Trading Ashes for Beauty: A Volunteer’s Perspective

This is post 2 of 4 regarding Beauty for Ashes, a prison ministry based out of Kansas City. Today’s post is a bit different than my typical ministry story. In November I had the chance to visit one of the prisons Beauty for Ashes works with, so this is a story about that day and the volunteers and prisoners I met. Names of inmates have been changed to protect their privacy.

November 19, 2014

The morning is clear and crisp, just like a November morning should be. I’m in a Lowe’s parking lot, waiting for the group of volunteers from the Beauty for Ashes Re-entry program.

An older gentleman knocks on my car window. “Are you Ruthie?” he asks. He introduces himself as Wilburn, one of the BFAR volunteers.

A few minutes later, Dorothy, another volunteer pulls in. With her is Jeff, BFAR’s director of worship and outreach. We all say hello, I introduce myself and my blog, and we get in Wilburn’s car to make the 3-hour drive to the Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic Correctional Center in Vandalia, MO.

As we drive, I’m mostly quiet. It’s more interesting to hear them interact with each other and to begin to understand the bonds they have formed through ministering together. They talk about Jeff’s daughter’s recent engagement, make bets on the price of gas in Columbia, and discuss the BFAR event that had happened the weekend before.

Wilburn is a quiet man who prays hard and who heard about BFAR through an Oaks of Righteousness course. Dorothy is a mother and grandmother with a deep spiritual sensitivity. She opens her home to any in need and was led to BFAR because of her former work in prisons through the Census Bureau. Jeff jokes that he spent “half his life and half his fortune” trying to stay out of prison, but now he enters it freely and leads bi-monthly worship services for the inmates.

Wilburn

Wilburn

Dorothy

Dorothy

Jeff

Jeff

All believe in the healing work of the Holy Spirit. Jeff was healed of hepatitis C, Dorothy of fibromyalgia. Wilburn waits patiently for God to heal his hearing, and Jeff waits for Him to heal his sight.

They offer updates on prisoners they know.

“Did you hear Rob is back in max?” Jeff asks.

“Oh, no,” Dorothy exclaims, immediately sympathetic and concerned.

A little while later, Wilburn says to Jeff, “Just wait till you see Erin.”

“Oh yes,” Dorothy adds. “She’s just glowing. Erin just accepted Christ,” she explains, turning to me.

Around noon, we reach Vandalia and stop at a small, country diner for lunch. The others prep me on what to expect at the prison, and we head over as soon as we’re done eating.

The prison is a ground-hugging, sprawling building, surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire. Each wing of the building is shaped like a star diagram with a central hub and individual spokes proceeding from it. The others show their visitor ID cards to the guard at the front desk, while I show my driver’s license and receive a guest pass. We walk through several locked doors, scanning our IDs at each one, before arriving in the central courtyard and making our way to the correct wing.

When we enter the BFAR wing, the ladies applaud, and I’m overwhelmed. There is a palpable difference between this wing and the other wings nearby. The walls are the same cream-colored cinderblock as in other wings, and the tables and chairs are the same too, but the walls here are covered in bright paper leaves, beautiful drawings, and artwork of all kinds. There is a shelf of books off to one side, an American and Christian flag on the other. A tall soldier on one wall is dressed in the armor of God, and glittering white doves flutter above the stairs.

art as worship

volunteer instructors

Beauty for Ashes prison ministry

Most of the ladies leave a few minutes later for lunch – “liver and onions,” one informs us – and so I have a few moments to meet and chat with Miss Lana and Miss Gay, who serve as BFAR program directors, surrogate mothers, welcoming arms, and listening ears to the women in the BFAR program.

One of the ladies who has remained behind offers me water and hands me a schedule for the afternoon. I’m amazed to see there is an entire program planned to welcome me here.

Eventually, the ladies return, and the program starts. The ladies recite the BFAR motto, the BFAR core scripture, and tell me about the BFAR core values. Two members give their testimonies – abusive backgrounds, addictions to drugs, helpless despair, but then slowly redemption, healing, and hope.

Four women present their cardboard testimonies, and then a group of ladies presents “At the Foot of the Cross” through sign language. You’ve won my heart, they sing. Now I can turn these ashes into beauty and wear forgiveness like a crown.

Afterward, I spend the next two hours talking to individual women and asking for their stories. A part of me expects reluctance, but they are eager to share their stories, to proclaim loudly and boldly what God has done for them, what He is doing for them.

Beauty for Ashes prison ministry

BFAR Sisters

Foot washing

“Just because we’re in prison doesn’t mean we can’t be free,” one of them tells me. And I have to agree.

I think back to something Jeff said earlier this morning, “Prison is a dark place, but there’s no way God’s gonna let the devil outshine Him.”

The devil doesn’t have a chance. Because though these women are behind bars physically, their spirits are being set free. They are open and vulnerable about their pasts. They are brutally honest about their faults. They are sincere in their growing love for each other and for God. They are real with themselves, with me, and with God.

And it is beautiful.

To learn more about Beauty for Ashes, read founder Gina Hanna’s story. Testimonies from ladies in the program will be coming next week! To write an encouraging note to a BFAR staff member, click here. To give to Beauty for Ashes, click here.

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