Sometimes you get dumped, and nine days later, find yourself in jail.
(Not in the way you think, though that probably happens too)
The ties of a long-term relationship were suddenly severed, and I found myself hanging by a thread. I desperately needed to get my mind, emotions and focus off myself. So, at the suggestion of a friend, I signed up for a jail outreach with a local ministry I’d participated in off and on the past year. This was my first time to attend this particular outreach, and I had no idea what to expect visiting women in jail who had been arrested for prostitution.
The only thing to do was don my “Sometimes Warriors Wear Heels” T-shirt, and dive into the unknown.
I just had no idea at the time how deep Jesus wanted me to swim.
The air was stifling and heavy in the lobby—downright oppressive. The spiritual veil thin, the silent battle around us nearly audible. People waiting to see family members and friends, wrangling their kids, listening for their number to be called, paying at the chipped blue booth for their loved one to have spending money from behind bars. It was like stepping into an entirely different world.
And I thought my normal had been rocked of late.
I hadn’t sensed defeat and discouragement in one place so tangibly in a long time. I was anxious and jittery myself, and hadn’t eaten. Yet despite my growling stomach and my uncertainty, I was so blown away by the ministry opportunity that lingered right there in the lobby. So many people waiting to visit inmates—I thought if this was a hospital, it’d be easy to ask if someone wanted prayer. Religion is pretty popular in the waiting room of the ER, where vulnerability and brokenness is expected. But there, at the jail, everyone had on their game face. Hard, brittle, guarded masks that refused to shatter or let anyone in. There would be no getting past those walls tonight.
So I silently prayed for the young woman behind me with the blue streaks in her hair. And for the woman who hugged her significant other tightly as he was released from his sentence. And for the family of the little girl in the Princess T-shirt, who was handing out those free apartment brochures from the magazine rack and charming my entire row, like this was a normal Thursday night for her.
When the inmate’s names were called for my group, the three of us navigated our way through the metal detector (which I set off because of the button on my jeans) and waited to be given our visitor passes. We assumed we’d all be going to the same area because of the similar charges of our assigned inmates, and I was more than grateful to stick with my ministry leader and friend.
Except my pass was green. And theirs was not.
Any sense of adjustment to this foreign world I’d found myself in fled right quick, along with the blood from my head.
Sometimes you get dumped, and you find yourself alone in a never-ending corridor, light-headed and unsure. And your heels echo loud on the shiny floor, and your heart shouts a protest with every step, but you move anyway, almost as afraid to go back as you are to go forward.
I had no idea what I was doing. My normal had been all sorts of shaken upside down and inside out. What would I do? What would I say?
What did I even have to offer in my own brokenness?
I walked on, shaky with nerves and the fear of the unknown, which is sort of how I’d felt for nine days now. And I prayed that somehow, despite my fragile state, the Holy Spirit would use me. That hallway was long. So long. And so was the next one.
But I kept going.
Because sometimes the only way out is through.
I finally found the green door that matched my visitor pass, and had to talk myself into opening it. When I did, I was facing yet another stairwell. By now I’d abandoned all hope of ever finding my way back to the lobby, and followed a typed sign and hastily drawn arrow toward the female mental health ward. (this door was open, thankfully, because otherwise I might have still been standing there)
I stepped through the frame into a tiny cubicle area, with chairs and phones and heavy plated glass. The lights were dim, the shadows long, the area deserted. Even the guard’s desk around the corner sat empty.
I stood and waited, and prayed. Paced. Wondered if I was in the right place. Looked up and glimpsed a shock of dark hair through one of the windows of the cells. Cells that were rooms, with doors. Solitary, confining. I didn’t see the face under the hair, but glimpsing those brunette waves told me a real live soul was stuck in that room, fighting who knew how many demons, and how ill-equipped was she to do so?
Something broke off in my spirit.
A guard finally saw me, mere minutes later that felt like forever, and we proceeded to have an awkwardly shouted conversation through the glass about who I was there to see. She went to find her, and I marveled anew at how lifeless the entire area was.
And I thought I’d been battling discouragement the past week.
Something else broke off deep inside, and what was left hissed and sparked to life.
And as I stared through the glass, at that wave of dark hair across the room in a solitary cell, at the two story rows of shut and locked doors, clutching my green tag with the words MENTAL stamped across the front in large print—because aren’t we all? The only thing I could think was: but for the grace of God.
Like the inmates arrested for prostitution, I too had once sought healing for my brokenness post-divorce in all the wrong vices. Like the inmates, I tried to fix my broken all on my own, and ended up with more shards than I knew what to do with. I could relate to what it felt like to be repeatedly betrayed, rejected and abandoned, to feel as if you had to desperately strive to prove yourself and gain validation in the only ways you knew how. Even if those ways gleefully imprisoned you.
It wouldn’t take much at all to be on the other side of that glass.
But for the grace of God.
My hurt? Suddenly, it didn’t ache as much. My problems? Diminished. My definition of lonely? A total joke.
I wasn’t nervous and unsure anymore. No, I wanted to burst through the glass. I wanted to run to each room, shouting truth against the lies echoing all over that dark space. I wanted to unlock each door and proclaim how I knew the Chain-breaker Himself, and that they could too. That I was a writer, so I knew this didn’t have to be the end of their story—that their Author was good and trustworthy and loved them no matter what had landed them there. That it wasn’t too late—was never too late.
I almost choked on all the words caught in my throat, mixed with unshed tears. I felt like I had the keys, but I just couldn’t make it to their cells. Jesus, please go to their cells.
The guard returned, alone. The inmate didn’t want to see anyone. It was time for me to leave.
Disappointment, along with a fiery determination, carried me back to the lobby. I never got to talk to my assigned inmate—she has no idea how much she taught me in such a short time. But the Holy Spirit was there, and no door, lock or alarm can keep Him out. His ways and timing are never wasted.
I’m praying for the young woman I didn’t get to see. I’ll mail her a card and let her know that she has purpose that she can’t even fathom right now. That she’s never too broken to be healed. That it’s possible through Christ to experience freedom even in the midst of our darkest prisons. I’ll go visit her again.
Because sometimes, you get dumped and find yourself in jail—and find liberty and hope you forgot even existed.