I have left prison ministry, but prison ministry has not left me.
One of the gifts of the Spirit is mercy, and it lives large in me. (Though mercy must be coupled with wisdom in prison ministry.) Mercy moves me to love others, and that love changes me every time. Over the past 30 years, people affected by the criminal justice system have let me into their lives. They have taken me to their places of pain, shame and sorrow. That sharing has been holy, sacred, set apart. Through those holy exchanges, God has always been teaching me.
Of course, a long-term relationship has the greatest potential for God’s instruction. About two years into a mentoring relationship, I asked the woman I was assisting what part of our Bible study had helped her the most. I wanted a great insight that would help me create more studies for women coming home from prison. She thought a long time and said: “You know what you did that mattered the most to me? Teaching me to drive.”
I still ponder that response. There are about 10 lessons in it that would make this a much longer story. But the first lesson was a huge dose of humility to offset the self-righteousness in me. Self-righteousness is an occupational hazard in prison ministry — probably in all ministry. I thought the Bible study was a much higher calling than the driving lessons and, therefore, what God really wanted me to do in this relationship.
The second lesson was, obviously, about what she needed most. The 47-year-old had never driven a car, but no one in her small constellation of friends and family was willing to teach her. In rural Illinois, driving is the only way to get to work. It means true independence, and that is what she achieved.
Love in action — love in driving lessons. I have the gift of mercy and missed the importance of it.
My favorite book of the Bible is Luke. Most of the time, Jesus responded to requests for healing with actions first and words later. He often used these as teaching moments. If those present had hearts and ears open, they were all learning: the one who was healed, the disciples, the crowd. But there was not just one spiritual truth that Jesus was teaching on that day. Each person received his love, teaching and healing through the lens of his or her life that day.
God is still teaching me, an admitted “slow” disciple. I still love and teach that beautiful woman I mentor, and she still loves and teaches me.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers