Taste of God's love: She created ministry from prison experience

Taste of God's love: She created ministry from prison experience

Long after the homemade cookies were gone, Sarah Taylor kept thinking about the message that came with them.

It was 2002, and she was serving time at Fluvanna Correctional Center after making what she calls "bad choices." A woman from Kairos Prison Ministry gave her a bag of cookies. When Taylor asked, "Why would you give this to me?" the woman didn't miss a beat.

She answered, "Because we love you and Jesus loves you. We are praying for you, praying that you will find God here."

For the inmate who doubted God and who painfully missed her family in Saltville, Va., the gift of homemade sweets packed a powerful message. Today, she is back in her hometown, leading her small congregation in baking thousands of cookies so other inmates will get the same message.

"It's a powerful ministry," says Taylor, a member at Quarry United Methodist Church in Abingdon District. "I've seen stone-cold ladies turn to a pillar of tears over a simple gesture. They really change."

The Kairos practice is for volunteers to pray over the cookies, hoping that someone in the prison will experience a taste of God's love. For Taylor, the concept that someone would "take time out of their day" to "bake cookies for a bunch of derelicts" was life-changing.

"I realized that there are still good people out there, people who still forgive," she says. "For so many years, I had shut down. I often wondered what I had to do to get God to work in my life."

The volunteers, she said, "saw me as a person -- not as a number or a criminal or someone in a blue and orange uniform. They saw me as a person."

Labor of love

Twice each year, members at Quarry UMC stir up batches and batches of cookie dough for the male inmates at Wallen's Ridge State Prison. They'll be doing it for the fourth time in October. Their pledge is 300 dozen, or 3,600 cookies.

Quarry's average worship attendance is 50. They need help.

"I would love to involve more churches," says Taylor, age 43. "I would love it if Holston Conference churches could someday supply all the cookies needed for a Kairos week at Wallen's Ridge. (If your church group wants to bake cookies for prisoners at Wallen's Ridge, please e-mail Taylor no later than Sept. 28.)

Kairos Prison Ministry is a national organization addressing the spiritual needs of incarcerated men, women, and children. Twice each year, inmates in participating prisons are invited to spend a long weekend (a "walk") learning about Christianity. Participants receive home-baked cookies throughout the weekend, then take cookies back to their quarters when the weekend is over. Non-participating inmates also receive cookie gifts.

Wallen's Ridge has 1,200 inmates. Volunteer bakers from several churches will supply them with more than 2,000 dozen cookies, according to Mike Henderson, a Kairos organizer in Roanoke, Va. Wallen's Ridge is located in Big Stone Gap, Va.

"Most of these guys don't get gifts like that," he said, referring to the cookies. "They sense that it's a labor of love, and they're touched and moved.

"The cookies are also a draw, an enticement to share Jesus Christ," Henderson said. "Many times the person who didn't participate in the 'walk' the first time will come around the second time, because they were touched by the gift of homemade cookies." (E-mail Henderson if your church wants a long-term prison ministry.)

Extend the kindness

Taylor also received her first cookie gift as non-participating inmate during a Kairos weekend, which inspired her to later join the 'walk' with a friend. She became close with several of the Kairos women who visited her at Virginia Correctional Center in Goochland, where she was incarcerated for the second part of her seven-year sentence.

When Taylor was released in October 2006, 12 Kairos friends were waiting outside the prison gates, along with her family. They walked her out the gate and took her to breakfast. Taylor still talks weekly with a few of her supporters.

"They were interested in me and my family life, and what they could do for me," she explains.

Even before Taylor was released, she begin thinking about how she could extend the same kindness to others in her situation.

"I knew that when I came home, I needed something substantial to help me stay focused and not fall into the same bad patterns," she said. "I also didn't want to forget what I had left behind."

On her return home, she called Kairos and was connected with Henderson, who's since counted on Taylor and crew to provide a truck-load of sweets for the men of Wallen's Ridge.

"She feels like it's her responsibility, her privilege, to participate in a ministry like this," Henderson said. "Because of her own experience in prison, she has a powerful testimony."

In turn, Taylor knew she could count on her friends at Quarry UMC. The Rev. John Roe is her "best friend," she says -- a stalwart supporter especially when community members discriminate against her and won't let her leave the past behind.

And now, the same church friends who were heartbroken when she fell, who sent cards and prayed when she was locked away, are standing next to her in the kitchen, creating what Taylor calls "the tangible gift of God's love."