Sunday was such a cool day. Ok, I say that about every Sunday, but this past Sunday was particularly special. It was nowhere near cool outside (welcome to the Hotbox of Central Florida), but some incredible things were happening inside the Orange County Jail Female Detention Center. This Sunday was special for the female residents because one of Summit Church’s Teaching Ministers, Zach Van Dyke, joined us for the women’s service to preach live. This is not an easy thing for Zach to do. Our Teaching Ministers preach 5 sermons on the week they teach, so Zach not only signed up to preach a 6th sermon but also to bolt out of Summit’s doors after the 12:30 p.m. service to drive on I-4 to make it to our 1:30 p.m. service in the jail and then drive BACK to Summit’s Herndon Campus to preach at the 6 p.m. service. This is no small task! The female residents in the jail love it when Zach comes in, but not for the reasons you may think. These women don’t encounter too many people who are there to encourage them and get to know them. “Visitations” occur via an old school version of Skype where friends and family members are actually in a facility about three blocks away where they talk to the residents through a grainy video feed. It is a very big deal to them to have a minister take time out of his day to come preach live. They usually see the sermon via DVD on a flat screen television donated by the church.
They are also not used to encountering men who are there to tell them how much they are loved. I hear story after story from these women about the fathers and brothers and boyfriends and husbands who have used them, abused them, abandoned them, and instilled in them the idea that all men are dangerous. Having a male minister come in could be a huge risk, but that just shows how powerful love is and what can happen when we approach each other in compassion. A man in the female facility could easily be viewed as a threat, like a fox in a hen house, but in this case a man was willing to risk his comfort zone to meet these women on level ground.
I knew that the women would be happy to see Zach, but I didn’t expect how strong their reaction actually was. They went NUTS. At one point the Corrections Officer on duty came into the room to see “what celebrity had come in” because she heard such loud clapping and cheers. We were in the middle of singing “10,000 Reasons” when Zach quietly entered and sat down on a plastic chair, waiting for his time to preach.
I should also mention what a special experience it is for one of the ministers to come into the jail. They are used to preaching five sermons from a large stage in a darkened room to a very quiet crowd. Preaching in the jail is very different. On the women’s side, there are 25 of us sitting in a small classroom and the women are VERY vocal and interactive. If they agree or disagree or want to add a comment to the sermon, they will without hesitation! There is no podium, no stage, and no separation between congregation and pastor. Everyone is on the same level.
The real privilege for me came when we served communion to the women in the jail. We started this a few weeks ago in an effort to not exclude them from something that is so personal and special. While we can’t bring the bread and wine into the jail, we felt very strongly that the men and women in jail shouldn’t be excluded from the sacrament due to their situation. Normally, I stand at the front of the room and read from 1 Corinthians. We have a moment of silent prayer, and then the women line up and come forward as I hug them or put my hands on their shoulders and tell them that the body of Christ has been broken for them and the blood of Christ has been shed for them. Then I usually get a big bear hug from each woman that would bring me to tears if I weren’t smiling! It is so powerful. I know so many of these women by name. I know their children, how long they have until they get to go home, if they are going to prison after serving time in the jail, what they fear, and what they hope for most. Since Zach was with us this week, and there are very strict rules about physical contact between men and women inside the jail, Zach and I stood together and offered communion to the women in tandem. Zach looked at each woman after the blessing and said, “You are forgiven.”
There were tears and smiles and hugs and prayers and laughter and shame. I love the moments I get to share in communion, but so many of the women are looking down when they receive it because they can’t bear to look up and believe that they are forgiven. They are blocked by their shame, which I understand. My shame has stood in the way of truth so many times. It was truly a gift to stand with Zach and offer these women the truth that they are forgiven.
All of us who serve in the jail make a sacrifice when we go in. We sacrifice our time, our resources, our Sunday afternoons, time with friends and family, tolls, and gas money. It is so worth it, and we are happy to do this, but the women in the jail realize this and that is why they get so excited when someone new comes in. Most of them are in so much pain because they are away from their kids and families, so when a minister who is married and has four kids spends his afternoon in the jail with them, they get really, really excited and emotional. It is such a gift to witness this time.
I don’t have the right words to describe just how special my time at 33rd is every week, but I am so grateful for everyone who gives of their time and talents and resources to make the services there possible. Especially those who are willing to be the only man in the room!
Guest blogger Lindsey Coates is a mental health counselor in the Orlando area and she serves as Summit’s volunteer worship service facilitator for the 33rd Street Campus. This post originally appeared on Lindsey's blog, Give Hope See Change, which is dedicated to spreading hope by raising funds so that men, women, teens, couples, and families in the Central Florida area may continue to receive reduced-fee mental health therapy.