The big hand on the clock was creeping toward
half-past-nine as a glorious Michigan spring day deepened into twilight. Inside the Camp
Branch Womens Facility, a long, tumultuous and unprecedented evening was drawing to
Laurie Velker, the training and research coordinator of the Pregnancy Resource
Center of Grand Rapids, Mich., stood before a group of 60 female convicts interspersed
with trained prayer counselors.
"Look at these ladies over here," Velker said, gesturing to her left. Five
counselors on the front row sat up straighter, while the rest of the room craned their
necks in that direction.
"Theyve all had abortions. So have I," Velker went on. "We want to
talk and pray with you. God is your Father and He loves you, and He has sent His Son for
you. We want to get to know you and to help you get to know Him."
This evening was the first time two forms of Christian outreach had been united:
ministry to prisoners, and healing for women who have had abortions.
Inspiration for the event came at a volunteer-appreciation lunch held by the Pregnancy
Resource Center (PRC). The speaker that day was Sydna Masse, then manager of the Crisis
Pregnancy Ministry for Focus on the Family, who described her longtime dream: that
pregnancy centers could find a way to reach post-abortal women behind prison walls.
That dream was about to come true. In the audience was PRC board member Valerie Cook,
daughter of Prison Fellowship President Tom Pratt. Cook contacted her father; he called
Michigan Prison Fellowship director Doug Redford, who phoned Kurt Dillinger the local PRC
"We wanted to create a program to reach these woman behind prison walls with the
kind of healing we can provide at our center," Dillinger said. "We wondered if a
successful pilot program like this might be the start of something that could be done
across the country."
The center planned an evening of music with Christian entertainer Kathy Troccoli,
followed by testimonies from women who found healing after their abortions. As the program
closed, volunteers would move among the prisoners, offering personal counseling and
prayer. Following this evening, for a 10 week period, counselors would return to lead a
series of small-group sessions aimed at helping the women work through post-abortion
For this project the center selected two prisons in the southern Michigan city of
Coldwater. The program would be offered first at the Florence Crane Womens Facility,
then be repeated the same evening at Camp Branch Womens Facility after a swift
The caravan of volunteers prayed fervently as they arrived at Florence Crane the afternoon
of May 29. They had never been to a prison before and didnt know what to expect.
They soon received an education in prison security.
They were told they would be subject to search at any time. They could bring only their
Bible and a pen; pocketbooks had to be locked in car trunks, and car keys turned in at the
Rule number 11 raised some questions: "Touching prisoners is not permitted, other
than a handshake." What if a prisoner was weeping about her abortion, or praying the
sinners prayer for the first time? Cant you put your arm around her shoulder?
The prison chaplain explained that this rule had some flexibility, but volunteers were
told to make sure any physical contact did not linger.
Each volunteer was patted down, and the group was led between rows of 10-foot-high
chainlink fence topped by rolls of razor wire.
A staff person escorted the media to ensure they did not talk with prisoners; that same
staffer was also under orders not to answer reporters questions.
At last the volunteers arrived at an auditorium where about 50 prisoners were already
milling aboutonly half the number that wanted to attend, due to a glitch in the
computer that processed their requests.
The Man Who Cares
The evening began with a performance by the 17-voice Florence Crane gospel choir. Masse
followed by reading from Jeremiah 31wherein Rachel wept for her children.
"Some of us have not chosen life for our unborn children," Masse said.
"We are post-abortal women. But we know there is no sin that God cant
Next, Troccoli took the stage, which she quickly decided was too far from the audience.
She walked in the aisle between the chairs, singing "I Call Him Love," and
before she reached the second chorus members of the audience were standing, swaying and
singing along with arms in the air. A young white girl in the back, feeling the impact of
the songs lyrics, bent over and began wiping her eyes, while the gray-haired black
women next to her patted her back and whispered to her consolingly.
Troccoli concluded her performance with an invitation to faith. "Without Jesus, I
would want to be dead," she said bluntly. "Give your life to Jesus. I dont
mean that the same way youve always heard it. Hes a real God. He rose from the
dead, and no matter where you are on this planet He has life abundant for you."
Velker then introduced the first of three speakers. One of them, Renee Cobb, had never
told her story in public before.
