The Church Ladies

Posted on April 22, 2013


Every Monday night at 5:00 p.m. a group of female prisoners are called out of their cells by the sheriff’s deputies. They are marched off to a room at the Tuscaloosa County Jail usually reserved for lawyers meeting with their clients. Instead, three friends who serve as “ministers” to the ladies, arrive at the jail.

“The Church Ladies”—as they are called by their congregation– are back to tend faithfully to their flock of inmate Christians. Some are incarcerated for crimes as petty as passing a bad check. At the other end of the spectrum are those accused of murder.

For an hour or two, the ladies and the inmates are in Church, never mind the Spartan surroundings of simple wooden tables and chairs, an old blackboard and one phone to call the deputies if need be. They are in Church, inspired and lifted by the ladies to a higher calling, one that can potentially rescue them from their circumstances.

The “girls,” as the inmates are affectionately referred to by the ladies, are all dressed the same, in bright orange or white prison tops and pants, guaranteed to flatter no one and be recognized by all as a prisoner.
The ladies and the girls mingle and study the message of Christ and Christianity for next hour and a half, sometimes going on for two hours since the ladies have found favor with many of the guards.

By the end of the time, there are no “ladies” and “girls.” They pray and worship together as one body, united by the bond of faith and the promise of leading them from desperation, anguish, frustration, poverty, crime, addiction, shame and cynicism. In a word, to be “born again” as Jesus told Nicodemus the Pharisee if he wishes to understand the Kingdom of God.

As part of the learning experience Pastor Louise Clayton, with several other ladies who have helped in the ministry over the years, such as Lesley Almond and Lucy Mills, encourage their congregation to write letters telling of their lives, and sometimes ask the girls to do “homework” in the Bible for the next week.

This way they learn to grow as individuals and as friends by being responsible, doing their own work, as well as listening and talking on Monday evenings. The Apostle James addresses perfectly the relationship between words and works, or faith and actions, and the ladies firmly believe that their congregation can only grow by not only listening but also by doing.

Over the years a large body of correspondence has accumulated and it is some of the most poignant, touching, honest writing I have ever seen since I was elected to transcribe some of it and publish it—with the girls’ permission of course—on the class web.

These women are at the bottom of the curve, drug addicts, alcoholics, abused by the men in their lives, abandoned by parents and friends, pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel with little hope for seeing the light of life and love and even liberty again. They have all committed some form of crime, from pinching something at Wal-Mart to murdering abusive husbands and boyfriends.

“I would like to thank you ladies,” wrote one, “from the bottom of my heart for you all taking time to teach me about Jesus.”

A recovering addict, in and out of jail for five years, “this time for almost 5 months,” but “I am a brand new person through Jesus Christ.” She was going home for Christmas when she wrote, the first Christmas at home with her two children and family in four years.

The inmates suffer from a high rate of recidivism, which is fancy prison-speak for returning to jail or prison multiple times.

So it’s not unusual for Mary or Jane or Sheila to show up again after a few months or years.

When they do return, they are usually quiet and a bit reserved, perhaps even shamed by having failed on the “outside.”

But, providing they behave and conform to the rules of the class, they are welcomed back with open arms for more instruction.

Rules in the class are very strict since discipline is not one of the congregation’s strong suits. Acting “up,” not paying attention, sleeping or nodding in the class, back talking and other forms of misbehavior bring a quick admonition. If they persist, they are “pulled off the list” of approved prisoners for the class, and there is always a waiting list.

So, as a matter of course, the girls quickly learn that the ladies can be every bit as tough as the guards, but the ladies have a lot more to offer, and the girls a lot more to lose by being banished from the class.
It is painful when it happens, and sometimes it is not even the ladies who impose discipline. One girl offended a nurse recently, and was stricken from the list.

“I hate that I will be missing class,” she wrote. “It’s all that I look forward to. I have been reading my Bible a lot lately. I have been really depressed. I just can’t seem to shake it. Anyhow, I just wanted to let you know my latest news. I hope to see you Tuesday night….”

On Tuesday nights Louise returns to the jail as part of the Tuscaloosa Christian Jail Ministry, a group of thirty to forty Christian men and women—many of them pastors, deacons, lay leaders in their churches–, who come once a week to share the message of Jesus Christ.

The “girls” are always happy to see Miss Louise and Miss Lucy on Tuesday nights when all the other “ministers” show up. Louise is their pastor, and she feels the strong bonds, and understands the responsibility that comes with being their shepherd, even if just for a few weeks or months while they are doing “hard time.”

This is self-evidently a good program, faith-based in the argot of the twenty-first century, lending a hand to pull people up to what God truly would like them to be. As Jeremiah wrote in Chapter 29, verse 11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Published as “Group Brings Hope to Jail” in The Tuscaloosa News, April 14, 2013