I work as a volunteer at Mark Luttrell Correctional Center, a state penitentiary for women in Memphis, TN. One of my favorite opportunities to serve is with Grace Place Ministries, a United Methodist congregation planted in the prison. Grace Place Ministries empowers incarcerated women to become disciples of Jesus Christ and experience what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ not only through worship, but service to people in the free world.
Here are women with almost non-existent control over their environment or lives. Those who have jobs make no more than thirty cents an hour, out of which they have to purchase their own toiletries, snacks, stamps, and stationery. The institution tells them when and what to eat, dictates their clothing, options for free time, and access to their families. What can they do to help someone outside the barbed wire fences, and why would they even want to? You might be surprised.
Some of the most humble, committed Jesus-followers I know have life sentences with no parole, but God has transformed their lives, giving them joy and purpose that no prison can take away. They also take Christ’s command seriously:
Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” Matthew 25:37-40 (NLT)
Wait a minute, that mandate is for people like me, who can decide what to do and where to go, isn’t it? Why would the members of Grace Place think this call to action applies to them? Because they know there are people less fortunate than they are who have no certainty of shelter, food, clothing, or medical treatment: the homeless. These incarcerated women have no money to share, but are rich in time and creativity, so that’s what they give. For example, those who can crochet make warm hats and shawls with yarn supplied by other churches. They also crochet waterproof sleeping mats using “plarn”, which is yarn made from strips of plastic bags looped together.
These inmates may be locked in, but they aren’t locked out of ways to follow Jesus, “who came not to serve, but to serve others” Mark 10:45 (NLT). Their actions show the love of Christ to homeless people who, just like them, have no voice in society. Both long for justice: being treated with the respect and dignity they are often denied. And I’m a part in this chain of compassion as a prison ministry volunteer, sharing the love of Jesus that dominoed down to me.
Each of us has a unique place in God’s universe. We are made in His/Her image to fulfill a special part for the redemption of us all. God loved us into being, and when we pass that love along to someone else, we are literally the hands, feet and heart of Jesus and have the transformational power to change someone’s life for the better. Just like God did for us. Just like someone in our lifetime did for us.
Does what we do make any real difference when we act with kindness, giving what we want for ourselves?
Ask the women of Grace Place and people who sleep under a bridge.