“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:31-40
The woman in charge of the Prison Ministry at church told me that she had a prisoner who would like someone to correspond with. I came to her mind and she thought I would be the right person to connect with this woman. She was right. Vanessa and I are now, as she calls us, “Sistas from anotha motha, but the same Fatha.”
I met Vanessa about 11 years ago after writing to her for about a year. We had no idea what each other looked like, so when I went to the prison to meet her for the first time she began giggling. When I asked her what she was giggling about, she told me that all this time of reading my letters she thought I was a heavy-set black woman (like Madea). Quite the opposite, I’m a medium-sized white woman, but I took her words as a great compliment about how I must convey myself, at least in writing.
Vanessa spent 40 years in prison for committing a crime. She drove the car that took her cousins to a convenience store which they robbed and subsequently drove the two clerks a mile away so they wouldn’t call the cops. One of the cousins shot a gun that hit one of the victims. So, all three of them were charged with armed robbery, kidnapping, and attempted manslaughter. She had just turned 18 years old and had two little baby boys at the time. When I met Vanessa, she had been in prison for about 30 years. Her cousins had gotten out in less than ten years. They must have had good representation.
Vanessa grew up while she was in prison. By the time I met her, she had become a follower of Jesus after a 3-year stint in solitary confinement. She went from a spittin’ angry, sassy, teenage hellion to a wise and joyful elderly lady. She took some of the new girls under her wing and brought them to the only safe place in prison, the church. When I would sit with her during our visits, the other inmates would pass by being sure to say hi to her. They would say, “Hey Miss Vanessa, how you doin’ today? She would say, “Blessed.”
Before her final parole hearing, the victims of the crime she and her cousins had committed so long ago wrote to the court requesting that she be released, saying they couldn’t believe she was still there. Even they thought she had been unjustly held too long. She was released from prison, after serving 40 years, last January. She is almost 60 years old.
After spending 40 years in prison, of which too little was spent in learning how to be an adult woman, and during which much change had taken place in the world, the prison said goodbye to Vanessa and sent her on her way. She was given a year of housing, job interviews, grocery cards, and once-a-month emotional counseling. A year of support to become an independent woman who can keep a job, pay for her own housing, navigate the new world of transportation, plastic cards and technology; to find her own way. Any one of those things is overwhelming by itself.
She is hanging in there. She’s had some bumps along the way that slowed her down. She went to the DMV and they said her records showed that she was dead. She had to prove that she isn’t dead. That took a little maneuvering. Her name was misspelled on her social security card, another delay. Oh, and Covid19 happened which closed down most government offices and most job interviews. She has a temporary job, which she has to spend two hours and money on a Lyft to get to. She is taking online college courses to earn a Business degree. And she is trying to reconnect with her sons who grew up without their mom. It has all been challenging.
It wasn’t a good year to be released from prison and figure out how to support yourself. But,Vanessa is so joyful to be out of prison she will not complain about how difficult it is. She is happy just to be free.
I am so proud of my sista-from-anotha-motha but the same Fatha. She has been a gift from God. She is working hard to make a contribution to life which she wasn’t able to make for 40 years of it. She’s determined to see God’s favor on her and to believe that He loves her and is working in her life. If you ask Miss Vanessa how she’s doing today, she will always say, “Blessed!”
I was thinking about her the other day and Matthew 25:31-40 came to my mind. Vanessa is about as “least of these” as anyone can get. She is who Jesus had in mind when He said those words. I realized that I need to do more now to help my friend out. As I try to find a way to do that I am keeping her in prayer.
Please keep my friend in prayer. And, if you would like to help out “one of the least of these” I would love to give you a way to do that. (firstname.lastname@example.org)