The Church Ladies, or Into the Jail We Go

Posted on November 18, 2022


Every Monday afternoons, at 3:00 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 (Alabama) 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 for the 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 shared in the ministry over the years, such as Lesley Almond, Lucy Mills, Melissa Adcox, Kim Kreiger, Suzanne Moorer, and Mallie Browder, 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 perfectly addresses 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 five 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 have 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….”

Before Covid, a group of twenty to thirty Christian men and women—many of them pastors, deacons, lay leaders in their churches—, came once a week on Tuesday nights to share the message of Jesus Christ. Pastor Louise returned to the jail with them as part of this Tuscaloosa Christian Jail Ministry.

The “girls” are always happy to see Miss Louise on Tuesday night when all the other “ministers” show up. She is their pastor, and Louise feels the strong bonds and 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.”