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Two or three times a month I step inside a building of cement block walls, bordered by barbed wire. Moving through hallways as steel doors clang shut behind me, I shudder at the sound. Even after five years of making these trips.

There are no windows,

no linen cloths draped across tables or candles to scent the air,

no framed prints on the walls,

nor flowered upholstery on cushioned furniture…

where comfort comes in minute doses, if even at all.

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In stark surroundings I hold a simple church service for incarcerated women. At times there are half a dozen or more seated in the room. Sometimes, just two or three.

All but me are wearing stripes.

Those who’ve come previously expect a hug.

Where senses are sorely deprived I sometimes hear comments:

You smell so good…

I love your tote bag… your earrings… your shoes…

Or after we sing (with a sheet of lyrics in hand) one will say, This song is beautiful. Can I keep this?

Of course, you may.

After introductions and while the notebook is passed, where prayer requests are written, I ask how their week has been.

Do you have any questions, answers to prayer or anything to share?

Some sit quietly. Others have much to say.

Many Christians who wake up in jail admit it’s just what they needed to get them on the right path again. I point them to the Word, with encouragement to become re-acquainted with the Father who loves them unconditionally, no matter what they’ve done or where they’ve been.

A few wipe away tears, from heartache or regret known only to herself and the God who sees.

Occasionally a woman pays close attention to all that’s said. Depending on how the evening unfolds, she’ll go back to her cell and release her life into God’s hands while alone, or she’ll look at me toward the end of our time together and ask:

So, what do I do? This is what I need, what I’ve been looking for—I’m ready. Tell me what to do.

As a pastor’s wife involved in multiple ministries, I often have the privilege of leading an individual to take that final step toward God. Yet, as most of these women are total strangers, I’m fully aware that others—a mom or grandma usually, a husband, a sibling or close friend—have been praying and nudging them for years prior to this day, when they’re finally ready to make the commitment.

God provided the gift of salvation. We get to help with the packaging. Imagine the prayers, the verses shared, words of explanation, and a life lived radiantly as the giftwrap.

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Once in a while I get to tie the bow, before handing it to a repentant soul. When she accepts it and makes the gift her own, all who took part in the process have a reason to celebrate.

(Images by: Doug Coldwell, prison cell; Iwona Erskine-Kellie, gift)

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