Sometimes the path is straight and clear. And sometimes the journeys of the heart twist around through thickets and wilderness and desert and what seem to be dead ends. But they keep walking. Across the church, acting from faith, ordinary people stir concrete and walk into prisons and set up cots. Sometimes people end up in places they never would have imagined, meeting people whose lives seem so different and yet with whom they discover they have so much in common.
And when they get to that unexpected place, they often say: “This is exactly where God wants me to be.”
Mixing in Nicaragua
Pete Feil, who just retired from his job as a chemist, this year made his fifth trip with a group of parishioners from Derry Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to build houses in Nicaragua. The trips are arranged through an organization called Bridges to Community (http://www.bridgestocommunity.org ) , which offers educational and service-oriented trips primarily to Nicaragua but also to Kenya, Nepal and Cambodia. Over the years, Bridges to Community has been involved in public works projects, building latrines, water projects, schools and churches, and its volunteers — including church groups, college students and business leaders — have just completed building their 200th house in Nicaragua.
In June, 14 Presbyterians from Derry church headed to Nicaragua — 10 of them making a repeat trip. They travel to Masaya (http://www.friendsofmasaya.org), about 20 kilometers southeast of Managua, where they sleep in a school, frequent an outhouse, and where “the shower is a five-gallon bucket,” Feil said. “It feels good — it’s hot.”
Each American visitor brings two suitcases, one with his or her own things, one filled with supplies and donations for the village. In recent years, the area was hit first by Hurricane Mitch and then by an earthquake in 2000; the houses being built are concrete block with metal roofs, a single room about 15 feet by 20 feet for an entire family. There’s running water, but not inside the house. Cooking is done outside.
Families who don’t have the new houses “live in various assemblies of things, whatever they can get hold of” — maybe scraps of lumber, blue tarps, pieces of corrugated metal, Feil said.
“You certainly look at your own conditions when you come back differently,” he said. The Derry group built two houses on this trip and started a third — the Nicaraguan community leadership decides which families should get the houses. On this trip, a mother told them she was thankful that, when it rains, her children no longer will get wet.
Feil and other volunteers also are trying to think creatively. For example, some of the Nicaraguan women have begun a sewing cooperative, and they are considering whether they could provide loans to support small businesses the Nicaraguans want to start. He’s also seen the impact of a global economy. The bone-rattling road down which Feil has ridden in the past now is nicely paved. It leads to two new factories at which Nicaraguans work for what for them are good wages, but which would be considered low in the U.S.
Chris Houtz, 18, was among those who made the trip from Pennsylvania — his first time in Nicaragua, the first time he has ever seen poverty on this scale.
“It was nothing like I thought it would be,” Houtz said. In the countryside, “you just can’t believe what people are living in — all the houses are sticks with a little straw on top,” with a halfdozen or more people living in each, with barely enough to eat.
Along with the poverty, though, he saw the warmth of the people.
At the end of the day, when construction stopped, the volunteers led a Bible school — and he was struck with how open the children were, how willing to come right up to the American teenagers and play. He saw love and joy in the midst of material poverty. In the U.S., “if you don’t get the right present for Christmas, you’re mad for so long,”
Houtz said. “They know they don’t need a lot to be happy. We build ourselves up, if we don’t have the latest technology, we’re upset. … They have each other and their family.” Houtz, a high school senior and the son of Derry’s pastor, Richard Houtz, said he went to Nicaragua not sure he had a lot to offer. In school, “I took Spanish, I don’t understand a word of it,” he said. “I’ve never built anything in my life.”
It didn’t matter. He communicated with the children through play. He mixed cement. “You don’t have to know Spanish, you don’t have to communicate, you don’t have to know carpentry, you just have to mix,” Houtz said.
Now, back home, he wants to do more — helping out in a soup kitchen, volunteering for local projects with which his church is involved, putting muscles into his faith.
“You can be told how much Jesus helped everybody,” Houtz said. “But you have to go out there and do” to really understand.
In life and in faith, one thing leads to another. In 1997, Harriet Jennings was moderator of her Presbyterian Women’s circle at White Memorial church in Raleigh, N.C., the day the group invited Marla Cates, a Presbyterian minister who works as a chaplain at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, to speak.
Cates talked about the importance of “a ministry of presence.” Then she issued a challenge: “Come and see.”
So Jennings — a retired home economist who had absolutely no exposure to prison — did just that. She went, she saw, she began working as a volunteer for Cates’ Presbyterian Prison Ministry and getting to know, friend to friend, as she describes it, some of the women from the prison.
