I went to prison. I know what you’re thinking. It’s the same thing I was thinking: What am I doing? As the doors of the Bridgeport Correctional Center locked behind me, my fight-or-flight instinct began to kick in. Although this feeling made me want to run, I understood I was there for a reason, and I knew there was no turning back. 

I was with a team of volunteers from Gateway Church, along with our partner G3 Prison Ministries, to share the gospel with female inmates. They were different from what I was expecting. I thought they would be like inmates I watched on TV shows—a group of hardened criminals, ready to prey on the next victim who walked through the door. But even still, it wasn’t the inmates who scared me. It was the locked doors behind me. 

I wondered how long some of them had been there and how they could even smile. Where did their sense of hope come from, and how could they keep going when their own choices and actions caused their freedom to be taken away? Yet lurking in the shadows of this captivity, in these dark places where most people fear to tread, is serenity unlike anything I have experienced before.

As the prison officers led our team into the faith-based unit, my fear dissipated into the peace that was present there. We walked into a concrete room that held 50 bunks, and my focus quickly went to the smiles on each woman’s face. These women aren’t serving life sentences. They’ll one day regain their worldly freedom but will likely struggle as they learn to become a wife, mother, and employee again.

A couple of the volunteers began to lead praise and worship. Their voices were overwhelmed by a choir of female inmates as they clasped hands and raised them together in surrender. They wept together and consoled one another. One of the women belted the lyrics loudly and out of tune, but the cry of her heart resonated much louder than her voice.

After praise and worship, my husband, Jacob, and I got up to share with the inmates. As we looked out into a sea of khaki garb, we weren’t expecting the warm reception we received. In this place of brokenness and desperation, there was an overwhelming sense of hope.

The plan was that I would do all the talking. But as our story began to unravel, Jacob’s heart began to unravel as well. My sweet husband, who in the past was one of the hardest and most disturbed men that I’ve known, realized these women were desperate for the change God had brought him. He received a standing ovation when I announced he had been sober for eight and a half years; something most people would barely give a thumbs-up for caused these women to burst into applause.

My perspective began to change as I looked deeper into the heart of God. We regularly see people who secretly struggle with abuse, neglect, addiction, or shame, and we consider them free. However, despite being removed from the “free” world, the inmates I encountered at Bridgeport carried an astounding spirit of freedom.

I can recall times throughout my life when I was desolate, despondent, and devoid of life. It was in those times I have grown the most and understood God’s heart for the broken and hurting. It’s easy to become complacent in our day-to-day routines, but sometimes it’s in the darkness that we fully understand God’s promises.

While these women may not have physical freedom, it is in their captivity—in their place of desperation and solitude where they must be held accountable for their transgressions—that they are able to find the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. It’s not only in the house of God that we find His presence—it’s in the heart of every believer where God’s Spirit resides. And, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.