Nestled in the mountains of Eagle River, Alaska, between a campground and high school, hidden behind a forest of evergreens, sits a collection of concrete buildings encircled by barbed wire. Unless you are looking for it, the brown, wooden sign looks just as likely to point you to the next mountain lookout as to the home of over 400 incarcerated women.
Of the 415 women housed at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Complex, Alaska's only all-women prison, over 30% of those are Alaska Natives. Of those 126 Alaska Native women, there are women like Ruth.
Ruth is not yet 30 years old but has experienced more in her years than most of us will in a lifetime. She grew up in a small house in a village near the ocean. Ruth, whose mother struggled with alcohol, was raised mainly by her grandmother who tried to keep the household, and its rotating collection of family members, in line. Ruth was only 10 when she was first sexual assaulted by her uncle.
In Ruth's community, like so many Alaska Native communities, the sexual abuse of children is rampant (six times the national average), but it is never spoken about. When she finally found the courage to approach her grandmother for help, she was told they did not to speak of such things. Ruth could not rely on the adults who should have protected her, and, because of the ruralness of their village, she could not rely on the "local" police, so she bottled up the hurt and anger. She found ways to cover the pain.
At 12, she had her first drink; at 13, she began experimenting with drugs, and at 17, she gave birth to a daughter. But, motherhood did not change her lifestyle. Ruth still struggled to cope with the pain of her abuse.
The baby's father was not around, and Ruth's grandmother was now too old to care for a baby, so the little girl spent her time bouncing between family members who had the room and the time. Ruth would sometimes go weeks between visits. When she was reunited with her daughter, though she didn't know how to be a mother, she knew this wasn't the right way and was overcome with guilt and quickly return to drinking to dull this new pain.
On one of these nights, after a visit with her daughter, Ruth began drinking at a friend's house. Late into the night, a fight broke out. In the end, the other woman ended up in the hospital and Ruth ended up in prison for assault in the third degree.
At Hiland Mountain Correction Complex, LIM staff member, Rick McCafferty, meets women just like Ruth.
He spends every other Monday in the jail's Transformational Living Community - a faith-based wing of the jail where the women choose to live alongside one another in a supportive Christian community and take part in a year-long therapeutic program that focuses on addiction, abuse, and coping with a focus on Jesus.
"Some of the women," Rick explains, "opt into the faith wing because it's an easier time than the other side of the prison. However, as the weeks pass, they begin to work through some of their problems and share their stories, and their eyes start to open."
Ruth, when asked about her time in a faith wing, says, "God brought me from being bitter, beaten, and ugly to his own loved child. When I first told my story, I thought everyone would hate me, knowing how I had abandoned my daughter and the violence I had been a part of. I thought God would punish me if I told my story out loud. I didn't think I deserved grace or forgiveness. But instead of hatred and punishment, I received love and guidance. Every person here, the women and the counselors, we all have a story. We can relate to each other and really help each other to understand God's love and forgiveness and purpose in our lives."
Rick uses his training in Beauty for Ashes, (a program that teaches Native participants how to deal with the devastating impacts of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and child neglect through the personal stories and events of those who have been harmed and those who have caused harmed), to lead the women of the faith wing on a journey of healing and reconciliation.
Rick's most recent focus has been on separating the lies we believed as children from the truth we receive from Jesus. He explains, "many of these women have a hard time understanding the full, unconditional love of Christ because they never experienced it from their parents or others in their lives. Likewise, they struggle with trust and the idea that God will never leave them. The concept of a consistent and reliable love and protection is foreign to them, particularly since so many of them were hurt by those who were supposed to protect them, but by surrounding themselves with supportive women and trained counselors, they learn to trust each other and, therefore, Christ."
At a recent meeting, Ruth told her group, "I'm freer right now in jail than I ever was on the outside. Just like Psalm 103, I want to only proclaim God. He has forgiven my sins; He has redeemed me and pulled me out of the pit; He has crowned me with love and compassion."
This is just one story of redemption and healing. (Here's another.) As the year progresses and we train more of our staff to deal with and address trauma, we hope to have countless more. As we continue to reach out to churches, organizations, and individuals interested in Native Ministry, we look forward to working on the challenge God has put before us, to lead his people to him.
Every day, the support of donors and the work of LIM ministry staff, like Rick, are making an impact in God's Kingdom. Lutheran Indian Ministries is proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Native people, discipling leaders, and providing resources for the healing of their pain, sorrow, and suffering.
Thank you for your prayers and support that make this possible!