In 2001, when a new program started called JobStart — an intensive program to prepare inmates to make the transition to life outside the prison once they’re released — Jennings helped find space at First Church in Raleigh for the JobStart classes to meet, and now works for the program part time.
To get into JobStart, each woman must submit an 18-page application. The women learn to prepare résumés, interview for jobs, and identify their skills. They assess their readiness to live productively in society, looking at factors such as spiritual nurture, family relationships, housing, education, transportation, and history with addictions. Essentially, Jennings said, each “will become an onion and strip down layers and get to her inner core.”
Each woman is matched with a volunteer mentor with whom she meets weekly for more than four months. The women come to JobStart in street clothes, which allows them “to act like ordinary women and to be seen that way,” Jennings said.
Presbyterians from a swath of North Carolina are involved–from a variety of congregations and presbyteries– cooking and sharing meals, sharing faith and their own experiences, and “it has stretched them,” Jennings said. “It has shown them God’s love for every human being and God’s forgiveness and God’s way of transforming people’s lives, and not only the lives of the incarcerated women,” but also their own.
Jennings, 66, says of the prison work she never expected to do: “It’s God’s call for my life. I don’t know where it’s going to lead me. … As I’ve told people, my faith has been stretched, it’s been torn apart, it’s been dissected. And slowly I’m putting it back together. But it’s a different kind of faith than when I started out. It’s more open.”
Mary Ray of First Church in Raleigh, has been on a journey too. She was scouting out service opportunities for her Sunday school class, just looking for information, when she met Marla Cates. “I had no clue,” Ray said. But she went to see, like Harriet Jennings, and began to spend four hours each Thursday sitting in a visitors’ room at the prison, meeting the women, listening. Often — that’s all they wanted, she said, just someone from the outside to care enough to listen, to hear, and then to come back.
“I heard their struggles, I heard their stories,” Ray said — and she began to understand. In February 2003 Ray became the JobStart mentor for an inmate named Sandra.
At their first meeting, Ray talked and talked, Sandra said little.
“She refused a Bible, would not go to church, she didn’t believe in God or Jesus, nothing,” Ray remembers. When they were introduced, Sandra told her, “`You need to know something. I do not make friends easily.’ She did everything she could not to encourage our friendship in the beginning. She had very big trust issues for obvious reasons.”
In time, week by week, Mary Ray got to know Sandra’s story — the story of a convicted murderer.
Sandra had been sexually and physically abused from the age of seven. Her father was dead, her mother couldn’t read or write and didn’t protect her from her alcoholic stepfather’s abuse, which continued, unrelenting, for years. She became addicted to heroin at 13 as a way of trying to knock down the pain. She killed someone, at her mother’s request. “She felt this was the only way to get acceptance from her mother, which she’d never got before,” Ray said.
Sandra was arrested at 17. Just a few days later, her mother committed suicide.
She’d spent her entire adult life incarcerated.
A few months ago, at 35, a graduate of JobStart, Sandra was released from prison. She is now managing a restaurant, and Ray talks to her two or three times a day. Some days are tough, Ray said. She reminds Sandra that along with freedom comes responsibility.
Both are on a journey.
Ray, who’s 47, graduated from college in 1980, after majoring in psychology and business, and went to work in the high tech sector. She worked at one job more than 17 years, putting in tremendous hours, but when the industry took a nosedive, her job was eliminated. “It was devastating to me, but it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Ray said.
She suddenly had time for prison ministry, where “I’m not making a dime, but I am being paid in priceless ways.” In prison, she said, she feels God’s presence more than in any other place. “I know I’m where I’m supposed to be. People think that prisons are where the worst of the worst are, and yes, that can well be. But God’s with them, God has never left them.”
Before she began this work, Ray was involved with church, “I walked the walk, talked the talk. But if I could skip Sunday school, yes, I did it. I can’t say I had the faith my children do. We went, but I just don’t think it clicked … It wasn’t until prison ministry that my faith solidified. That’s when I knew the Holy Spirit was in me. I could feel it. Saying it is one thing, but being able to feel it and believe it by faith is another. It took that.”
Sandra came to faith, too. “God was working with her,” Ray said. “He saved her. I didn’t, I just happened to be there. She’s a wonderful person.”
What has she learned?
Women in prison need so much support — from people who understand education and housing and childcare and how the world works — and so few are willing to do it.
Faith grows when people step outside their comfort zone — sometimes ordinary, bruised, laid-off people who aren’t sure what they’re doing and have never stepped foot in a prison but feel God whispering to them:
That when they do, their faith can grow ten-fold.
They can make tremendous, invaluable friendships.
They can end up, map-less but sure of it, exactly where God wants them to be.