Finding Freedom: Prison Ministry Provides Hope Through Christ
Fredonia - Lee Rust placed her lunch tray on the cold steel table and straddled a low stool bolted to the cement floor. Across the table sat her lunch companion, a longtime inmate of the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex - one of the two state prisons for women.
Within minutes, the inmate began unpacking the suitecase of circumstances that led her to a life of incarceration. She began by describing her "mean drunk" of a father who physcailly and emotionally absued her mother until the woman ran away, leaving her children behind. Still a young girl, the inmate said she then became the focus of her father's alcholic rage and eventually the victim of his sexual desires.
At 13, she married just to get away from him.
"She then propped her hand on her forehead and said, 'Life really went down hill from there,'" Rust recalled. "My mind was screaming: How could it go down hill? Looking me right in the eye she said, 'I've been in here for a long time. I have five children who don't know mw. Both of my parents are dead now, but God has not left me."
Perhaps - the inmate pondered aloud - perhaps her prison sentence was God's grace. Maybe this was His way of providing safe haven. The inmate had felt His protection throughout her confinement.
Rust. founder and director of Freedom Forever Ministries, was touched by the inmate's faithfulness and described it as an honor to know this woman and to hear her story.
For the past 12 years, Rust has been preaching the word of God to women in prison - first at the McCracken County Regional Jail and more recently at the western Kentucky state prison. Over the course of her ministry, Rust said she has heard countless similar stories - and all too often they begin with childhood sexual abuse. Rust said it is a narrative she shares and part of the reason she felt God was leading her to create Freedom Forever Ministries.
"I knew our hearts were the same," said the Paducah resident.
"I can relate to them and they are never surprised by any testimony I give them. They are never shocked. They nod their heads in agreement like they understand completely what I'm talking about."
Through a survey of willing participants, Rust discovered early in her ministry that the average inmate is a 35-year-old white female with 2.2 children under the age of 18. She also learned that a majority of the inmates she encounters are low to middle class, educated women with at least some church exposure.
"Those statistics would look just about the same in your church family," Rust noted. "It's just that in the church, we are encouraged to look like we are all put together."
As they do every Wednesday morning, Rust and a handful of faithful volunteers made the early morning drive last week from Paducah to the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex in Fredonia. Their cheerful lilac-colored shirts were a stark contrast next to the plain khaki uniforms worn by the inmates.
The women quickly assembled into three lines according to last names, some anxiously recalling the memory verse given by Rust the week before. One-by-one, the inmates stoof before one of the ministry volunteers and recited Ecclesiastes 3:4 aloud.
"It was a short one this week," said Kyla Bellis with a big smile. The petite 28-year-old inmate knew Praise Points were riding on her memory skills.
Inmates have the ability to earn up to $5 each month, which can be used to purchase items from the prison commissary. Freedom Forever Ministries awards inmates with one dollar for an entire month of perfect attendance and one dollar for each recited memory verse. Rust said the ministry gave $408 in Praise Points at the McCracken County Regional Jail in Paducah. The team ministers at the regional jail each Monday.
Rust said offering Praise Points is just an incentive. The goal is discipleship.
"We are teaching them the word of God and encouraging them with scripture memory and regular attendance. We are training them for the day that they are released they'll be so comfortable with that idea (of attending church) they will seek a church family right away," Rust said.
As the inmates settled in their chairs waiting for the service to start, some scribble prayer concerns on paper. "Later," said Rust, "those requests will be compiled and sent to prayer warriors throughout churches in Kentucky.
Once the music starts, the mood in the room shifts. Chatter subsides and a calming peacefulness hovers over the worshipers. Some of the women stretch their arms up and sing the words of the songs. Others quietly bow their heads. A few dab their eyes with tissue.
Sue Evans, an 8-year FFM volunteer, said she loves this part.
"It's precious to watch them. They are free. When they close their eyes and worship God, they are separated from this place," Evans said.
While the inmates' hearts opening up and worshipping the Lord, Rust is in an adjacent room preparing her heart to preach. Often her husband, Eric Rust, is standing over her - praying that God will "empty her out" in the next hour.
"I call myself an expositor," Rust said.
On this particular Wednesday, Rust decided to scrap her prepared message during the drive from Paducah. She felt God was leading her toward another message, perhaps one that a particular person in that room needed to hear. Rust said she was nervous about what she would say if the word would come, but her trust was in the Lord.
"This lady does somethign to me," said Cori Hanner after the service at WKCC. "She rocks my world." It's like she is speaking directly to me and I thrive on what I hear. I love this ministry."
Hanner, 36, was on probation for receiving stolen property when she ran from police after breaking curfew at a halfway house. That decision tacked another seven years on her sentence and landed her back in prison, but Hanner feels certain prison is where God wanted her to be.
"I have received so many blessings," Hanner said. Referring to the time since she began attending FFM services in March 2011. "I've been in contact with my family. I got a picture of my son. I've got the word and the word keeps me going."
"Without these folks, things would be a lot different here," said Bryan Henson, warden of Western Kentucky Correctional Complex. "When you see the dedication, the loyalty, the sure they have to come in and minister to the females, it means a lot to us. They are bringing in tools to allow inmates to make changes to their lives that not only affect them, but the people around them."
Rust called this the generational effect.
"If we can only teach her, train her, get her on her feet and show her how God wantes her to live - she can teach her children." said Rust.
Freedom Forever Ministries relies on donations to fulfill their mission of preaching the gospel to incarcerated women at Western Kentucky Correctional Complex and McCracken County Regional Jail.
To help raise funds, the ministry will be hosting a concert at Immanuel Baptist Church in Paducah, Saturday, June 30 at 7 p.m. Dove award winner Selah will be performing. the trio won Inspirational Song and Inspirational Album for 2012 with "Hope of the Broken World." There is a suggested donation of $10 to attend the concert. Advanced reserved seating is avaliable for $25.
For information about the concert or the women's prison minsitry, contact Freedom Forever Ministries at (270) 408-1366.