Abortion Counseling Behind the Razor Wire

Prison Fellowship and a Michigan Pregnancy center linked up in May for an unprecedented evening of post-abortion ministry.

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

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 Women’s Facility, a long, tumultuous and unprecedented evening was drawing to a close.

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.

"They’ve 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 director.

"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 grief.

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 Women’s Facility, then be repeated the same evening at Camp Branch Women’s Facility after a swift transition.

Tight Security
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 didn’t 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 sentry desk.

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 sinner’s prayer for the first time? Can’t 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 about–only 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 31–wherein 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 can’t forgive."

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 song’s 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 don’t mean that the same way you’ve always heard it. He’s 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 said so.

"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 man–and His name is Jesus–" Cobb waited for quiet to resume. "And she poured that fragrance out for Him. That’s a man that’ll 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 baby’s 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 paper–makeshift Kleenex. "I thought (a fetus) was just tissue. Well, this"–holding up a wad–"its tissue."

"The devil hates women," Cobb concluded. "Genesis tells us there is enmity between the woman and the serpent. That’s why there have been 35 million abortions–because the devil is working. It’s our job, the hurting women, to reach out to other women and tell them, ‘You don’t have to do this.’"

Death Row
Terri Hout, a practiced Prison Fellowship speaker from Iowa, followed Cobb.

"I did drugs–shooting speed was my drug of choice–used 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 away–her 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 didn’t have to. Jesus could convey her regret, and her love, to her children. And no sin was too great for Him to forgive–not even abortion.

Armed with that knowledge, Hout began to experience freedom–a 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 you’re in here for, it was not as bad as that–that a mother would allow that to be done to her own innocent baby. You’re in here, and I’m not, because society doesn’t 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 there’s help, there’s hope, there’s healing. But it’s not just so you’ll feel good tonight; we want to stay with you, we want to know you. We’re 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 who’d driven across the state to meet them.

The volunteers were from a different world in many ways. They hadn’t had many of the experiences the prisoners had. They wouldn’t spend this night behind razor wire. Even small details of dress and hairstyle set them apart.

The volunteers looked back at the women they’d come to counsel, the ones the Pregnancy Resource Center had committed to serving for weeks to come. It didn’t matter any more where they’d come from. What mattered was where they were going.