I stepped back inside the familiar prison gates to spend a day in the halls where I once served as “Chap-Lynn.” I’ve been gone for the better part of 9 years so I was both excited and nervous to see how the place – and the people – have changed.
The moment I opened the first door, an officer with whom I had trained wrapped her arms around me in a big hug. “Chap-Lynn, you haven’t changed a bit!” Her flattery only increased my love for her as I took off my shoes and began the ritual to check in. Once inside, I noticed new faces and new paint. I hadn’t been walking long on the path to meet Chaplain Lorrie, Fluvanna’s current chaplain, when I heard, “Is that a ghost? Do my eyes deceive me? Is that Chaplain Litchfield?” No longer allowed to hug the ladies, a policy change since I’d left, I had to content myself with hand holds and deep breaths.
When I left the prison system in 2009, I did so not because I was burnt out on the ministry to the women, but rather I was burnt out from advocating in a difficult environment. Once I decided to retire from this chapter of my life, I was surprised that the administration had me escorted in and out of the prison to collect my things in under an hour. After 11.5 years loving my congregation, I had no chance to say goodbye or explain my decision to those it would most impact. I wasn’t allowed to email the volunteers or my contacts – or to even capture their emails to send a note later. It was drizzling rain that day in March of 2009 and the weather matched my mood. My tears mixed in with the rain as I found my way to my car with my one treasured box of belongings from my desk. Eighty percent of the relationships I found meaningful on a daily basis were just gone. It isn’t like I could go back and visit. I couldn’t call anyone up and invite them to lunch to catch up. They were in prison.
I know this happens to those incarcerated all the time. They get told to pack up their belongings and they get moved. No goodbyes, no chance to connect or exchange gratitude for the friendships made… just go. That’s prison.
God brought me back to prison ministry with GraceInside four years ago, now. I slipped into FCCW in February of 2016 to preach one Sunday night service – but it was SuperBowl Sunday and my presence hadn’t been advertised. Attendance was particularly low. This past Thursday, I had reason to visit Fluvanna again to assist Chaplain Lorrie with a tour and the volunteer banquet. I got to spend the day visiting with staff, volunteers and those blessed souls who remembered me. Mind you, those who did, have been serving significant time. I wasn’t sure how many would…but to my delight and sorrow, I saw many, many familiar faces.
So often in life, we really can’t go home again. But, then, there are these Holy Moments when you get to pick back up where you left off…when you see what has grown from the seeds planted in faith… and you hear, “Thank you.” When I look into the faces of these women I loved for so long, who, with tears in their eyes, share from their heart, my own breaks open. I finally had a chance to offer my own words of gratitude for all they have been and remain for me.
I heard from L who shared with the group of visitors how having a chaplain who represented Jesus Christ in such a loving way allowed her to consider Christians as something more than just judgemental folks of her past…how she gave her own life to Jesus Christ and was baptized. We heard from J who shared that the religious programs coming into the prison helped her work through her anger and hurt to become the solid Christian she is now. We heard from T who owns that she was “hard and closed off to anything God” and how God worked through the chaplain to bring in a program that transformed her heart. Now a Christian more than 15 years, she serves on the Worship Team. Story after story of women who shared their own testimonies of change, redemption, transformation and hope.
We shed more than a few tears together.
And all of this was made possible because of YOU. Because of Christians who believe with me in the value of Jesus to those who are hurting… those who most need grace…these lives were transformed. These mothers changed — and could testify to how it transformed their own children. Some of them are now grandmothers ushering in a new generation to faith. When hearing their words, I often wish that the entire world could hear them. GraceInside would have no trouble raising the funds needed to keep chaplains inside these 35 prisons if people could SEE it for themselves. If you could hear the stories of these women, these men, so touched by the love of God that lives have been completely transformed…you would KNOW with certainty the value of this work.
I caught myself really wishing you could have been there.
It’s in that very moment I realize – you were.