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"Go Serve Somebody" (My Time in Prison)

Updated: Apr 25

With my legs curled up under me, I sat on her couch dazed, my head pounding, and so very confused. Through the mental maze I wandered, trying to sort out what had been right, what had been wrong, and what on earth I was going to do now. 

All I desperately wanted was for someone to tell me what I needed to do—except I hated it when people told me what to do. What I really wanted was for someone to help me figure out on my own what I needed to do. Everywhere I turned I was coming up empty.

Would there ever be a leader in my life who would give me that gift?

Honestly, I don’t know if my sister genuinely cared, or if she was tired of listening to me speak nonsense (hey, I was tired of listening to me speak nonsense), but what she said next changed my life forever:

“Why don’t you just go serve somebody? You know for sure that God will bless that.”

The sentence interrupted my mental turmoil like a little child appearing from a bedroom during a fight between its parents. While it doesn’t fix anything, it immediately slams everything into perspective. I thought, I’ve done enough damage. Maybe I don’t have much of a life, but I can try to make someone else’s better.

As soon as I left her house I signed up to teach yoga at a prison—something I had delayed long enough.

In an empty room, I sat cross-legged on a mat. Worship music played softly, ten yoga mats were placed in a semicircle along the side opposite of me.

Jesus what am I doing?

Are you worried?

What do I have to offer these women? I’m a WRECK!

You have Me don’t you?

Well what if they knew? They wouldn’t believe You’re with me, just like everyone else. They would know I’m not qualified to be here.

Is that what you’re going to believe about them?

Of course not.

Give them Me Bethany. That’s everything. They need to be loved as badly as you do.

A loud announcement on the speaker interrupted our conversation. Suddenly a line of women filed into the room and after picking out a mat, they sat down.

As I scanned the faces sitting in front of me I thought... they were beautiful. Their eyes held different emotions: sadness, pain, fear, anxiety, and guilt—but behind it all was a dancing light and joy that betrayed a deep and rich hope. All I could see were stunningly pure women whom Jesus deeply loved. My plain white t-shirt and black pants felt obnoxious in the midst of their bland, gray clothes.

I know that I wasn’t afraid or nervous, but it surprised me that I felt completely at home. That definitely was not what I expected to feel. Never ever ever, in all my time teaching there, did I feel like I was in a room full of criminals.

No.

For once I was immersed in total honesty.

I’m used to a culture where Christians are always doing good, where yogis look cute and strain their bodies to do the pose “right”, where yoga classes can have an overt or subtle sense of competition, where American women live to outdo each other, and where people are generally insecure. If you show your mess and live vulnerably all it will do is affirm that others are better than you. They can exhale in relief that even though they aren’t perfect, at least they aren’t like that. 

But we were in a prison for crying out loud. What would denial accomplish? It’s not like any of them could hide that they had a past or done horrible things. No one could look extra nice, put on a happy face, and fool us all. Each one had to look me in the eye and wait for my verdict on them.

How often were they condemned?

I introduced myself, told them a little bit about my yoga background, and then I paused. The fake volunteer smile was eating me alive. The only one in the room who could lie about their life was me—and I desperately didn’t want to. Their scarlet letters were bright and visible. Did I have to be alone with mine?

I looked at my lap and played awkwardly with my hands. Taking a deep breath, I said, “I just want you guys to know that you aren’t the only ones who have screwed up. I’m not here to be better than you and teach you how to be as holy as I am. Maybe I’m not in prison for my failures, but… that doesn’t mean I haven’t caused harm. We all have consequences, but know that I don’t see you any differently just because you’re here. I’m here to do yoga and be with Jesus because I need Him, and I wanted to share that with you.”

I swallowed the rising lump in my throat and whispered, “Thank you for letting me come.”

The ladies were quiet, looking at me, so gentle, so kind. They understood. Better than anyone, they understood. To my overwhelming relief, they welcomed me. They started to gracefully sow encouragement—into me, into each other, into themselves. Many of them said they were thankful to be at the prison, where they could finally have the time to be with God and sort out their hearts. One told me, “Some of us in here are more free than anyone out there.” None of them were despairing. They all had their battles, but so do the rest of us.

The only difference was that they got to enjoy the gift and freedom of not having to hide.

In a moment, I decided I loved it there.

In a moment, I had ten new sisters.

In a moment, I found a place where I wasn’t alone with my story.

We just wanted to be free. All you need is Jesus to be free.

And Jesus was there.

Every class, we would excitedly sit down and welcome the King. I can’t tell you how many times we left class crying. The healing that happened in our time together was transforming. Jesus LOVED our group. He was the only one there to judge us, and He never did. We could share and celebrate our journey and progress and breakthrough as sisters in Christ. The goal wasn’t to have it all together, the goal was to be made whole. We knew we were all miserable failures at making ourselves whole, so that pressure was never part of our class. The only thing we had to constantly remember was to let go of doing it on our own.

We spent the weeks together, moving, breathing, and worshipping a King who loved us. Every inhale opened our lungs, opened our joints, and gave us a drink of Grace. Every exhale sent our tension away, surrendered our hearts, and brought us deeper.

We found a sacred hour that was free from shame, free from condemnation, and free from reminders of all the ways we hadn’t measured up. It was Holy.

No one will ever know just how full of freedom and joy that little room in the prison was. In that room... heaven touched earth.

It was like the most exciting surprise—like a hidden treasure—like the most wonderful secret no one would ever suspect was sitting right under their noses.

Actually I take that back. I think some could sense it. One guard in particular would appear the moment class was over and stay there til I finished cleaning up. He came every time. He would just hang around and make small talk. Over a year after I started teaching, he said, “I like it when you’re here… there’s always… I don’t know… good vibes.”

Those women made me feel beautiful again. They gave me hope for a future and the strength to move toward it without giving up. They taught me to own my story and to find the wonder in it. They showed me how to rise from the ashes of a burning mess that was my fault. They showed me how to live today when my failures were not yet completely behind me.

Prison was where I could finally breathe again.

Prison was where I could finally hope again.

Prison was where I could finally live again.

If Jesus could rejoice over these ladies, jumping at every opportunity to heal something else in their broken hearts, then surely He was willing to love me like that too.

“Why don’t you just go serve somebody? You know for sure that God will bless that.”

That moment with my sister has carried me forward and transformed my life. Remember this next time you find yourself failing, ashamed, and unworthy. Someone somewhere still needs something you have to give. And they have something you need to receive.

And the exchange will heal you both.


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