“Do you wanna go to jail with me today?” Not your typical question. Then again, Candy Engleman is not your typical church lady. She is a member of the “Juvie Jail” ministry of New Hope Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Fort Myers, Fla., and her mission is to glorify God while sharing the gospel with the girls who are residents of a juvenile detention center.
The Juvie Jail ministry, as it is informally called, began in 2009 as part of a larger ministry for teenage girls. Every Monday afternoon, a group of volunteers from New Hope arrives at the Southwest Florida Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers with homemade cookies, lemonade, Bible lessons, and love. The volunteers spend an hour and a half each week with the girls. They share snacks, play games, read the Bible, teach a lesson on a Bible verse or story, take prayer requests, and lead the girls in prayer. And they hug, too. Big circle hugs.
The girls are not required to participate, but Monday has become a highly anticipated day in the center for everyone. Frelicia Davis, Facility Training Coordinator for the Center, explains how important the ministry is in the lives of the girls.
“These kids go through their crises during the week, but on Mondays they light up and this helps them calm down,” Davis said. “They know these ladies are coming with their hearts—not just coming to be coming.”
Typically, a girl is housed in the facility for three weeks awaiting her appearance in court. During their first week, Davis says the girls are hesitant to participate because they want to “save face.” In the second week, the girls begin to open up and interact more within the group. By the third week, they begin praying and reaching out with questions and prayer requests. Some of these girls have never seen a Bible or started a prayer, but on Mondays they impatiently wait for the ladies from New Hope to arrive.
“We call them our ‘Jesus Christ Golden Girls!’” Davis exclaimed. “Everyone loves them. The girls love them. The staff loves them. These ladies have hearts of gold. Rain or shine, holidays…giving these girls hope.”
Ann Anderson has been involved since 2012, and noted that jail ministry is not always easy.
“You have to love the Lord,” she said. “These girls are needy, and some don’t know anything about God. Some are curious. We have to share God’s Word with them.”
Engleman agrees. While she jokes about asking people if they want to come to jail with her, the joking stops there.
“It is a blessing to be in this ministry,” she said. “It is a privilege for us to be able to do this and we want people who want to come and receive the blessing that it is.”
Permanent volunteers have to go through a detailed vetting process that includes fingerprinting and background checks. Engleman appreciates the requirements, because she only wants volunteers who are serious about serving.
“We see these girls as daughters, granddaughters, and nieces,” she explained. “We are terribly aware that we are sinners too, and so we are shoulder-to-shoulder with them and not standing in judgment.”
For privacy reasons, the volunteers are only given the girls’ first names. They also never know what offense a girl has committed. Some girls are repeat offenders. Some are runaways. Most come from dysfunctional families or foster homes. One girl was a repeat offender because being in the system was better than the alternative. A few of the girls have children of their own, despite their young ages. Sometimes their families don’t want them back. Drugs and alcohol are common threads woven into their stories. Sometimes a girl goes right back to a pimp upon release.
Engleman said the inability to follow up with girls after their release is the ministry’s only downside.
“Our job is to deliver the gospel,” she said. “Beyond that, God has not given us the okay to follow through with the girls. We share the gospel and we share our love. That is all we have been told by God to do at this point.”
The detention center leadership fully supports the ladies’ work.
“We have the utmost respect for this group, and for the church itself,” Davis said. “The love from the church—the entire church—is represented in this ministry.”
The girls aren’t the only ones being ministered to. The guards share prayer requests, ask for Bibles, grab cookies, and sometimes stay for the Bible lesson.
“Sometimes we do plays, like a Christmas pageant, and the guards take part,” Anderson noted. “They play the Wise Men or the shepherds. We try to make it fun for everyone. God is a joyful God and we want everyone to see this.”
Visitation restrictions are in place currently due to COVID-19, so the ladies have not been able to meet with the girls face-to-face. But they have not stopped going. Every week the ladies collect items and take them to the lobby to be delivered to the girls. Devotionals, word search books, adult coloring pages, and felt tip markers are passed along by the guards. The most important item the girls receive is a prayer request card. All of these cards are collected by the ministry and a volunteer sends out a visit report to more than 100 people who pray over each request every week.
Eddie Spencer, New Hope’s Senior Pastor, said the pandemic has barely slowed the ladies down.
“They cannot see the girls or fully enter the facility, but continue to visit each week to drop off discipleship lessons and sit together in the car and pray for the young women,” he said.
One of New Hope’s core values is living out the gospel by “reaching out to hurt and marginalized people.” The Juvie Jail Ministry demonstrates this by extending grace to all who live and work at the detention center. Engleman gives all the credit to God.
“God has allowed us to continue our ministry at the center despite COVID,” she said. “God is reaching out to many people there and we are privileged to be a part of His work.”
Even if it means going to jail.
by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath