LIMA — They’re known around the Allen County jail simply as “The Church Ladies.” Like clockwork, they arrive each Thursday morning and go through doors most women hope to never enter.
They go through metal detectors and up the elevator, into a small, non-descript room containing little more than a table and a dozen or so chairs.
A short time later, another group of women is escorted into the room. They’re all wearing the same black and gray-striped, county-issue jail uniforms. They’re doing time behind bars, but for a brief moment — for an hour or more on Thursday mornings — these women do their best set their real life problems aside.
The Church Ladies are here, and it’s time to laugh, cry and rejoice.
The Church Ladies are Barbara Ward, Jean Foy and Marie Keys. They’ve been ministering to women in jail in Allen County for a long, long time. All told, the three women have more than 90 years of jailhouse ministry under their collective belts.
Representing no individual church or denomination, they comprise the New Beginnings Ministry.
Ward, 73, the unofficial leader of the group, said she has been “doing this for more than 40 years, starting at the ‘old’ county jail,” where she would go every Tuesday night to offer hope and encouragement to female inmates.
Foy, 71, is in her 22nd year of ministering to prisoners, while Keys, 80, laughed and said, “I’ve been doing this longer than Jean.”
ON A RECENT Thursday morning, a dozen inmates entered the makeshift chapel at the jail. Their attendance was voluntary, and most (admittedly not all) seemed genuinely excited to be there.
On their way into the meeting room, several of the inmates stopped to hug the older women who were there to minister to them. Smiles were prevalent all around.
One inmate, Latisha, was serving a 120-day jail sentence for a drunk driving offense. She described the chapel session as the highlight of her week.
“I go to two or three other classes (at the jail), but I really look forward to Thursday mornings. I make sure I take my shower the night before and get to bed early so I’m ready. These ladies are heaven sent. They are amazing.”
As the inmates took their seats around a U-shaped table, Keys announced the morning would start with a prayer, followed by a song. When some of the inmates joked about their inability to carry a tune, Keys replied, “The Bible doesn’t say we have to make it sound good; it just says, ‘Praise the Lord.’”
The women laughed, and then, standing with their hands joined, began to pray.
Then it was time to sing. And by the second verse of “This is the Day the Lord Has Made,” the women were clapping and sporting huge smiles as they belted out “We are going to rejoice in the Lord.”
Several of the women were crying, but their tears on this morning were far removed from the sorrows that led them to the dreary penal institution in the first place. Instead, the tears stemmed from a feeling of love and joy that was impossible to ignore in the small, stark room.
BIBLE STUDY is an informal part of the weekly sessions, with the inmates often taking the lead. One young woman read a verse from the book of Psalms she found particularly heart-warming. Another read from the book of Philippians.
Between readings, Keys encouraged the women to become affiliated with a church — any church — upon their release from jail.
“The church is ready to help you. The gospel is going to deliver you, despite what all you’ve been through. You just need some help to deal with all the strong emotions in your life,” Keys said.
“The blood of Jesus is able to wash your sins away. You can depend on the Lord.”
Two of the inmates stood before their peers on this day and professed they were ready to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Tears flowed as both women admitted their human frailties and expressed the need for God’s intervention in their troubled lives.
One of the women, Veronica, is serving a relatively short sentence for driving under suspension. But she had been incarcerated previously for a similar infraction and said her decision to accept Jesus came on this day simply because “I’m ready now.”
Veronica said the weekly meeting with The Church Ladies is the highlight of her week. “These ladies, they make us happy. They help us out a lot, and they help us get through a lot,” she said.
THE ENTHUSIASM that Ward, Keys and Foy bring to their weekly jail sessions is unmistakable. The strong emotions they elicit from the inmates is often unexpected.
“Barb always has a way of bringing it out of them,” Keys said.
Foy said the experience is as uplifting for the three older women as it is for the inmates.
“This is so fulfilling. It always feels like it’s a battery charge every week when I come here,” she said.
Ward said of Foy, “She has more energy than anyone I know.”
The women know they can’t continue their ministry forever, but they’re not yet ready to hang up their Bibles.
Foy said she would continue to come to the jail each Thursday “as long as God says so.” Keys believes she has “a few years left.”
Asked who will take their places when their days of ministering to the inmates are through, Ward replied: “God will find somebody.”
All three of The Church Ladies have known hard times and desperation in their lives. Foy and Ward each have battled cancer — and defeated it. Keys earlier in life had a medical condition which nearly robbed her of her vision.
“I’m here because I’ve been where some of these women are right now. No, I haven’t been in jail, but I’ve been in almost the same shape as some of them,” Keys said.
Ward shared an intimate portion of her past with the inmates, a failed suicide attempt through the ingestion of pills that took place years ago.
“(Death) was not what God wanted for me; He delivered me that day,” she told the women. “But did I accept Christ that day? No, I didn’t. I kept on doing the things I had been doing.”
It was years later, Ward said, before she was reborn.
Her message to the inmates was relatively simple.
“Stuff gets us all chained up, don’t it?” asked Ward. “It seems like we can’t get away. We get all caught up with drugs and alcohol and other stuff, and many times society does not accept us.
“But Jesus was always there on the side of the people who needed help. Jesus comes for those of us who feel unaccepted,” Ward continued. “The Bible says we are all born in sin. And God sent his word to teach us how to do right. Jesus is a deliverer. He will give you the courage to face what awaits you.”
By the looks on their faces, the women dressed in gray stripes barely needed more convincing.
But chances are good they’ll be back next week, just be be certain.