MILWAUKEE — She was a victim of abuse for many years before she ended up here: in Pod D on the sixth floor of the Milwaukee County Jail. She was hurt, and she made bad choices.
Her life journey led her to jail, but she knows that it doesn’t have to end there.
Thanks to a weeklong jail ministry retreat led by seven volunteers determined to give incarcerated women a chance to pray, reflect, grow in faith and grow closer to God, this woman knows a new way of life.
“Since I’ve been here, (God has) washed my soul and he’s shown me a way of life I should have chose a long time ago,” the woman, kept anonymous because of restrictions imposed by the jail, said at the retreat’s closing ceremony Friday, Sept. 23.
As one of 12 women, chosen from about 50 applicants, she committed to attend an opening group session the first day, Monday, Sept. 19, and closing group session the last day, in addition to a daily, 30-minute Bible study and one-on-one meeting with a prayer guide that she shared with another inmate.
The women and prayer guides together sang, “Come as You Are,” led by Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Ann Kelley, one of the prayer guides during the three retreats held annually in January, May and September.
They prayed together and each participant shared her “billboard,” a sheet of paper with a picture of a billboard she decorated in whatever way she wanted to illustrate future goals.
After each presentation, the women’s faces were bright with smiles; their applause filled the room.
One woman explained how the flower she drew represented the seed that God had planted within her, but her billboard painters were still painting because her journey continues.
“I’m working on my faith and that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” she said.
Another billboard showed a girl looking into a mirror with a heart where her reflection should have been.
“If there’s anything that God can do, it’s to make us more like him….” she said, explaining that she hopes to show the love of God to everyone in any way possible. “I want to see God in me, because then I know others will see God in me.”
The jail ministry, founded in the ‘90s by the late Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Barbara Kutchera, and now coordinated by Anne Luber, presents incarcerated women with opportunities to grow.
“The retreat helped me to find God and come closer to him,” one woman said. “I
really enjoyed talking to my prayer guide.”
Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Jeanne d’Arc Omilan, a volunteer prayer guide, was concerned she failed one of the two women with whom she had worked because she felt she wasn’t “getting through” to her – until she saw the billboard she created with the words “wise” and “discerning.”
“Wise in decisions and discerning in people I bring into my life,” the woman said, explaining that she purposely left the drawing unfinished to represent the journey that lies ahead in reaching those goals, and that she drew a crumpled heap at the bottom to represent pieces of the past she was leaving behind. Sr. Jeanne d’Arc was impressed. “She said, ‘This is how I want to live my life – I want to really discern what I’m going to do,’ and as she spoke, I just saw a whole different person – I was just so excited for her….” Sr. Jeanne d’Arc said. “So, you never cross them out, because you don’t know how God is working in their lives.”
Luber, who’s been coordinator of the jail ministry for more than 10 years, said that she sees beauty and goodness in all of the women she’s worked with in retreats.
“They’re all aching to follow a better path, and it’s an inspiration for us as well as it is an inspiration for them, I’m sure,” said Luber who belongs to North Shore Congregational Church in Fox Point.
Luber’s favorite part of the closing ceremony is handing out certificates to each of the participants, which they usually have signed by their prayer guides. The certificates represent proof of the journey of faith they’ve made during the retreat.
“That means something,” said prayer guide Carol Sullivan, a member of St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners, and spiritual director. “You’ve learned new things. Sometimes, we forget all the things we know.”
Terry Sherman, who attends St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Milwaukee, said that the retreat experience changed her and her fellow prayer guides.
“We are different women here today than we were on Monday – I am a different person because I have known you, and I will always have that,” she said.
Sherman also said seeing the women bond and support each other during the retreat was awe-inspiring.
“It’s something that you don’t always see on the outside, and the way that God’s presence is in the jail is amazing,” said Sherman, who noted that the women they’re working with are no different than anyone’s brothers, sisters or children – “It’s circumstances.”
Working in jail ministry isn’t always easy. Sometimes Luber and the prayer guides can’t meet with the women because of a fight or lock-down, and getting authorization to enter the jail with all of its security measures was a lot of work initially.
“We always say, ‘Expect the unexpected in jail,’” said Luber of a lesson they’ve all learned.
Even if the retreats don’t lead to lasting changes in the women, the sisters and lay women are committed to offering them.
When someone asks Sullivan why she spends time with the women when “it doesn’t make a difference,” or how she thinks seeing two people for an hour five days in a row will matter, she’s not discouraged.
“My answer is that that’s not how Jesus looked at anybody that he encountered and, if for that hour and maybe a little that evening, or somehow all week and then a little the next week, it makes a difference and it helps someone to feel loved, and gives them hope, and gives them some tools and resources to use going forward, then it is so, so, so well worth my time and energy and effort and commitment to this and that’s why I keep doing it,” Sullivan said. “It’s not ours to judge if it’s doing any good; it’s ours to just do what we’re called to do.”