"Do you know that song, Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a
wretch like me?" asked Cobb, a professionally dressed black woman. The song was
written by a former slave trader, she explained, "who brutalized, maimed, and
murdered. I know about that because I brutalized, maimed, and murdered my children. Five
of them," she said, holding up her hand with fingers spread.
"When I was 18, I met a man." she said, who taught her how to use and sell
drugs, and how to pass bad checks. She had two abortions while she was with him.
"Then I met a man who shot heroin, and who asked me to prostitute myself to make
money"a request she resisted, though she gave him the money she earned at her
job. She had two more abortions along the way. "You know how we give up control to a
man, and let him lead us to a place?" The women listening knew this very well and
"Do you know the woman in the Bible, the prostitute, who had an alabaster jar of
fragrant ointment? She would use that on herself to cover up her sins. And then one day,
she met a man..."
The crowd began to cheer. "And I met that same manand His name is
Jesus" Cobb waited for quiet to resume. "And she poured that fragrance out
for Him. Thats a man thatll love you, just the way you are."
Cobb said that she was numb to the effects of her abortion until the day she happened
to see the pro-life film The Silent Scream. "When I saw that little babys mouth
open in a scream, I wailed for that baby." Cobb said, beginning to weep. From the
side a prisoner came up and handed her a roll of toilet papermakeshift Kleenex.
"I thought (a fetus) was just tissue. Well, this"holding up a
"The devil hates women," Cobb concluded. "Genesis tells us there is
enmity between the woman and the serpent. Thats why there have been 35 million
abortionsbecause the devil is working. Its our job, the hurting women, to
reach out to other women and tell them, You dont have to do this."
Terri Hout, a practiced Prison Fellowship speaker from Iowa, followed Cobb.
"I did drugsshooting speed was my drug of choiceused alcohol, joined a
motorcycle gang, got into Buddhism, had a brush with satanism and had two
pregnancies," Hout said.
Hout experienced salvation in Christ on an evening when she had planned to commit
suicide. But she kept one part of her life hidden awayher abortions. Deep inside,
worries ate away at her: "When I get to heaven, how am I going to face my kids? How
am I going to explain to them why I let them be killed in such a horrible way?"
The answer came when a friend helped her realize she didnt have to. Jesus could
convey her regret, and her love, to her children. And no sin was too great for Him to
forgivenot even abortion.
Armed with that knowledge, Hout began to experience freedoma gift she set out to
share with others who needed it as badly as she had.
One day she found herself addressing a group of 30 men condemned to death row, an
incident she recounted for the female prisoners.
"My first baby was so far along in development that when it was aborted, it had to
be dismembered," she told them. "Whatever youre in here for, it was not as
bad as thatthat a mother would allow that to be done to her own innocent baby.
Youre in here, and Im not, because society doesnt see my crime the way
it sees yours.
"But there is a holy God," she said. "I know I deserve the same
punishment as you. Now let me tell you about a Savior."
Woman to Woman
As the program ended, Velker told the women, "Our prayer counselors want to talk with
you tonight one-on-one and tell you theres help, theres hope, theres
healing. But its not just so youll feel good tonight; we want to stay with
you, we want to know you. Were going to be here for 10 weeks, because we want to go
through the issues of your life with you."
As a team of prayer counselors began talking in pairs and small groups with prisoners,
Velker and the other speakers scurried over to the Camp Branch facility.
In the recreation hall, Troccoli was already midway through her set, putting on a
hearty performance that had this group of prisoners as enthusiastic as the last. The three
speakers took turns as they did before, and were as enthusiastically received. At last,
with time running out, Velker stood before the crowd to say the last words of the evening.
"Look at these ladies over here," she said, and a crowd of prisoners in jeans
and T-shirts and prison garb looked over at five neatly dressed, fresh-faced women
whod driven across the state to meet them.
The volunteers were from a different world in many ways. They hadnt had many of
the experiences the prisoners had. They wouldnt spend this night behind razor wire.
Even small details of dress and hairstyle set them apart.
The volunteers looked back at the women theyd come to counsel, the ones the
Pregnancy Resource Center had committed to serving for weeks to come. It didnt
matter any more where theyd come from. What mattered was where they were going.