She tells me her story within minutes of meeting her—what she did and how she ended up in prison, twice. I receive this intimate confession as the gift that it is—an unveiling that is real and raw and heartbreaking. I am struck by the dignity she embodies even as she tells me a story of childhood wounds that grew into adult addictions. She accepts full responsibility for her behavior—she knows she made piss-poor choices—and yet she is oh-so-clear that her past does not define her present, and it will not determine her future. When she says, I know that I know that I know that I know where my worth comes from now; it comes from my higher power—from Jesus, I BELIEVE her. She is centered in a way that is at odds with her story, and all I can think is broken hearts can mend and hopeless lives can be redeemed. I see it with my own eyes as I breathe in hope, heavy with data. And I am reminded of all the crippled, bleeding, and lost women in the gospel accounts who met Jesus and walked away seen, healed, and found.
And I think of another woman who encountered Jesus. She was brought before him by a group who wanted to trick him. They knew his message was one of mercy, and she was a lawbreaker. Teacher, they said, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? But Jesus wouldn’t play their game. Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her, he said, providing her cover by changing the entire conversation. They walked away, one by one, starting with the eldest, until there was no one left to condemn her but Jesus. But he refused. Where are they? Has no one condemned you? he asked. No one, she said. Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again. She was free to begin a new life. Except beginning a new life is difficult, especially when people fear you for your past. That is where we need to step in—not in the judging and condemning, not in the fearing, but in the beginning and the building.
Right off the bat, when we come out of prison, we need somebody there that cares, she says. A lot of us are already boxed in when we come out. We need help making peace with our past.
These women carry the label of addict, ex-offender, felon, and more. When they are released, they are already boxed in. They need help making peace with their past so it does not define their present or determine their future. If we come alongside them, they will also teach us how to face our own fears of not being good enough, of being judged, of being labeled. Their survival demands this of them in ways many of us have not known. As we look into their eyes, listen to their stories, and provide cover to escape the nightmare that has boxed them in, their path will show us how to break beyond the confinement of our own hearts and minds. Then we will know that we know that we know that we know that redemption is real, mercy triumphs over justice, and all things can and will be healed and made new.