Prison ministry nurtures sisterhood
Jailhouse Sisters only allowed to bring Bibles when they visit the prisonby Laurie Oswald Robinson for Mennonite Church USA
For 23 years, Ethel Umble visited female inmates in a county jail in Elkhart, Ind., as she participated in the Jail Sisters Ministry sponsored by women at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind. She still enjoys friendship with them beyond the jail cell.
Today, three of the former inmates are out of jail and living in their communities. Umble, who is approaching 90, keeps in touch regularly and occasionally lunches with them. She also accompanies one of these friends, who has been diagnosed with cancer, to a chemotherapy clinic.
Nine of 12 "jailhouse sisters" placed their Bibles on a table at College Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind., on Aug. 15. Their Bibles are the only articles allowed when they visit prisoners. Photo by Everett Thomas.
"They have become real friends, and I consider them to be my sisters in Christ," Umble says. "The prison system is based on a 'three strikes and you're out' mentality, but the ministry taught me that God calls us to something different—to justice and compassion based on rehabilitation and redemption, not punishment."
Umble is one of many women involved in Jailhouse Sisters who has experienced how in Christ strangers can become friends. Since the ministry was founded in 1980, groups of women have provided Sunday worship services once a month. Currently, 12 women divide into teams to lead services in the jail on a rotating basis.
"This ministry has changed me," says June Gingerich Yoder, a school nurse who joined the ministry several years ago. "I’ve become much less judgmental of people who are struggling.
"I serve so many families dealing with drug issues. But since I've been in the jails, I've become an advocate for finding new ways of rehabilitating. I think our punitive methods for dealing with people aren’t working and only cause a lot of recidivism."
Yoder is often the designated prayer person for her Sunday. She begins praying a week ahead of time. She prays on the drive to the jail and silently prays for the inmates during worship. The designated prayer person also brings prayer requests from the women—many of whom are incarcerated for financial or drug crimes—back to the College Mennonite faith community.
Betty Yoder, who visits inmates one-on-one every Wednesday afternoon, recalls feeling hesitant when she began her involvement with the Jail Sisters ministry.
"The first day I was scheduled to go into the facility, I struggled with wanting to cancel my commitment," Yoder says. "The thought of going into a place I'd never been before or talking to women with whom I had nothing in common felt scary.
"But as I wrestled with God about my ambivalence, God reminded me how much I’d been blessed with love and that it was time I shared that love with others."
She decided to go, and as the big door clanged behind her she found women who spoke a common language, longing for unconditional love and healing.
"I listen to their stories, and we pray together," Yoder says. "Some of their struggles seem so insurmountable. I try to let them know that God loves them so very, very much."
Over the years, new restrictions have brought changes to the Jail Sisters' visits. Today, unlike in the past, the Jail Sisters are not allowed to touch the women they are visiting—such as holding hands when praying or hugging goodbye.
Rose Widmer, interim team leader at College Mennonite, has watched the ministry blossom over the years since it was founded 30 years ago by Dorothy McCammon, Verna Troyer, Rachel Fisher and Nancy Lapp.
"[Their] model of simply being there for people and going where they are rather than having them come to us, exemplifies what it means to open ourselves up to others and to God without having to have everything figured out beforehand," Widmer says.
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