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The 'church ladies' reach out in maximum security facility

The 'church ladies' reach out in maximum security facility

Missions and Outreach
Referred to by inmates as the "church ladies," volunteers at First Stuart UMC work inside a maximum security facility for girls. Shown left to right: Sandy Kemmerer, Marcia Sohar, Julie Arrighi, Cathy Lewis, Sandy Monson and Susan Herd

When asked if she felt fear, she said no.

“In all these years, I’ve never been afraid there,” said Marcia Sohar, a teacher of 42 years and West Virginia native who volunteered to lead the First Stuart UMC prison ministry four years ago. “I prayed I would get two or three people to go in with me,” she added.

It’s a ministry that serves teen girls in a maximum security facility called Martin Girls Academy

As many as 82 percent of our nation's youth confined to juvenile justice facilities are rearrested within two years of their release. Faith-based prison ministries are believed to help lower such statistics.

“They’re kids that don’t have any kind of family structure; or if they have one, it’s so dysfunctional they’re basically in survival mode,” said Pam Garrison, the prison ministry staff liaison and part of the Missional Engagement team at the Florida Conference.

There are more than 2,000 children currently housed in 54 long-term residential facilities in Florida alone. “It’s easy to say that kid deserves to be in prison,” said Garrison. “But then you find out what that kid’s history is, and they’re lucky to still be alive.”

The ‘church ladies’

First Stuart offers Bible studies, grief counseling and mentoring with teams of volunteers often referred to by inmates as “church ladies.” They carry Bibles into a facility barricaded by barbed wire, electronic doors and cell-like rooms. Uniformed guards never leave their sides.

Most of the girls are in for hard crimes: prostitution, selling drugs or other, oftentimes violent, offenses.

During the day, Sohar teaches a world history honors class at a local high school. She describes herself as “strict, but sensitive.”

Grief counseling, called Grief Share sessions, last 13 weeks. One girl lost her grandparents; another’s boyfriend died violently on the streets. “We are in their space, so we listen to them and respect how far we can go,” Sohar said.

Marjorie Jordan, another First Stuart UMC volunteer, talked of trying to gain trust. How they would “stare you down to get a read on you.” Later they would run to you when arriving at the prison and give hugs, something not allowed in every facility, she added.

“Deep down inside, beyond the hard shell they put up to survive in there,” said Jordan, “is a deep yearning to do better, to change their life.”

Jordan is a retired nurse. She talked of one girl at Martin County who was Baker acted three times in as many months and sent back to prison each time. “For some reason, God put it on me that I had to go to spiritual warfare for this girl,” she said. The girl, abused throughout her young life, was reported to be fighting to control the rage.

“Each week in the session,” Jordan added, “I had her stand in front of me and look into my eyes…and I would promise her that she would overcome this.”

Sandy Monson, another church volunteer, coordinates the mentoring side of the program where relationships are formed over months, sometimes years. “These girls are important. They matter,” she said. “We encourage them that their lives can be better if they keep God close.”

Birthdays and Christmas mornings

The girls at Martin County have been adjudicated by a juvenile court judge. Comparing it to life on the streets, some consider it a better way to live.

“Somebody actually wants to come visit them, wants to know how they’re doing. That’s a foreign concept to most of these kids,” said Garrison.

Garrison remembers her first time visit to a juvenile facility, seeing the “lifeless eyes.” She states the Department of Corrections clearly sees the value of faith-based ministries. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports as many as 82 percent of these kids nationwide are rearrested within two years of their release. Faith-based prison ministries are believed to help lower those numbers.

There are more than 2,000 children currently housed in 54 long-term facilities in Florida alone. While there are many prison ministries, a large number of these facilities are said to be without faith-based programs.

But beyond statistics, the program started at Martin County helps many inmates celebrate things like birthdays and Christmas mornings for the first time. The glow of candles on cake or colored lights on a plastic tree are in stark parallel to the cold world of cement block walls and barred windows.

“These kids need to know they are God’s children,” said Pastor Cindy Lane, “and that He has a much greater plan for their lives.” Lane was hired full-time by the Department of Juvenile Justice to help organize, train and assist programs like the one at First Stuart.

“Being locked-up is all some of them have known,” she said. “We try to give them the tools so they can make better choices when they’re released.”

She talked of the young girl who saved scraps of paper with scriptures on them from her weekly Bible sessions and pasted them floor to ceiling in the bedroom of her home. “I brought my light I found in prison to be with me here,” she said to her mentor. This was inside a home described as “dark, uninviting.”  

“They’re kids. They’re just kids,” said Jordan. She's also a realist who understands some had likely committed serious crimes and were paying for it. “We’re just helping them move beyond that so they can have a life.”

Gold and silver balloons

Sohar talked about losing her husband last November and how the emotional pain created shadows in her own life. For part of the grief sessions, at the end of 13 weeks, the girls go out into a prison courtyard and write messages on balloons, then release them to the sky.

“I was very emotional,” said Sohar. “But I knew the girls needed to see me.” She talked of the cold, clear night in January. The girls huddled around her as she released her own balloon in the dark prison yard. “We had bought gold and silver balloons for that release and we could actually see them go all the way up for a long time,” she said. She then realized it was a positive experience for the girls to see her tears.

“If you can’t express grief, you can’t let go of someone and move on with your life,” said Jordan. “It’s hard for them sometimes just to let that balloon go.”

“Quite often, you never hear from these girls again after they leave,” added Sohar. She now calls them “her angels.”

She described a morning when she walked into a local copy center to print curriculum pages for a Bible study at the academy and noticed the young woman assisting her from behind the counter: the body piercings and tattoos were reminiscent of those she’d seen on girls at the prison. Amidst the chaos and noise of the busy center, there was a nervous glance from the young woman. She was reading the pages and inquired what they were for.

“I was once incarcerated,” she said, adding that a Bible study like this one changed her. Beyond the electronic hum as copies began to form in neat stacks, the two women hugged and cried. They both felt pain and joy of the moment, of a life changed for the better.

“It’s worth it if it makes a difference for one child,” Lane said.

“If we don’t go out right now and help our children, pews will one day be empty,” she added. “We have to go to them.”

--Doug Long is the managing editor of the Florida Conference.