They drove off and I teared up. Italians don’t even eat out Easter weekend, let alone visit prisoners. The relatives just didn’t understand.

      “Prisoners? You care about prisoners? Take care of your own family and forget those louses! They should rot in hell for the things they’ve done! This God stuff is really getting carried away!”  (And that was my sweet aunt talking!)  I’ll leave the unsolicited commentary by my loved ones from Brooklyn up to your imagination.

     I met up with the PF group at the Columbia Holiday Inn and we were off on a two-hour trek to the Leath Women’s Correctional Facility.  As I let out a long, deep breath at the visitor’s gate, I passed through the metal detector and then was asked to remove my shoes. After a “thorough” body search, we were escorted into a holding room with thick steel sliding doors on two sides. I realized at that point that we were “locked in.”  We proceeded down to a small gym with one section of bleachers. I learned earlier in the day that Leath was a medium security facility with 350 women. About 200 of them opted to attend the Starting Line program that night and as they streamed in from their quads, I was completely astounded by what seemed like a cruel surprise. They were young. They were so young. They were well groomed and neatly dressed. They were pretty. “Lord, how can this be? It looks like a high school pep rally. What have they done? Why are they here? Where are their parents? Save them, Jesus.”  The program was powerful, the salvation message tearful, the brief conversations unforgettable, the Lord ever faithful.  Many came to salvation that night and learned of a freedom they had never known.

     The next day, our itinerary brought us to the Broad River Facility, the largest maximum-security prison in South Carolina. It was actually a “campus” of several prisons on the same property. About half of the 300 female inmates attended the program on Easter Eve. The hardness in some of the women was countered by the undeniable glow in others who rushed to the front seats, Bibles in hand. They were the same ones who knew every word the guest artist sang to them and completed every verse the speaker quoted. Some of these precious sisters brought fellow inmates along hoping to introduce them to the One who had provided hope and meaning to their fractured lives.

     Powerful prayer and amazing grace resulted in a stirring response to the salvation message. Bondage to freedom. Darkness to light. Pain to comfort. Fear to peace.  Some cried loudly from a hollow place I had never heard before. Some wept quietly.  Some held friends tightly in a huddle and some dropped to their knees. I prayed with several women and turned to see my friend walking toward me with arm around the shoulder of a young, sweet looking inmate who had come forward. My friend’s eye contact was intense. “Ellie, this is Susan Smith. I told her you have young children and…”  Her voice trailed off as she was interrupted and pulled in another direction. So there I was–looking into the eyes of the infamous young mother who no longer had young children. The longest ten seconds of my life passed as I groped for words. 

     The conversation I had with Susan Smith that night told me more about myself than about her. I wrestled during that 15-minute encounter and in the weeks that followed.  Did I believe Jesus died for every sinner?  Did I assign different judgments to different sins? Would the thief on the cross be in paradise if he were the rapist on the cross? How about the child molester on the cross?  Did Saul of Tarsus kill innocent people? Was some tortured? Does God love Susan Smith and her children as much as He loves me and mine?