When I was 19 years old, I joined a traveling prison ministry out of west Texas. The leader of the group was a man who struggled through life with his seriously mentally ill, often suicidal wife. He was a kind man with a gentle spirit, and he felt called to minister to the most unlovely people in our society. He was a retired music minister, of the traditional sort, and when he sang, his booming bass voice rattled the speakers and filled up even the largest rooms.
I remember the day I met this man in Abilene to audition for him. Each year he put together a singing group made up of eight college students, four male and four female. He hand picked the students, trained them to sing together, and took them on a tour of some of the highest security prisons in the country. I had already made my plans for the summer after my sophomore year of college. I was going to live at school, get a job, take a few classes, and have a great time with my friends. I really only went to the audition as a favor to a friend who had recommended the ministry.
Naturally, God has His own plans, and after the audition, when the man invited me to join his group, I went home and called my best friend, sobbing, telling her the whole story and how I knew this was what I was supposed to do. You might say I was a reluctant participant.
A few weeks later I was to drive to this man’s home in west Texas, meet the rest of the group, meet the man’s wife, and begin rehearsals. When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was that the man had no yard. He had covered his entire lawn with white rocks. His yard was a rock garden, with a few cacti tucked in here and there. Inside the house I met the other members of the group. Everyone seemed nice. Things were a little awkward. I met the man’s wife. She was odd. But, seemed nice.
We started rehearsing that first night. The first thing the man did was ask us to sing for one another. He went down the line and told each of us to sing something acapella. That was a little nerve-wracking. After that we spent hours and hours every day learning music. One afternoon the man’s assistant took us to a warehouse of sorts where they kept the “costumes” for the group. The clothing was big and dowdy, long skirts and loose-fitting tops designed to hide the female form as much as possible. One of the girls cried over the clothes because she felt unattractive in them. All I was thinking was that prison was not a place where I wanted to BE attractive. She ended up getting in trouble for being a prison ministry diva (did you know those exist?).
We girls were staying with an old lady in town who had decorated her house, room by room, in themes based on color. I stayed in the red bedroom. It had a red bedspread, red lamps that put out red light, red curtains, red doilies on the dressers, a red chair, even red stuffed animals on the bed. Another bedroom was yellow. The living room was orange. The kitchen was pastels, with little ceramic Easter bunnies and Easter eggs on every surface. One room was red and green with tinsel hung on the wall near the ceiling, a small Christmas tree always up and decorated. It felt a little like living in Wonderland, but I grew to love my little red room with its red lamp light. I spent many nights in there writing letters full of weird news to Chad, telling him all about the strange goings on in this new world of prisons, mental illness, divas, and quirks.
Finally we started traveling to prisons and churches. We would sing in two prisons per day some days. Other days we were just traveling in the 15 passenger van, the man and his wife leading the way in their ancient station wagon. When we stopped to eat on the road, the man’s assistant (who suffered from trillotrichomania, an illness that causes you to pull your hair out, one at a time) would make everyone a baloney sandwich on white bread. A lot of the time we were just waiting around for the next performance. When we weren’t in prisons, we were in churches. We saw all denominations. Some churches were cold and stiff, others had tambourines, banners, flags and streamers.
The man’s wife was really the star of the ministry. After we sang, she would give her heart-wrenching testimony about multiple suicide attempts, mental breakdowns, and God’s grace. At the end of each and every testimony, she collapsed into a heap and was carried to a chair. She had a big personality, demanding and self-centered, yet the men and women she spoke to identified with her weakness, and God used her over and over again. One day she became paranoid that we kids didn’t like her. While she and the man were in their hotel room, she scratched her stomach until it was bleeding and bruised to show how upset she was. She was so paranoid, and the only way she knew to deal with her angst was to hurt herself so that it would hurt us and her husband. Often they would pull individual kids into their station wagon and question them, as if they were trying to learn who was truly loyal to them and who wasn’t. I was never called into their car. I was never sure if that meant they trusted me or they didn’t. But, I never felt close to the man’s wife, although I could easily see how God was using her to move people’s hearts toward Him. She scared me.
Inside the prisons, we ate with the men and women during their dinner time. We chatted with them before and after the program, except when we were in the really high security prisons. There we were usually performing behind a fence. All of the men got flyers with our picture on them, and when at times we were led through the cell areas to get to the room where we would perform, I could see our picture hanging next to their beds. Sometimes men would yell at us while we sang, often sexual comments. But, for the most part, they were enthusiastic and polite and complimentary.
As my time with the ministry went on, I started to really feel compassion for the men and women we were singing to. I began to recognize a certain way that men stood and turned their wrists inward toward their bodies when they were heavily medicated. I learned what different prison tattoos meant. And, I prayed with and made small talk with hardened criminals: murderers, child molesters, and thieves. I learned some of the horrors of mental illness and how difficult it can be to wait all day for one event, day after day. I learned how much chili mac people eat in prison (macaroni and cheese with ground beef in it). I learned that I am braver than I thought. And I learned that God can use some pretty weird circumstances to bring about man’s salvation. I’m glad I could be a part of it.
The man’s poor wife finally succeeded a few years later in taking her own life. I saw the man not long ago, and he was remarried and seemed happy. My time with them was brief, but the man was an example of how to truly love through better and through much, much worse. And, he took his unstable and harrowing life and determined to use it for God’s glory anyway. May I be on the lookout for ways to do that myself, even on days that seem a little hard to navigate. God can use anyone, anywhere. He used a scared nineteen year old reluctant girl, an old man, and a mentally ill woman. I have no doubt that some of those locked up men and women are living their lives for Christ today because of a God so powerful He can use the most unlikely people to share His love in the most unlikely places.