On a typical Sunday morning, a few years ago, I sat with my sisters in a church meeting. It was typical for that time in my life, but not particularly typical for a Mormon gal living in Utah. I had accepted a call to serve my sisters in the Davis County Jail. I served for a year as a counselor in the Relief Society Presidency, and then for two more years as president. We went through rigorous background checks, had our pictures taken, and rolled each of our fingertips in permanent ink, leaving the impression of our uniqueness in a file. Once cleared, we bowed our heads and were blessed by worthy hands to teach and minister to the women who were serving time in jail. This remains one of the most beautiful callings I have been honored to receive. About 20 of us gathered every Sunday morning in a room at a nearby church. We sang a hymn, offered prayers, shared spiritual thoughts and then the priesthood members in our group broke one piece of bread and poured water into small plastic cups and we partook of the Lord’s Sacrament. Then we headed over to the jail. We passed through at least 4 sets of secure doors before we arrived at the computer center in the jail. This was where the women met. We were allowed 17 sisters at a time, so sometimes we held two services back to back on Sundays. We also taught every Wednesday evening.
It’s an interesting thing to sit next to a woman under these circumstances. The four of us who were called to serve the sisters (others were called to teach the men and youth, as well as inmates in the work release program) …we four Relief Society teachers sat in our Sunday dresses, while between us sat women in orange uniforms, with flip flops or cheap canvas tennis shoes on their feet. They wore no make-up, though sometimes some would show up with what appeared to be eyeliner. The eyeliner turned out to be pencil lead, rubbed on cement until it formed a pile of shavings. This was mixed with toothpaste and applied with the tip of a pencil to their eyelids. Our ladies had to pass by the door to Charlie-Echo Block to get to our room, and the men hovered like animals at the small window to get a look at the girls; so the gals wanted to look their best I guess. I discovered, as a side note here, that the same recipe of pencil lead and toothpaste, applied with the sharpened point of a straightened staple, would make a tattoo so permanent it was as difficult to remove as professional tattoos. We were not allowed to bring stapled papers to the jail…but somehow they got their tools anyway.
The beautiful thing about these women was that they were clean and sober, for many of them this was a first in a long time. They were clean and sober, and they were removed from their sources of weakness. But they were also removed from their children, and this broke our hearts as it did theirs. It’s a difficult thing to teach a Mother’s Day lesson in the jail, let me tell you.
So on this particular Sunday we sat in our little circle and our Branch President was giving the lesson, as he did once a month. The lesson was on marriage, and he was using a manual that led him through an explanation of the divine nature of marriage. It was all good basic gospel truth, but as the lesson progressed I became more and more uncomfortable. It must have been an off day for him, because he wasn’t really looking into the women’s eyes. He was just getting the information out. This can be a problem…and it was. He talked about how the institution of marriage was so sacred it should be preserved almost at any cost. I could feel the energy in the room rise. I could sense my inmate sisters squirming in their seats. I squirmed in mine. Finally, I raised my hand. It took me a while to try to figure out how to be diplomatic with my words. But basically I said,
“I agree, the institution of a family was appointed by God as the pattern by which we should unite here on earth, if not also in heaven. And marriage is the basic unit that begins and preserves that family. We should work to do our part in making marriage strong and healthy. But there are times when a marriage bond may need to be broken, or at least respectfully separated for a time. One such circumstance would be if there was abuse involved.”
Our Branch President paused, much to his credit, and looked up at our circle of women.
“Sisters,” he said, “how many of you have ever been harmed by your husband or boyfriend?”
Every hand went up.
Then the stories started to pour out: He broke both my arms, he beat my children, he held my head under the water until I breathed it into my lungs. I spent three weeks in the hospital, I ran and hid with my kids in a friend’s basement…on and on until our time was almost out. We wept at the intensity of their suffering. I wept at our cultural separation, at the sweetness I would go to in a half hour, while they remained in their cells.
That Wednesday I asked our liaison guard at the jail if we could get permission to bring in some items for a party. We were allowed to bring some bingo cards, and some candies to use as bingo tokens, and we brought some crayons and paper for them to make cards for their families, stuff like that. So we had a good time just being light for a little while, enjoying each other’s company, feeling like just girls, and not inmates and teachers. After our Bingo game ended I stood in the front of the room, by the window in the door. The window had been covered with a lopsided garbage bag, black plastic taped with masking tape around the edges. Someone put it up to keep the men from gawking in when they passed by to go to the basketball court. That garbage bag had been there since I first arrived, and who knows how long it had been there before I came. I stood at the front of the room and put my hands on my waist, elbows out.
“Sisters” I called out…”We are NOT garbage!”
I reached behind me and tore down that garbage bag in one fell swoop. The inmates all stood and cheered. When they calmed down I took out a piece of lace we had sewn to replace it. Gathered lace. I reminded them that though they might not always feel like princesses, indeed…they were daughters of a King. They were divinely made, and their presence in a body of flesh and bones indicated that they had at least once in their existence made a good and noble decision. I begged them to expect more of themselves. And in that personal expectation, they should also insist on being treated by the men in their lives with dignity and respect, if not reverence.
“But we’re just not used to that.”
“Sisters,” I continued, “you are allowed to choose for yourselves who you will be and who you will be with. Free yourselves from garbage. And you will free your children as well.”
Gentle Words was written for my sisters in the Davis County Jail. I want to understand them, and in the understanding I am freed from a tendency to judge them, because there, but for the grace of God, go I.
Look what they’ve done
Those gentle words you gave to me
They’ve left a stain
Upon the thirsty ground
Now what am I supposed to do
This alters everything
The Winter I’m accustomed to
Has turned to Spring
Who would have known
Such gentle words would get to me
Who would have thought
That I would come around
Where do they go....
Fall down like rain
Upon the thirsty ground
They’ve broken through this ever thirsty ground