Hardened or hurting?

I prayed, and it happened.

Several months ago I began telling the Lord that, although I am busy ministering in various capacities, I miss the one-on-one ministry to hurting and needy women. That is an aspect of our work I had enjoyed most in northern Mexico among the Old Colony Germans, and frankly, I missed it.

female prisoner

Then out of nowhere I received an e-mail from another missionary here in Oaxaca asking me to speak at their annual Christmas celebration with female inmates at a local prison. I was excited to go and be a part, although I didn’t feel I should be the one giving the message. First of all, public speaking is not my cup of tea. Secondly, we live by the ‘indigenous principle’, meaning that if a national is available to do what you are planning to do, let them. They’ll do it better; after all, it’s their language, their people, and their city.

So I prayed about who I should ask, since my missionary friend handed me the responsibility of the devotional part of the program. Did I mention I prayed? It so happened, that none of the women I had in mind worked out for that day; at the same time I had a strong sense of a message stirring in me.

Prison in Etla - Missionary Wives

On December 5th, I accompanied a dozen other missionary wives, all from various missions organizations and denominations, to the low security prison. Imagine my surprise to find out that this was not a female only prison, rather one where both men and women inmates were free to roam as they wished.

After a tedious security check of not only our persons but also the goods we had brought with us (lunch, dessert, and packaged boxes of staple items called dispensas), we were allowed to enter.

I was slightly surprised when I met the female inmates. Perhaps I had stereotypical expectations: hardened faces, rough vocabulary, and matching attitudes. What I encountered in fact were…nice women! Most were humble, kind, quiet; some were shy. They were young mothers, grandmothers, and middle aged women.

Prisoner with 8mo baby

One little Indian lady was there with her eight month old baby. She had been in for five months, her baby living with her in prison. She also has a two year old on the outside who she missed dearly. Why was she in? She was accused of something…

Another quiet, sad looking woman in her fifties was there, dying of cancer, without any treatment and without sufficient funds for medication. I don’t know why she was incarcerated.

We had been informed that some are in for murder, some for drug running, some for prostitution, and some for miscellaneous misdeeds. As I looked in their eyes and spoke with them, I couldn’t imagine how they could be capable of such things.

Murder? Perhaps self-defense after years of abuse. Drug running? Perhaps to put food in the mouths of their little ones since their husband, or man, is AWOL and they had become desperate. Prostitution? Ditto. None of the reasons make those actions right – wrong is still wrong and sin is sin. Even so, my heart was touched because what I saw  was hurting women trying to survive, not hardened rebels brewing with hatred and vengeance toward the world.

prisoners (except lady in pink)
Singing Christmas songs

We talked, played some ice-breaker games, and sang Christmas songs before I shared my message “How to be set free”. I know, not an excitingly original title, but it was the crux of what I desired to communicate with them. And many received the message with favor; some wanted to think about it for a few days while others accepted the freedom Christ offers that very morning.

sharing Christ

sharing the message

One inmate, who is twelve years into serving a thirty year sentence, will disciple the new converts. She herself had received Christ several years ago, was made new, and has since lived a life of faith. She is respected among the other inmates as a leader and has become the prison missionary. Her name is Apolonia and she is in need of our prayers.

Before leaving that day, we shopped handicrafts set out on a table. The inmates make items to sell, since in prison they must buy their own food, hygiene products, and clothing. We all purchased some nice things and some not so nice things, as a gesture of help and encouragement to them.

I left there that day thanking God for the opportunity to be a part and am making plans to go back. As you read this, remember the women in your prayers and me also as I seek God regarding open doors in this area.

As we pray, we’ll see what more will happen.

inmates with their dispensas

shopping hand crafts

8 thoughts on “Hardened or hurting?

  1. Ilona,
    May the Lord continue to lead and guide you in the prison ministry. Bless you for taking advantage of this opportunity to minister. You never know how much you have touched the lives of these ladies as they allow God to minister to them through you. Thank you for having a sensitive heart to ministry. I’ll be praying for you.

  2. Cynthia – you know, I realized I stated too altruistically the indigenous principle. That’s what happens when I journal vs. writing deliberately. (no editing or re-phrasing to clarify my thoughts). But, yes, God is amazing in that way.

    Hellen – that would be an interesting blog to peruse (the ex-inmates). In praying, I need to ask God if in fact I should make the prison an ongoing ministry then He must show me where to fit it in. My heart is in so many places…

    Deb – First of all, thanks for commenting! (Welcome!) Most of the ladies’ situations’ was sad. And thanks for praying…I repeat my comment above to Hellen about finding time to do this if it’s God’s will.

  3. Ilona, I’m not at all surprised that God would use you to minister to these women. I’m sure they were very blessed and could feel the love of Jesus through your quiet and gentle spirit. How sad for the lady with the baby growing up in prison and the one she’s missing on the “outside”! I’ll be praying for God to open just the right doors for you.

  4. Nothing like a ‘captive’ audience! 😉

    Ditto to what Cynthia said…God is so amazing in how He answers our prayers!

    In reading this I was reminded of a blogger that I met a few years back (from Texas I believe) who was an ex -inmate and her blogging name was Finally Set Free…a name which had nothing to do with the fact that she was no longer incarcerated but the fact that she now knows Jesus!

    Excited to hear about the ‘missionary’ Apolonia! Will pray for her and her ministry as the LORD brings her to mind! And for you as well as you seek God’s face in regards to this new open door!

  5. I never cease to be amazed at the ways God surprises us with his answers to our prayers. Glad you went along with his nudge for you to be the one to give the devotional. Those women heard your heart and will trust you as the person who connected with them personally rather than as just the foreign “bearer of gifts.” Bless you for being willing to step outside your nice-sounding indigenous principle! 🙂 I am sure you were actually abiding within it better than you realize.


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