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God’s Camping Ground

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For years I struggled with being a people pleaser, drug abuser and homosexual,” admitted Raquel. It was New Year’s Eve, and she was one of 14 inmates who publicly professed their faith in the first-ever baptism service at Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI), Wisconsin’s only maximum security prison for women.

“I began doing the things that got me to prison by trying to make people happy,” the mother of six continued. “I’d steal, sell my body, cash checks, use credit cards—whatever I thought would make the most money or could fix the situation. I always believed in the Lord, but I never really got out of the way and allowed Him to do all that He wanted. Crazy as it may seem, this incarceration has been God’s way of fully getting my attention.

“One day while sitting in segregation [solitary confinement], I had a revelation. I was crying, praying that nothing would happen to my ill son while I was in this place, and it hit me. God gave His only son for me. With that I knew just how far, long, deep and everlasting His love is for me. I couldn’t think of giving up one of my children, and He gave His only child. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Like Raquel, many of the inmates at TCI find that their imprisonment is really God’s way of rescuing and calling them to Himself. The word “Taycheedah” is a combination of two Native American words that mean “camping ground.” For many inmates, it has become “El Taycheedah”—God’s camping ground. This prison is not only the place God brings them for their safety but also the place where He camps among them.

God’s Path to Prison

As TCI’s chaplain, I am privileged to witness the miracles He performs daily in a place that otherwise would be crushingly hopeless. My own journey to TCI began in 1996, when a man my husband worked with was convicted of a crime and sent to prison. I read Chuck Colson’s book Loving God and was led by the Holy Spirit to volunteer for our county jail ministry. After completing a training class, I thought God would use me to write letters to incarcerated women. But in her second letter, the woman I was corresponding with asked, “Could you come visit me?” I was hooked on prison ministry after just one trip to the correctional facility.

In 2000, God made it clear that He wanted me to go deeper. My husband and I had been members of Appleton [Wis.] Alliance Church since 1994, and our pastor and the district superintendent encouraged me to enroll in the Ministerial Study Program (MSP) offered by The Alliance. As I was finishing the MSP, God opened the door for me to do a year-long residency in clinical pastoral education, a necessary step to being hired as a prison chaplain in Wisconsin.

I was the first intern employed at TCI, which houses 700 women, ages 18 to 75, for crimes ranging from embezzlement and drug dealing to murder. The same year, TCI’s current chaplain announced her retirement, and the warden asked me to apply.

Since that time, God has allowed me to enter into the lives of the women incarcerated there. As I have ministered to them and have witnessed many come to the Lord, they have ministered to me as well.

Old Made New

The changes that come about in inmates’ lives through the transforming power of Christ are startling in this dark environment. The new birth Christ offers all believers is the same, but the contrast with the former life is beyond imagining—especially for the women themselves. Lynda T. is one such believer. Growing up in a physically and sexually abusive home, Lynda knew nothing of parental love. While working with incarcerated women, I discovered that more than two-thirds have been physically or sexually abused, many from childhood on, and Lynda’s life fit this pattern.

“My home was full of punishment with no benefits of a loving family,” she recalled. “I never received a hug or a kiss or heard, ‘I love you’ from my parents. I was sexually abused from age six by my two brothers, a neighbor and a man from our church, as well as three farm hands.” Lynda married an abusive man and then passed that treatment on to her only son.

“The day I entered TCI in 1997, my life finally changed for the better. A Christian therapist planted a seed that continues to grow to this day. I met Christian friends through Bible studies, and my spiritual growth began.

“Finding God and Christian friends in prison has blessed my life beyond what I could have hoped or imagined. I’ve learned patience, trust, obedience, faith and God’s pure love.”

Lynda is now a member of the TCI religious choir and its resident humorist. A lover of country tunes, she regularly declares we need more “twang” in our repertoire. God has opened doors Lynda thought were permanently shut. The son she once abused has reconciled with her, and soon she will go to a minimum security facility, the next step on her journey home.

Love Is the Answer

Like Lynda, Katrona grew up craving love. “Both of my parents used drugs. Dad used to beat my mom and us kids a lot. One day out of the blue, my mom sent us to church. I don’t know why this came about, but it was good that we were able to get out of the house. Even though I went to church, I still didn’t learn much. I got baptized only because I wanted to impress my mom. I thought I would finally get love from her, but I was wrong.”

When Katrona was 16, her mother threw her out of the house. Katrona joined a gang and began smoking marijuana and selling herself. Her life was out of control.

“I recall picking up my Bible and reading John 3:16, but I didn’t understand it. When I got arrested for my crime, that verse came to my mind. I still didn’t understand it, but I knew God was trying to tell me something. I remember giving my life to God when I was in the county jail. Yet when I was sentenced to 35 years, I had thoughts of killing myself and the judge.”

Instead, Katrona went to Bible study. “I did the crime, I had to pay for it, but God was telling me that He will make a way for me to bear it.

“I still struggle from day to day, but God is always there to pick me up. He taught me no matter what I go through in life, He’s always there. I’ve never felt so loved. If I can make it in Christ, then I know everybody can make it in Christ.”

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