By John W. Kennedy
Apr. 29, 2012
L. Roe Farris keeps busy tending to the spiritual needs of women at two Indiana prisons, conducting a Bible study one night a week and a 12-step faith-based recovery group for damaged emotions on another night.
Twice a month she preaches at prison church services. She organizes monthly birthday parties for the women behind bars. She spearheads an annual Christmas card collection program so that every woman can send greetings to family members. Farris heads up a campaign every year to donate shampoo, toothpaste and hand lotion to the incarcerated. She also takes Communion to dying inmates and dedicates babies born to mothers serving time.
The spry Farris is 80 years old.
“The Lord called me when I was standing in my kitchen,” Farris recalls of that day in 1982. “The Lord spoke to my spirit saying, You’re going to be in a prison ministry. I said, ‘Lord I’m willing to do it, but You will have to open the door.’”
The doors at Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, and Rockville (Ind.) Correctional Facility have been opening ever since. Farris became an ordained Assemblies of God minister at age 50, and received chaplaincy endorsement after graduating from Global University in 2003, when she already had reached her 70s.
Her husband helped before dying of cancer 13 years ago. The widowed Farris has carried on, enlisting a group of 20 other volunteers for support.
Farris is one of several Assemblies of God volunteer female chaplains who have reached the traditional retirement age, yet have found fulfillment in mentoring younger, troubled adults.
Helping those younger than she has been a longtime pattern for Farris. As secretary to a junior high counselor, Farris had plenty of troubled kids confide in her.
Farris is able to gain a rapport with those for whom she provides spiritual guidance in prison.
“At first, many won’t look me in the eye,” says Farris, who attends Calvary Temple (AG) in Indianapolis. “But then they open up, give their lives to Christ, and I see them change. Some consider me as a mother — or grandmother — and will hug me.”
Farris is the loving parent some never knew. Numerous inmates had bad or nonexistent relationships with their own mothers, a contributing factor as to why they resorted to crime in the first place. The pain sometimes stems from sexual abuse throughout a vulnerable childhood.
“A lot of them are mad at their mothers because a stepfather or uncle molested them, and the mother knew about it but felt she needed a man in the house. So she let it continue,” Farris says. The chaplain knows one inmate whose mother, in exchange for drugs, willingly allowed men to have sex with the minor daughter.
Thus, the unconditional love that Farris offers is a new experience for many of the women.
Farris has experienced the personal pain of seeing an adult child hooked on illegal drugs. In the early years of prison ministry, Farris repeatedly returned home to discover the son she and her husband adopted at age 4 had burglarized her home. Alan stole possessions to hock in order to buy crack, cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol.
Alan, now 45, says God delivered him of his addictions at age 38 after a 20-year stronghold. A construction worker, he occasionally accompanies his mother into prison to warn women of the dangers of drugs.
“I thank God every day that Roe Farris is my mother,” Alan told the Pentecostal Evangel. “I thank God that the words my mother preached to me and prayed over me are now present in my life.”
Arla Jane Oakley, 65, ministers to both women and men at the Broome County Correctional Facility in Binghamton, N.Y.
“The Lord called me to minister to hurting people,” says the good-natured Oakley. “When I went into the jail, right away I knew this is where God wanted me.”
She has been volunteering at the facility leading multiple church services and Bible studies with her own material since 1986. She decided to secure chaplaincy endorsement five years ago as a result of prison ministry-related articles in the Pentecostal Evangel. Her husband, Tom, and daughter, Tammie Cannistra, accompany her. Oakley — despite having multiple sclerosis, lupus and fibromyalgia — leads Bible studies and church services at various times during the week.
Because most detainees are held in custody only for a few months, Oakley says she has a limited time to break down barriers they sometimes erect.
“I feel like a mother leaving kids in trouble when I have to go home,” Oakley says.
Nevertheless, Oakley tries to do the most with the time she does have, looking into the eyes of those she has contact with to see how God might be working on them. And she has found that being the age of some of the inmates’ mothers, or grandmothers, has its advantages when it comes to demanding authority in gatherings.
“I don’t take any guff from them any more than I would my own child,” says Oakley, who has three children. “I tell them I’ve come prepared to teach from the Word of God, and there’s not going to be any talking when I’m talking.”
Oakley, who attends First Assembly of God in Binghamton, says she finds women tougher to reach than men because some had turned to prostitution as a means of survival.
In her preaching to men, Oakley says she often stresses how the Lord can heal emotional hurts from childhood. She hopes to break a cycle of men passing on abuse to their wives and children.
“Their biggest need is to know that Jesus is real and He loves them,” Oakley says. “They need to know that Jesus can make them a new creation. They need to know that they aren’t losers.”
A better plan
Jail ministry is but one of the volunteer activities occupying Francine McAdams, 65, who continues to work full time in the records department of a middle school counselor’s office in Garden City, Kan. The AG chaplain conducts up to three church services weekly for women at the Finney County Jail — when she isn’t holding services at a local nursing home, hospital or independent living facility.
“When you see the fish are biting, you need to take advantage of every opportunity,” says McAdams, who attends First AG in Garden City.
No Sunday services happened at the jail until McAdams came along.
“Every time I go through the many physical doors that have to be unlocked, I’m trusting the Lord to open hearts,” says the soft-spoken former AG missionary to Chile.
Working primarily by herself, McAdams plays keyboard in leading worship, conducts interactive Bible studies, and offers prayers in the jail. The makeup of the attendees changes every four weeks because of the facility’s transient population, yet McAdams realizes her audience ranges from those who have a religious upbringing to those with no knowledge of Scripture whatsoever. McAdams tells all of them that God hears their sincere prayers.
McAdams, whose conversation is peppered with Scripture references, is encouraged when she sees inmates marking their Bibles because she knows that, once released, these people will touch others whom she could never reach.
Rather than give a lecture, McAdams, who obtained AG ministerial credentials in 1976 and has two adult daughters, conducts interactive lessons with those she senses are hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
“To many, God’s love is a new concept,” says McAdams, who became an endorsed AG chaplain just last year. “For the first time they realize God has a better plan — abundant life. It’s a real joy to run into these women once they are back into society with a job.”
Alvin F. Worthley, director of Chaplaincy Ministries for the Assemblies of God, says he hopes that more women will follow the lead of Farris, Oakley and McAdams. He notes that 2010 U.S. Census data provide some disturbing facts about incarceration, including that 1 out of every 142 Americans is now in prison.
Worthley points out that the number of women incarcerated or on parole during the first decade of the century grew by 40 percent, making females the fastest-growing demographic.
“If the church is to fulfill Matthew 25:40, ‘Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (TNIV), it is imperative that godly women respond to the need for volunteers and mentors,” Worthley says. “What an impact godly women will make as they follow the call."
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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