shod in black Chuck Taylor high-tops. The gnarled hands that gripped a tattered Bible. The mouth that mocked and interrupted. The back that slumped. The knees that bent in prayer. And the arms—so many arms—that told stories punctuated by tattoos and scars. Stories of broken homes, abuse, addiction, gangs and violence. Stories so different from my own.

Yet, to my surprise, even though I saw some faces etched in bitterness, I saw more softened by forgiveness. Eyes I expected to be narrowed in anger, sparkled with joy. And fists that should by all rights be clenched in rage were opened and lifted in praise.

Two years ago, a small group from my church looked for a way to reach out to the marginalized in society. As we tossed around various ideas—homeless shelters, battered women, food kitchens—none of them stuck. Then someone mentioned prison—an odd suggestion for an upper middle class couples’ Bible study. Yet, after an ensuing silence we unanimously said, “Yes.”

Within days we’d made contact with a local prison ministry. Within weeks the ministry’s leaders, Bob and Royce, came to our group and shared stories about their work—stories so vivid and inspiring they left us transfixed. Most of us signed on and within months made our debut visit to the urban prison.

From the beginning I decided I’d support the ministry team by quietly praying during the service. Since I never helped lead a worship service and wasn’t anxious to start, I figured it was the best I could offer. Besides, doing anything that involved standing in front of an audience or holding a microphone lay solidly outside my comfort zone. Period. God knew this. Surely, He’d understand.

Each week Bob or Royce asked if anyone had something to share. Each week I shook my head and replied, “Not me.” I confirmed my decision with God. Lord, it’s good that I come here.  That’s enough, isn’t it?

I’m not sure He agreed.

After months of watching the services, Bob announced, “Next week you newcomers are going to lead the service.”

I panicked, “We’re not ready!”  However, the others didn’t agree and accepted the challenge. Good for them. I just won’t participate. Assignments were divvied up and I remained silent. One job remained open. My friend looked at me, “Kelli, can you lead the prayer?” Cornered, I begrudgingly replied, “Well…I’ll think about it…I guess if you don’t have anyone else…”

For the next seven days my stomach flip-flopped in fear. As I travelled home on a plane that week, I took time to write out my prayer because there was no way I could wing it. Lacking paper, I grabbed the next best thing on an airplane—and probably the most appropriate medium—barf bags. Four of them to be exact. Who knows, they just might come in handy.

Despite my divine pleas that an act of God would keep me from the prison, the dreaded moment arrived. While I felt the heat of nervousness race up my neck and flare across my face, I didn’t vomit, faint or die. In fact, the men responded enthusiastically with shouts of affirmation. And I witnessed the Spirit work far beyond my clumsiness and inelegant words. Instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt honored and humbled.

Bob often says, “Speaking in front of the guys will change you.” I think he’s right. It would be so easy to enter the correctional facility feeling superior, better than and more deserving. Certainly my “goodness” sets me apart, doesn’t it?

I quickly learned the answer is “no.” For our goal as Christians isn’t goodness, it’s godliness. By society’s standards, these inmates are not good people. But, many are godlier than most people I know on the “outside.”

I am in that prison for one reason—because God said, “Go.” With each raggedy, passionate, honest worship service I see Him more clearly. When I stand shoulder to shoulder with thieves, rapists and murderers, and we worship together with passion, grace becomes startlingly clear. I know I’m no more deserving of salvation than the inmates. We’re all sinners saved by grace. And as I witness men, like Chris, transformed by the truth of the gospel it’s finally becoming less and less about me and more and more about Him.

How ironic that God showed me the door to my freedom inside the walls of a maximum security prison. Together on Tuesday nights, behind soaring barbed-wire walls, Jesus joins us together as one as we offer up our sins. Our brokenness. Our insufficiencies. And because we do—we know the truth. And the truth sets us free.