Fayette County Jail: A ‘Womb’ of Transformation

Dr. Nancy Holloway

Alumna Nancy Holloway is a retired chaplain and adjunct professor from Berea College. She has a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, and she is the first woman to earn a Doctor of Ministry degree from St. Vladimir’s Seminary (Class of ’91). She attends St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Lexington, KY.
Dr. Holloway recently published a book, The Maternity of Mary, the Mother of God, which she wrote for use in small group study, and an excerpt from that book is currently featured on our seminary’s Synaxis Blog. She has also published articles in several journals.
In the below article, we’re offering a glimpse into her current ministry to women at a local jail—and how she’s discovered God’s presence in that space.

“Women in Prison: On the Glory Road”,
“Do the time, don’t let the time do you.” 

These are the words I hear from the women I visit each week at the local jail. The ones who come out for Bible study are the ones who have chosen to believe that our time together can be the beginning of an experience that can offer profound meaning to their lives. They are open to the possibility that God is trying to reach them, and they are willing to let go and be found. Some are more serious, committed, and further along in their journey than others, but all would share in the perspective that a jail cell can be a “womb of transformation.”

When I open the Bible study session every Monday, I suggest to the women that they see their cup half full rather than half empty: even in jail, there surely are some good things in their lives. They share their statements of gratitude with the group. More often than not, a number of them will say, “I’m grateful for being here,” or, “I thank God that he put me here,” or, “I’m thankful I’m away from the drug dealer” (or the abusive husband, the battles with family members, addictions, prostitution, and so forth). For them, prison offers a “time out” to enable them to begin to go in a different direction.

Lessons I offer address several major themes, presented in various ways and using many different scriptural references. These themes include: prayer, God’s infinite love, forgiveness, deification, and suffering. As I relate the themes to their lives, I place a strong emphasis on getting into a church (preferably Orthodox) when they finish their prison terms. I bring in icons of the feast days, when appropriate, and give every woman I encounter an icon of Christ, with a scriptural verse on the back: ”Be not afraid, for I am with you” (Is 41.10).

We commence each study session with a Psalm. (I encourage them to read a Psalm daily.) Then I include about 6–7 Scriptures related to the lesson’s theme, as well as several other readings, either from contemporary sources or from the church or desert fathers. Each lesson also includes a beginning prayer and an ending corporate prayer, with each woman voicing her special request to God, while praying in shared concern for others.

I strongly emphasize that our time of prayer presents a great opportunity to grow in conversation with God. And, I urge those with separate cells (being “high risk” prisoners) to do as the desert fathers say: “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I urge them to pray for each other, their families, the guards, the judges, their victims, and their enemies.

At the close of each session, I ask them to tell me one thing they would want me to pray for, to be included in the time of my private prayer, when I pray for my own children. Their requests have included: “Pray that my little children will remember me when I get out”; “I want to be given wisdom to see my role in life and what God wants me to do when I leave here”—this came from a woman whose child was murdered; “Protect me from those negative influences in my life”; “Ask God to protect and nourish me”; “More than anything, I want to do God’s will’’; and finally, “Pray that I won’t give birth to my baby in jail.”

Sometimes I sense, in the prison, that I'm entering the “real world,” full of real people who have hit bottom, who admit they have done wrong: facing it, owning it, and now willing and eager to grow, and hungry and thirsty for righteousness. When I leave the jail and head home—encountering the chimera surrounding me: myriad addictions, denial, false selves, rampant materialism, and an unholy drive for sensual satiety, I sometimes wonder: Who are the real prisoners?

Workers in prison ministry whom I know always stress that they receive far more than they give. I certainly have experienced that in my decade of ministry to the women at the Fayette County Jail.