Note: We’re reposting Chara Donahue’s blog post because (a) she’s amazing (b) her story of her time at the Prison Outreach / Essay Presentation is honest, heart-wrenching and beautiful (c) we hope this inspires you to join us at this year’s Essay Presentation at Oregon State Penitentiary (that Chara is leading!).
We’re heading there Aug. 25, but you’ll need to sign up by Aug. 10! Click HERE to read more about this outreach and how you can be a part of it!
Out of all the invitations you receive in life, a handful entice with the potential for redemption; sometimes these requests show up in the form of a Facebook event. To truly taste these sweetened moments — the call for obedience must be heeded, or in other words, “Going” clicked. The opportunity to attend the Faith & Culture Prison Outreach Essay Presentation seemed to have these hints of the holy lingering in the background. I decided to explore by taking the first step, securing childcare.
I talked to my husband about the possibility of attending the event at the men’s high-security penitentiary, and after he said things like, “Let me pray about it. Are you sure this is safe?” I responded, “Jesus said, ‘I was in prison and you came to me.'” Then we agreed that he would watch our brood of four while I attended the event, words in hand.
Words that I had been pondering, polishing, and praying would speak to hearts. When I agreed to go I asked, “Should it be something l had already written or brand new?” It had to be both glorifying to a mighty God who’s ways are far beyond our own, and relatable to those who have been locked away for years. I kept praying about it, and one day on the elliptical at the gym, I knew.
I started crying — at the gym.
I was that person others questioned whether it would be better to help or to avoid, but I knew what I was sensing was from God. If any, I figure that is an acceptable reason to lose it in public. I hoped people would think my tears were sweat, opened up my notes app, and began to write the moments out while I ran. Later I took the gibberish of my notes, and wrote the tale I had not told before. One about a little girl who picked up the collect call delivering the news that a man she cherished, was locked up.
I met the rest of the Faith & Culture crew that were going outside the small entrance to the foreboding prison. Together we went through multiple security checks, waited for bars to slide open and clank closed, and met well over 100 prisoners attempting to improve their lives through the 7 step program. I stepped up to the microphone praying I wouldn’t cry. I made it through without breaking, but as I looked around the cold, payphone-lined room, I saw that some of those men had taken up the mantle of tears for me.
As I stood up there and told a tale of reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness framed by mountain climbing and prayers prayed, I saw the spirit of God bring rest, hope, and action to the lives of men who wondered about their families often. The other writers brought inspirational and encouraging tales as well, each one of our stories meeting different men that night in sacred places hidden behind steely bars. Men who were gracious, considerate, and kind to us, as we spoke with them after the readings.
They let us into their stories, many told us of their own wrestlings with the law, family dynamics, and God. Some were encouraged, some were broken, and some came asking, “What should I do?” Many told us they look forward to this every year and raved about Faith & Culture’s founder Cornelia Seigneur. By sharing a sliver of my own self that I won’t be disclosing to the internet, I was invited into the deep stories of others, peppered by the harsh realities of their human experience. I was also ushered into conversations covered with glory, hope, and redemption.
It feels risky to offer vulnerability to a room full of strangers, especially men the judicial system has found guilty, but it feels even more perilous to deny God the offerings he asks for, because of what will be missed in withholding. I can see their faces still, I can see how the power of God met them, and I can pray for them. That night, intertwined sagas whispered freedom to those whose bodies might be captive but whose souls could be liberated.
I am grateful for the experience, hoping to return next year, and am still amazed at the ways I found Jesus dwelling amongst the rusty bars, concrete walls, and repentant hearts.
Chara is a freelance writer, certified biblical counselor, and speaker. She holds a MSEd from Corban University and is passionate about seeing people set free through God’s truths. She loves to write about faith, culture, and the deep truths that drive our fascinations with it. Chara is the founder and editor of Anchored Voices and can be found on multiple social media platforms @CharaDonahue.