Hope in a Hopeless Place: Our First Sunday with the Women of 33rd Street
At 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 30th, the male and female 33rd Street worship teams met at the check-in area of the Orange County Jail just off of I-4. This was the big day! We were finally bringing church to the women’s side of the jail! The room was quickly transformed from a dull holding tank into a hotbed of excitement. No one was quiet as we took off our belts and shoes and sweaters and went through the metal detectors. When we reached the entrance to the women's correctional facility, we all stood in a circle and prayed. This was finally happening! We prayed for open hearts, open minds, and the Lord’s words and will to reach over ours. Then we walked in.
After the Corrections Officer took our names and checked our badges, we went into the long, narrow classroom, which sits off to the side of the dormitory space. The women started coming in as hugs were shared and introductions made. Most of the women were excited to be there, but not all. Some were sitting in corners with their arms folded across their chests and their eyes fixed on the floor. Some of the women were pregnant. None knew for sure when they would be going home.
Just like the Summit Advent services at our other campuses, two women read the Scripture for the call to worship with such gusto and heart that I thought I would break down right then and there. The second young woman who read balked and gasped at the verse in Genesis where Judah wants to put Tamar to death for her actions. I can't remember the last time I balked at Scripture—much less had any emotional reaction. Humble pie was being served left and right.
We prayed together and then started the sermon. I had already heard the sermon twice, but I listened with new ears this time. I was listening to the reactions of the women around me. There were constant gasps, Mmm-hmms, Nuh uhs!, Aw naws, and sighs being let out. I wish I could convey in writing the reaction that occurred when Teaching Minister Zach Van Dyke got to the part of the sermon where Tamar is about to be killed, but she busts Judah for being the father of her fatherless child. These women were engaged in—and shocked by—Scripture in a way I have never heard before.
As we brought the service to a close, some of the women filed out of the room, but many stayed. They had so many incredible questions. They wanted more. They wanted to know which church location to go to when they got out. They didn't ask for anything for themselves—they asked for information and resources to share with the families, friends, and fellow inmates. They shared stories and their journals, and they wanted to know when we would get to have music in the service. So many of them wanted music. There were lots of hugs.
As we walked out of the building, I couldn't wait to turn around and go back in. I can't wait for next Sunday. And the Sunday after that. And the Sundays after that. The reality of where these women are and how lonely they must feel and their lack of privacy are not lost on me. Yet, seeing their faces light up and hearing words of hope and encouragement from the mouths of women who don't even get to shower in private or see visitors? That is what makes my heart leap. Hope in a hopeless place is something to get excited about.
Guest blogger Lindsey Coates is Summit's volunteer worship service facilitator for the 33rd Street campus women's ministry.