Orange Is Not Her Color

I recently spent the night in jail.

The door in front of us unlocked as we approached. We were passed through a metal detector, briefed, and sent to booking where we were patted down and surrendered our keys.

The institutional white coated the hallway that stretched half a mile. Immaculate distance. It was cold inside.

Maximum.

Pod A.

Pod B.

Pod C.

Pod D……

We walked past, on and on. Past solid doors with small, square windows.

At the last solid door, we awaited entrance. We heard it click and pulled its heaviness open to reveal another locked door six feet inside. Again, we waited. It clicked and we pulled again to enter the women’s pod. The inmates knew one of the ladies in my group, so they quickly emerged from their cells, joining us in the common room.

“Do you remember me?” one girl asked in my direction.

??????????

“I don’t. Remind me where we know each other from.”

“NewSpring,” she answered. And right in that moment I learned that small talk fails in jail.

“Good to see you again.” No.

“What you been up to?” Nope.

“We’re sure having crazy weather.” Not so much.

“How’s your mama and ’em?” Just no, no, no.

“Well……if you can’t come to church…..we’ll bring church to you,” I finally pulled myself together enough to spit out. Lame and awkward, Cookie, lame and awkward.

Nineteen ladies in orange jumpsuits and orange slides; some with socked feet, others bare. They filled in chairs at the small round tables, chatting with their friends, smiling, and looking our way.

Their eyes.

Their eyes surprised me most. They were soft. Not at all what I expected. They were kind. They were young. Very young. Most in their early twenties.

Their eyes teared easily. So did mine.

As an observer, I followed the lead of my experienced companions. Kim, the primary speaker for the evening, invited the ladies into the course of life that led her to Jesus; she challenged and encouraged them, not skirting the reality that these ladies had made destructive choices; these ladies were incarcerated. I valued that honesty – as did the women.

Let’s not all pretend we’re attending a prayer meeting in the church social hall. Okay? Thanks.

As I listened, I buzzed inside, the likes of an internal electric fence. I wanted the chance to speak. Kim’s boldness fed my own. My soul fidgeted with animation, as I prayed and heard Scripture echo off the pod walls.

This may be one of my favorite places.

When Rita asked if I wanted to speak, I sprang out of my seat like an amped up kangaroo and dove in. We talked about a Jesus who dared dignify a despised and hopeless woman. The Jesus who refused to allow her to slink away unnoticed. That same Jesus who frees from suffering and authors freedom.

Just as we were concluding, another member of the ministry team arrived through the slamming door with his guitar and flute.

We worshiped in that place.

And I thought to myself, “This beauty is not lost on me.”

We offered to pray with the ladies, and to my knowledge, they all responded for prayer….and some even more than once.

I held their hands. I peered into their faces. I said their names and fought for them before the God of the universe.

And it was powerful.

For me.

As I have worn that night on my heart since then (I get to go back Sunday!), I wonder if some of them ever had a chance. Do they even now?

I found myself not wanting them to be released….back to the call of pimps and pushers and violence and needles and all manner of destructive escapism.

Not all walls are bad. They can be protective.

Not all prisons are government-run.

As a little girl, did she ever have a chance?

Who fought for her?

Who told her she was lovely?

Who put aside their own jacked-up self absorption for her?

Who?

Not even me.

This is when I want to shake middle-class Christian – myself so included – accessorizing our church fashion with Starbucks and yell…

Fight for somebody!

Help somebody without a chance!

Put aside your self-indulgence and stand for what’s good in the world!

That’s the full life He means.

Not the spiritual obesity of comfort and luxury.

The guard called me over to the control station and said, “Central just sent me a message and they’re all waiting for you guys in the front.” We thanked her for allowing us to stay longer – though we had no idea we had been at it for two hours. No clocks or watches. We were on guard time.

After collecting our keys and rejoining the team, we held hands and celebrated all that the God of the universe had decided to do that night behind slamming doors.

Who knows how many different churches and denominations were represented in that circle of fifteen. More importantly, who cared? All of the trappings of man were irrelevant.

There was only one. Who loves prisoners and despised, hopeless women, and little girls who never had a chance.

[Feature Image: angus mcdiarmid]
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13 Comments

  1. Mary Torgersen
    Mary TorgersenReply
    June 9, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Yes! One of the most precious places I have ever had the privilege of sharing. Would love to go again!!!

  2. Mary Boyd
    Mary BoydReply
    June 9, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    Thank you Cookie! That brought happy tears to my eyes because I was in prison for 5 months! I only survived though Gods grace and having visits from the beautiful group of ladies who came to pray and do bible studies with us! Thank you for showing Gods unconditional love and looking past the building your in.

    • Cookie Cawthon
      June 9, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Oh, Mary, now I have happy tears. I cannot wait to go back. Thank you for speaking from the other perspective!

  3. Veronica
    VeronicaReply
    June 9, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    Yes. Just yes. I also experienced some powerful worship there, and we saw God do some amazing things! So excited for you, and for them, that you’ll be visiting again.
    A different dynamic for sure. Folks going through deep stuff, and nothing touches that but deep, real talk & worship. It’s sometimes TOO easy to skirt around the deep stuff outside of those walls, but not in there… Lots of beauty in the people and the worship out there. So glad you’re sharing in that. And thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Cookie Cawthon
      June 9, 2015 at 10:11 pm

      Love your point about the ease of skirting the hard stuff in our convos out here; so intriguing that there are freedoms behind the slamming doors that we don’t enjoy ourselves…

  4. vickie Foxx
    vickie FoxxReply
    June 10, 2015 at 4:08 am

    Some ppl live in their own prison. Having visited ppl in prison. They don’t see the fences. Their life in within the walls and some only survive bygrace of God and by having visitors. You may of very well saved some inmate just by ur presence. Just talking with someone from outside can have great impact on them and to hear God’s word on top of that. Awesome thing u did.

    • Cookie Cawthon
      June 10, 2015 at 11:18 am

      The blessing was at least equally mine, if not more. Beautiful, beautiful ladies…

  5. Meredith
    MeredithReply
    June 10, 2015 at 7:35 am

    This is so good! Those women are so incredibly blessed to have you minister to them! You amaze me more and more Cookie! I had tears reading this- I bet they can’t wait to see and hear you again. You could be their only hopeful voice they have ever heard. Do big things friend! I love you!

    • Cookie Cawthon
      June 10, 2015 at 11:21 am

      You do the same, friend. You’ve got a big, willing heart, and I know He means for you to be an example of hope and life for others!! <3

  6. Martha Davis
    Martha DavisReply
    June 10, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I was shouting with you! What fellowship to share with those precious ladies!

  7. Jodi Hyer
    Jodi HyerReply
    July 25, 2016 at 10:01 pm

    This is still and forever will be one of the best pieces of writing I’ll ever read – not just because of the gifted wordsmithing but equally because you capture so beautifully what’s in my heart (but I could never articulate with this level of stunning poignancy) for the marginalized and least of these among us – these precious women who carry the burden so much more than just a prison sentence – severe trauma, addiction, abuse, exploitation.

    Cookie you have so many gifts, and you are a gift yourself. Fight on with your gifts and tenacious faith!

    • Cookie Cawthon
      July 25, 2016 at 10:11 pm

      I am so grateful for your encouragement, Jodi. Our linked passions and endeavors – in two different parts of the country – spur me on like nothing else currently in my sphere. Knowing that a kindred spirit from my girlhood is out fighting the same fight stokes the fire in my belly. It is an honor to champion the marginalized and exploited with you.

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