by Genn Marie
Walking into a prison for the first time, I have to admit that I was very nervous. My understanding of the prison system, prisoners, and guards had been formed by TV crime dramas and 60 Minute episodes. I went in prepared to provide encouragement and share the love of Jesus with these men; but, if God Himself had told me what would actually happen in that chapel, I would not have believed Him.
Part way through the presentation, the men started sharing about their experiences with Visions of Hope. They spoke about how the art program provided a creative outlet, and an opportunity to teach and encourage each other. They spoke about how they looked forward to receiving letters from the children they sponsored, and how their involvement made them feel like, even though they were not free to be in the community, they could still do something good and be part of a community outside the walls.
As one prisoner spoke, I fought back tears as his words pierced my broken heart. He spoke of how he was thankful that he had been put into prison. That being in prison was the best thing that had happened in his life. He admitted that the path he was on would have only gotten worse; and, he said that he finally felt like he had some purpose in his life because of Visions of Hope. This was the moment that I fell in love with this program, and these people. Where I had entered this room feeling sorry for the poor souls so less fortunate than I, I suddenly realized that, though I was going home at the end of the day, I was just as much a prisoner as they were.
In the months leading up to this visit I had experienced a mental health crisis that left me feeling like a burden on my friends and family, and a liability to my employer. I lived every day believing that I had nothing to give, and terrified that someone else would figure it out. Even after months of therapy, I was still so broken and stuck in that unhealthy place. But here, behind these prison walls, sitting with men who would be here for months or years longer than me, I was inspired by the freedom and purpose this man had found. I no longer saw him as an inmate, I saw him as someone doing everything he could to make a positive impact on the world.
I saw him as a man, strong enough to admit his mistakes and humble enough to change.
I saw a child of God, stepping into his new identity. In that moment, I saw the hope that I needed for myself to finally let go of the chains that were keeping me bound to anxiety, fearful of depression, and nervous of my own shadow. In that moment, I found the key to my own prison cell.
I often think back to that first prison visit. In those times when I believe that I have nothing left to give or I’m not qualified to complete the task I have before me, I remember his words. I remember the hope in the eyes of every inmate in that room.
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God,
to those who are called according to His purpose.”
I remember that my value is not based on what I have or have not done, but on the opinion of the God who made me and saved me. He thinks I’m worth loving and has led me out of my own private prison.
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