There were two mistakes made at the jail this morning. The first was that the security guard called the wrong unit to the chapel. So, instead of the one or two men who usually show up Monday mornings it was nearly twenty women. In most places, the error would be corrected, the wrong group sent back, the right group recalled. But nothing happens easily or quickly in the jail and we were already running late. So, we decided to just play the hand we were dealt. The circle was widened, more bibles were procured, more photocopies of lessons were made. The women had shown up and we couldn’t very well turn them away.
The dynamic is different at the jail with women as opposed to men. There was more laughter, more tears, more stories, more sharing. The conversations were less guarded. There was less bravado and fewer awkward silences. It seems somehow more hopeful when the women show up. There is one thing that stays the same, though, no matter if it’s women or men doing the showing up. The majority of the inmates are indigenous. This one thing remains heartbreakingly consistent.
The second mistake was made when the woman beside me was assigned to read one of the bible passages. She was probably around my age although she looked older. She had missing teeth, scars, crude tattoos—the “uniform” is also heartbreakingly consistent. She was supposed to read John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Which is of course a great verse to read in most any context.
But she made a mistake. She started two verses earlier, with John 8:10-11:
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
A few women started to interrupt her as she read. “Nah, that’s the wrong verse… “ But she kept reading. We looked around at each other after she was done. There were a few smiles exchanged before we moved on to read the “right” one. It felt like one of those accidents that wasn’t really an accident at all. I asked the women around the circle if they knew the story that preceded those verses. Nearly all of them did. “Yeah, it’s my favourite story in the whole bible… I love that one… Me too…”
And why wouldn’t it be? A woman condemned by righteous men for sins that at the very least she was only partially implicated in. A woman who may very well have been as much a victim as anything, so casual and oppressive have men historically been with women. A woman trained by life to expect the worst who gets a second chance. A woman whose dignity and worth is acknowledged both in the refusal to condemn and the injunction to go and sin no more. A woman who encounters Jesus and a different script. Could there be a better story for a circle of women in dreary prison garb who are well-acquainted with judgement?
There were a few sniffles. A few eyes searching out shoes. A roll of toilet paper was passed around for tear-stained faces.
At the end of our time, the chaplain asked if any of the women wanted to pray. The woman on the other side of me enthusiastically volunteered. She, too, was probably around my age, and had lived on the street since she was thirteen. She had purple hair and a booming voice. When she had read from the lesson earlier, I told her that she had a preacher’s voice—“You’ll have to come preach in my church some time.” She chuckled at that.
She proceeded to offer about the most beautiful and articulate prayer I had heard in some time. She prayed that God would descend into these women’s hearts and meet them in their pain. She thanked God for each person there and asked that none of the hard things each one had been through would be wasted. She claimed the truth that each person there was loved by God no matter what they had done. She prayed that they would emerge from this place with lessons learned, reborn into better lives. She said “amen” like she meant it. May it be so. Yes, God, may it be so.
I thought back to Easter Sunday. How it was the women who showed up there, too. How it was the women who first proclaimed the gospel to a collection of mostly thick and faithless men who thought they were telling idle tales. I thought about how it was the women who had a front row seat to resurrection on the day that the world was changed forever, about how it was a woman who first said, “I have seen the Lord.”
I thanked God for holy “mistakes.” And for the beautifully unlikely things that happen when the women show up.
The image above is taken from the 2018-19 Christian Seasons Calendar. It’s the image for the Easter season, created by Deborah L. Hoover, and called “He is Risen.”