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Prison Ministry – It’s No Joke

Lay missioners Jeff Sved and Hady Mendez outside a prison in Bolivia

My family and friends laugh at me when I say,“ Talk to you later. I gotta go to jail,” “It sounds funny,” they tell me. But for me it’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s what I do.

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Waiting in line with families to get into the prison

I started prison ministry roughly six months ago. When I first started going to jail, it was so much fun. I enjoyed getting to know the women, making new friends, and telling them about myself as they were all really curious about who this “new girl” was that kept coming to visit them.

My ministry here has grown over time. At first I went to the peluqueria, or hair salon, every other week. Then I was going to prison with my Manos crew to do manualidades, or arts and craft classes.

After being in prison for a few months, one of the women asked me if I would be willing to practice English with her and a few of the other women. I took that on and practice with them over lunch every other Monday.

And finally, about two months ago, I started a faith-sharing group. The faith-sharing group excites me the most since it is where the women talk most honestly about their fears, their sadness, their disappointments, and their hopes for the future.

All in all, I would say my ministry is truly enjoyable. I feel alive when I’m with these women. I feel like there is truly a mutual friendship that has developed. And I feel that maybe, just maybe, some of these women are going to have a different life when they get out of jail and I will get to hear about it or see it first hand.

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Morning prayer at Manos Con Libertad, where some of the women leaving prison come to train and work.

So you can imagine the emotions I felt the other day when one of the women announced during a game of “Truth or Dare” that she would be returning to her old way of life (selling drugs). I nearly fell off my chair. I was shocked. I was angry. But most of all I was sad. How could she? “Jane” knows how damaging it would be if she were to get caught again. Jane is the mother of four children. Is this really the kind of risk she should be taking?

Jane loves her kids like a mother should. She will do absolutely anything for them. ANYTHING. And that is why she is willing to take this risk. Because her goal is to take her children, move out of the country, and give them a better life. Does this justify her actions? NO. Does it explain them? YES.

So what am I to do with this situation? I’ve asked around (to more experienced people) and the answers that come back are all the same. I can be her friend. I can NOT judge her. I can express my concern.   I can tell her I care. I can pray for and with her. And then I have to stand back and watch what happens. Many people say it’s like watching your child make mistakes. You want to stop them but you can’t. You want to not love them, but you can’t do that either. You just have to pray and wait.

It’s a very helpless feeling to be around these women and not be able to do more.   Sometimes I hesitate when I walk through the doors into the prison.   I have to brace myself for the stories I will hear, the disappointments I will experience, and the pain and sadness that I know will come.

But God has called me here. All the way to Cochabamba. To do this work.


Chapel of San Sebastian Prison

That helpless feeling. That feeling that tells me things are going to happen and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s the same feeling the women feel everyday. And by walking along side them now I get to feel it too.

There is power in accompaniment, people!!! My hope is that I am able to be strong enough to offer them hope during this time of despair. That I may still have the courage to smile even when sometimes it’s the hardest thing for me to do. And that I still find a way to show love and non-judgment even when the women make decisions I’m whole-heartedly against. This is my hope and prayer.

Please join me in praying for missioners all over the world who engage in difficult, but meaningful work everywhere. Paz y Bien!

A self-described “Hija de Brooklyn y Puerto Rico,” Hady Mendez is the youngest of four daughters raised by Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, NY. A proud Jasper, Hady graduated from Manhattan College in Riverdale, NY, before starting a corporate career in technology that lasted for more than 20 years. Hady has a true passion for world travel and social justice and recently returned from two years of mission in Cochabamba, Bolivia.