Monday, March 3, 2014
Adventures with TESSA at the county jails
Thanks to the women’s jail chaplain, my book Tessa: From Fear to Faith has been circulating among the women in the Eau Claire and Chippewa County jails in the last month or so. The chaplain, Margi, asked them to critique the book. “You have lived this sort of stuff,” she said. “Why don’t you go through this book and see if you can find a place where the author messed up; where the story isn’t quite accurate.” The reports came back that they couldn’t find anything amiss; the whole book was “right on the money.” Margi told me the women love the books and have been passing them around from one cell block to another.
On February 6th, Margi invited me to the Chippewa County Jail to talk with the women. All of them had the same question: “How did you write this story?” They sensed I was not Tessa; that I did not come from an abusive and dysfunctional family; yet somehow I had written about their world and their lives with the accuracy and emotion of someone who had been there. So, I got to give my testimony to a very wonderful group of ladies. The women were really open to us. They smiled and laughed and the more they relaxed, the more I relaxed. After a while, we started having a regular back-and-forth conversation around the table. They told me if I kept coming to jails, I would meet many people and hear many stories which I could turn into another book. I explained that I wouldn’t want people to think I was coming just to harvest stories.
“You’ve got to stop worrying so much what people think of you,” they responded. “You learn that real fast in jail.”
“I hope I don’t have to come here to learn it," I joked.
“No, no, don't come in here. It's not good in here,” they told me.
What was really neat is I felt like I was on their level and they were on mine. It wasn't just me giving them advice; they were giving me advice too.
After we closed our meeting with prayer, one of the women went over to this computerized machine and started tapping buttons on the screen. I asked what it was, and they said it was for ordering food and stuff. "Go see for yourself," they urged me. "We don't bite!" I walked over there and it really looked complicated. Like something I would have trouble figuring out. I said, "Man, you gotta be smart to be in here!"
"No, you gotta be dumb to be in here!" they shot back. After that the guard came and we had to leave. But I really did enjoy my visit. I feel like I made a couple of new friends. The chaplain was pleased how it went, and on the afternoon of March 2, she took me into the Eau Claire County Jail to meet the ladies there.
Compared to Chippewa, the Eau Claire County Jail is huge! You could get lost in the waiting room, not to mention the hallways going this way and that. I was thankful to have Margi with me; she knew where she was going. Very soon we had gotten through the security and were up on the second floor, where we met with eleven women around a long table. They also wanted to know how I had written the book, so once again, I had the opportunity to share what God has done in my life.
One of the women especially identified with me when I talked about the time in my life when I was a born-again Christian, yet was still unable to break free from the bondage of sin. I wish I could have given her a hug, because she reminds me so much of myself. I know the frustration of being stuck and unable to change; I was stuck for six and a half years. Margi and I encouraged her to keep seeking God, for He promises that if we seek for Him with all our heart, we will find Him.
At the end of an hour, the first group of women left and the second group came. This time, there were only two. Both had read the book. One of them told me, “This IS my life,” all the way down to the meth.
I pray for all my readers, whether in jail or free, that they will not only identify with the characters and the story, but also with the solution – faith in Christ – and with the examples of how faith must be worked into a person’s life to bring about real change. Some of the women in jail are Christians, but they are stuck, not knowing how to change. Yes, of course there is freedom in Christ, but how is that worked out practically in a person’s life? I wrote into the book some of how God has led me into freedom, but each person’s path will be a little different. Only God can reveal the key to freedom for each of us. And for that, we must seek Him.
“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened.” – The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8
“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” – Jeremiah 29:13
I am excited and humbled by the opportunities God has given me. Sometimes, like Moses, I want to argue with God. “I am so unqualified; send someone else!” But it’s not about me. It never was about me. I’m learning that when I lay aside my own wisdom and let God lead, there is no limit to the places we can go. I don’t have to be qualified or good enough; I just need to follow Him.