I have lived in Benton Harbor for about 20 years. Before I came to Benton Harbor, I lived in central Illinois, where I was active in a group that held retreats at state prisons.
The state of Illinois allowed a team to come in and meet with residents who came to the event. Women went to women’s prison, men went to men’s prison.
The leadership team went on a Thursday evening, and had introductory activities and a short worship service. We went back on Friday and Saturday, and closed with a worship service Sunday.
Before the retreat, everyone on the team prepared for the talks, the discussions and other activities for about six weeks. We also submitted an application to the state to be approved for admission.
We slept at a motel, but every time we entered the prison, we were fingerprinted and searched. We walked up to the high fence with sharp razor wire coiled on the top, and entered one at a time through the gates that clanged behind us. We were escorted by guards to the room where we met for the retreat.
During the retreat, team members and prison residents sat together. There was talking, role-playing, art projects and singing. There was laughter – and also tears – as team members shared their experiences of God’s grace in their lives.
But we never forgot we were in a prison.
Always, standing at the doors to the room were guards, fully dressed in brown-and-tan uniforms with badges and guns. Once a morning and once an afternoon, a signal would sound, and the guard would call out “Count.”
Everyone was required to stop what they were doing, and stand, single file, along the wall, and at the guard’s cue begin a count until the total was reached for everyone in the room.
We stood silently and still until the count of every room on site was reported and everyone was accounted for. Then, we could resume our activity.
When we went for lunch at the prison cafeteria, we walked past a sign with big print that read, “If shots are fired, lie on the ground. Do not move.”
One evening, after a long day of sharing tough stories, painful memories, longings for love, and hopes for fresh starts – from retreat members and inmates – it was time for our closing worship.
Our worship leaders asked us to sing “We Are Standing on Holy Ground.”
As we were singing the words – “We are standing in his presence on holy ground” – I was struck that, here I was, in a prison, guards at the door, with women who had been abused and beaten, some who were still very angry, and some who had made wrong choices that damaged their lives and hurt other people.
Yet, we were indeed in God’s presence on holy ground. As I looked around, I saw a lot of tears, and some of them were running down the cheeks of the guard at the door.
This song, this thought, has come to me in many places since that time:
• Divorce court? I’m standing in God’s presence. I’m on holy ground.
• Operating room? Holy ground.
• New classroom? Holy ground.
• Wrigley Field? Holy ground.
The writer of Romans tells us in chapter 8: “I’m absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love.”
I am always in God’s presence ... on holy ground.
Today’s Insights was written by Gloria Winn, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor. Insights is written to give different viewpoints on a variety of topics. It is published each Saturday in cooperation with the Berrien County Association of Churches. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of member churches.