Jail Sisters make friends within and beyond cellsBy Laurie Oswald Robinson For Mennonite Weekly Review
For 23 years, Ethel Umble visited female inmates in the Elkhart (Ind.) County jail as part of the Jail Sisters Ministry sponsored by women at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.
Today, three of the former inmates are out of jail and living in their communities. Umble, who is approaching 90, keeps in touch regularly and occasionally lunches with them.
She also accompanies one of these friends, who has been diagnosed with cancer, to a chemotherapy clinic.
These enduring relationships have taught Umble that God’s love can melt barriers between people of differing backgrounds.
“They have become real friends, and I consider them to be my sisters in Christ,” Umble said. “The prison system is based on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mentality, but the ministry taught me that God calls us to something different — to justice and compassion based on rehabilitation and redemption, not punishment.”
Umble is one of many women involved in Jail Sisters who has experienced how, through Christ, strangers can become friends.
Since the ministry was founded in 1980, women have led Sunday worship services once a month. Currently, 12 women divide into teams to lead services in the jail on a rotating basis. The services include singing, a sermon, sharing and prayer.
As they share God’s love together, the Jail Sisters find their perceptions shifting.
“This ministry has changed me,” said June Gingerich Yoder, a school nurse who joined the ministry several years ago. “I’ve become much less judgmental of people who are struggling.
“I serve so many families dealing with drug issues. But since I’ve been in the jails, I’ve become an advocate for finding new ways of rehabilitating. I think our punitive methods for dealing with people aren’t working and only cause a lot of recidivism.”
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