"People said 'Oh it’s just jailhouse religion, it won’t stick', but for me it did, even though it wasn’t always easy. I had to work hard, and joining a church when I got out was really important. The church was warm and welcomed me and my kids, even though I still looked tough and off the streets. Having churches that welcome and love whoever comes in the doors is so important. It changed my life."
Finding God in the Darkness
Chaplain Liz Milner, based at CCW (women’s jail) took sometime to interview one of our longstanding and dear volunteers Sonia Lopez. Sonia currently leads one worship service a month at CCW for the minimum security ladies, and sees inmates for 1-1 counseling in Spanish and English weekly.
Tell us a little about your story and how you came to be in jail ministry?
I’ve been serving at Elmwood and CCW since 2001 though I started out doing chaplain volunteer work at the Federal Prison for women at Dublin. I used to go there and do a worship service for the women along with my brother and sister and I’d always had it on my heart to go to Elmwood jail. Someone I knew in the prison chaplaincy knew Chaplain Louann and I finally got to come into the jail and do a service with the women which I’d been longing to.
What gave you such a heart for women in jail and prison?
Well, I was locked up myself for over 2 years in prison. I had got into some bad stuff, trying to deal with the pain and rejection of a broken relationship, she got caught up into a life of violence and substance abuse. A friend ended up setting her up and she ended up going to prison... But God had a plan.
How did you find God inside?
Well I remember when I first got to prison I was locked up all day except to get out to eat. One Sunday the officer came by and shouted “Anyone want to go to church?” I said yes but just because I wanted to get out my cell! I ended up at the service but had no idea church could be like that, with music and a message that touched my heart. I liked it and ended up going each Sunday.
Later I moved to a different part of the prison and was invited to a Bible Study. I remember going and hiding my Bible under my arm because I didn’t want people to know I was going. I went and it was this little old man who came to lead it and I was the only inmate there! He started to talk to me about John 3:16 and the free gift of God’s love. I was used to the streets and always needing to give something to get something and I asked him what I needed to pay? He said, “It’s God’s gift. He’s giving you everything you need.” I couldn’t believe it and accepted God right then. I remember I went back to my dorm, and I was seen as one of the ‘tough women’. I shouted “It’s my birthday” and they all started congratulating me, and I said “No my new birthday, I’m reborn!”. The dorm went quiet, then women started saying, “I’m a believer too” and we became sisters. So just remember, even if you come in to jail and talk to just one person, like that little old man, it can change a life!
People said “Oh it’s just jailhouse religion, it won’t stick”, but for me it did, even though it wasn’t always easy. I had to work hard, and joining a church when I got out was really important. The church was warm and welcomed me and my kids, even though I still looked tough and off the streets. Having churches that welcome and love whoever comes in the doors is so important. It changed my life.
So how did this lead you to us?
Well, I realized that though I was in a really dark time in my life, God reached out to me. What others meant to harm me, God used for good. I understand the pull of the world and the pull of God, and I wanted to share what God gave me with others in the same place.
In 2001 my son died - I know what it is to be broken. God is using my brokenness and pain, allowing me to minister to the broken women here at CCW, and it moves me every time I come in. I sometimes share my story when it’s appropriate, and I see the women start to hope. I long to continue to share my story and leave others with God’s love, hope and restoration.
I know what it is to feel broken and have no words, to think I can’t go on, and then have God find me in the darkness and give me strength. I want to share that with others.