Plain walls surround Lynn Paden as she says a prayer at the Alachua County Jail, hand-in-hand with a prisoner.
The prisoner is the daughter of a member of the University City Church of Christ (UCCC) in Gainesville. Before seeing this woman, Paden had never stepped foot into jail and was uncomfortable with the idea.
With the support and presence of Gary Wyder, the leader of the men’s jail and prison ministry at UCCC, Paden decided this was her opportunity to be one of Jesus’ ministers. Soon, Paden was a regular, showing the love Christ has for those in jail.
“One of the guards at the jail said to me, ‘We put people in a box thinking that we are putting people away from society. Yet, when we put these people in a box, it’s because they are very valuable, and we put them in a safe space to realize they are worthy,’” Paden said.
The UCCC’s women’s jail ministry began in 2000 and has grown vastly after Paden saw a need and opportunity to share the Gospel with the incarcerated women in the community. Paden and Wyder began to recruit volunteers and created a group in the church to represent the peace God brings to all — the JailDoves.
Pat Wyder, 72, who has been married to Gary Wyder for 50 years is one of the founding members of JailDoves, has been visiting the Alachua County Jail since 2003. Pat Wyder said she started going to the jail only one night a week until the chaplain approached her and asked if she could start coming twice a week.
Getting volunteers to go to the jail and talk to prisoners was not an appealing task for many. But most of the JailDoves members had never stepped into jail until joining this ministry.
Faye Jonas, 75, is one of the newest members of the JailDoves. She found it a little daunting at first, but she felt a calling to work with these incarcerated women.
Jonas is part of Bible studies in the jail’s all-purpose room. To get there, she walks through two heavyset sliding metal doors and three long hallways. With every turn to walk down a new hallway it looks identical to the one prior, full of emptiness and nothing hanging up against the white brick walls. If Jonas comes across any prisoners in the hallway, she must go to the right side immediately and stand still. Once inside the room, she and the other volunteers check in with the staff member stationed at the door. Only then is the pod of 10 prisoners released to join them.
When the prisoners arrive to the room, they are all dressed identically in blue prison suits, resembling medical scrubs, along with rubber open-toed slides which are the only shoes they are permitted to wear. The room is pretty empty with one bookcase with a few Bibles that is in the right back of the room for any of the woman who don’t have one and four tables each with three chairs that face the front of the only thing on the wall—a chalkboard. On the chalkboard the JailDoves make sure to write out University City Church of Christ with the phone number underneath so the incarcerated ladies know what church they come from.
Once the Bible study begins the prisoners are engaged and ask questions about what their purpose may be and why did they end up in jail when they believe they are doing good in society. The JailDoves answer their questions in a way to let these women know that God is on their side through the good and the bad. Most of the women who come to the Bible study are eager to change their behavior and take these classes as a restart for themselves and to prepare for when they are released. Many of the Bible studies are each planned differently depending on which of the JailDoves are visiting, but some are taken from lesson books the women bring. One special thing Pat Wyder likes to do is bring scripture word searches to ease the prisoners’ minds, with the scripture they are focusing on that week. When closing class, the ladies will commonly pray about their upcoming court dates and sing praise to the Lord.
Many of the prisoners in the jail are only there for short-term periods, so the Bible studies are usually about single subjects rather than a continuing series. The group of women who come on one Tuesday could be a completely different group than the Tuesday prior. Yet sometimes the JailDoves captivate women who come back week after week, and some even attend UCCC when they are released.
“One week, a prisoner brought in a list of questions about Christ written on the back of an envelope after she had attended the Bible study the week before,” Jonas said.
During some of the Bible studies, the JailDoves sing songs with the prisoners. Paden said the singing helps people breathe deeper and come to a sense of relaxation. One of the songs that Paden taught was “Jesus Loves Me,” which she also taught in sign language so the women could feel and sense the presence of the Lord.
As Paden continued to go into the jail week after week, she would tell each group of prisoners that she was there because they mattered.
“Whatever you will do will change your life, but when you do something that is more unique and a little more difficult, it touches you deeply. It reminds me of Jesus,” Paden said.
Through the impact the JailDoves made at the Alachua County Jail, opportunities came to expand the jail ministry to the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala in 2013. JailDove member Oretha Walker, 76, jumped at the opportunity to go to Lowell and now leads a Bible study there every Monday.
Walker said the longer sentences the women spend at Lowell allow for the lessons in the Bible study to be more focused on how to figure out God and what they are going to do differently when released. Walker emphasized that one of the most important lessons they teach is what they can do differently for their children after they are released.
“Eighty percent of these women are parents, and these kids need something different,” Walker said.
Walker said going to jails and prisons has helped her because she is trying to do something to help her community when these women are released.
“You are going to wind up having someone as your neighbor, and you don’t want a neighbor that is going to break into your house. So, I am trying to help change people’s behavior while they are in jail so I can have them as my neighbor when they get out of jail,” Walker said.
As UCCC’s jail and prison ministry continues to change these incarcerated women’s lives, there is still a need for younger generations to get involved to keep the ministry afloat. JailDoves encourages younger volunteers to come out to the jail and learn from the current members. This will bring a new generation up in the church and help continue the work of the ministry.
The church has other opportunities for people who want to get involved but do not feel comfortable going into jails or prisons. When Pat Wyder goes to the jail, she has the incarcerated women attending the Bible study fill out a 4×6 card with a prayer request and their name. She then asks different women at the UCCC congregation to write something back to one of the inmates to let them know they are praying for them.
“The ladies get so excited when they receive a piece of mail from somebody on the outside, and they are very glad to get the information,” Wyder said.
Many of the women who are a part of the JailDoves also attend Bible study at University City Church of Christ, located on Eighth Avenue.
“Let’s stop doing so much talking about what we should do, and let’s get ourselves involved so we can actually show these people who are incarcerated that we care,” Walker said. “We have to show up.”