Institute student Darbie Guess Ministers to Prisoners
How does a white, privileged twenty-one American girl stand in front a crowd of incarcerated, impoverished Filipinas, and preach to them God cares for them?
I didn’t know.
How could I speak hope when the women were treated like trash? Hidden away in jail cells for trash cans so no one could see the “dirt.” How could I speak to them when all I felt was my privilege and their injustices?
I didn’t know.
These questions entered my mind a year ago as I was exposed to the harsh realities of the prison system in the Philippines. I was on an internship, and found myself standing in a women’s prison surrounded by a hundred prisoners. Many of the women had been in there for years. The majority of the 100 prisoners were mothers with no communication with their children, which meant they spent years not knowing the whereabouts of their children. My heart broke when I listened to these mothers speak of separation. I could only imagine the amount of anxiety they fought everyday while being behind bars. Some of them were my agemates, just 21, telling me their worries about their sons and daughters’ futures. It took everything in me not to cry like a lunatic in front of them.
Last summer, I left the Philippines with those questions unanswered. Yet, I was determined to find an answer. I went back into my second year at the Institute studying theology and community development concepts. These questions, experiences, and stories haunted me. I sought to find the answers in my classes, because I knew what I had wasn’t enough (yet). I knew I could not conjure up the right words to bring hope and peace to their situations. Yet, I knew that God’s Word had the power to nourish and bring peace to their minds. I just didn’t know how to make those connections (yet). So, I turned in dozens of homework assignments and papers over the last year. I wasn’t exactly sure what paper, assignment, or class would enable me to speak into the lives of the poor and oppressed prisoners. Yet, I trusted the process of being a student. I committed to God to be faithful in each paper to allow it to change me.
So after completing my second year at the Institute, I found myself again in the Philippines standing in from of the same incarcerated women I met last year. I returned, not with all questions answered, but a more developed voice. I knew the Lord in a new way, and I was happy to share it with them.
This last semester I enrolled in 1 and 2 Samuel with Shaun Galford. Within the course, we had many assignments and several papers. I composed a short sermon on the other side of writing my paper which I prepared to give to the women in the jail. If I had not put in the effort to know God’s Word in such a way that I could articulate it for myself, then I would have stood again in front of the imprisoned women without anything to say.
So, I told the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel. Hannah was a mother to her son named Samuel. Hannah prays for her son to be raised by God. God responds and raises up her son while Hannah isn’t physically nearby to raise up her son.
I told the prisoners I was sorry. I was sorry they were away from their children and not able to raise them. I was sorry for their heartache and fears. Tears started falling down all of our faces as I didn’t justify their position, I spoke to the hardship they experienced. Holding back sobs, I continued to tell them the story of a woman who trusted God to take care of her child, and that, when they have nothing else, they have him. I told them that God hears their prayers.
They looked at me with a mixture of hope and desperation for God. So, I asked them to get in groups of two’s and three’s and pray for each other’s families. As their voices cried out for our Father, God responded by filling the environment with his presence -- everyone could feel it. Our team joined the groups in prayer. As I walked around the room, various women reached out their hand as I passed by asking me to pray for their families telling me they believed God was with me. I was humbled by their perspective of me. So, I knelt down beside the women crying out on their behalf for God to protect their babies. They told me the names of their children, mothers, brothers, sisters, etc. They told me many names and many more fears they had for their loved ones. I grabbed their hands and held onto faith crying out for them with faith filled shouts for God’s redemptive power in their families. It was an emotional moment for all of us, clinging to the hope found in God, grounded in faith that came from one story of a mother who did the same.
My ability to speak to these prisoners this past trip came on the other side of writing a three page paper. I didn’t know at the time that one particular assignment would have the ability to bring hope to prisoners. Yet, by faith I believed my classes were forming me into a woman who could confidently speak God’s word for herself. My classes prepared me to learn God’s Word and appropriate it for those in need. The classroom extends beyond the desk and whiteboard environment to the islands of the Philippines were I applied what I learned. My education and knowledge of God empowered me to go into dark, chaotic prison and bring hope to the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy.