About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Acts 16:25

Last Saturday, my wife and visited an inmate at the Southern Correctional Institute in Troy, North Carolina, a medium security prison. Her name is Teresa Jean Culpepper, and we’ve known her for 15 years. My wife met her in Raleigh where she was doing bible studies for inmates at the Women’s Prison, a maximum-security prison.  Teresa Jean is in prison for life without the chance of parole and has been there for 17 years.

We visited her to cheer her up, but just the opposite happened. You see, Teresa Jean has adapted to her environment, just as the Apostle Paul did in the Acts passage.  She knows that she will never get out of prison and she is content to minister to other women around her.  The prison bars don’t limit her mission in life. While she doesn’t sing to other prisoners, she does provide humor and a much-needed witness of Christ to others.

My favorite Teresa Jean story is one that occurred a few years ago during a period of bad winter weather.  Teresa Jean oversaw the inmates that operate a toll-free telephone line in the Women’s Prison in Raleigh for the tourism industry in North Carolina. Most people don’t realize that this phone line is manned by inmates.

A cold front hit our state bringing with it icy and snowy roads, yet she was still able to “go to work” since she didn’t have to venture outside the prison and she didn’t need a car. A couple of days in a row, a man called and wanted to know if it was safe to venture out on the hazardous roads.  Teresa Jean politely told him they didn’t give hazardous road or driving conditions and that he needed to call the State Highway Patrol.

On the second call from the same man the next day, she repeated her message that her job was about tourism, not road conditions. There was a pause and he asked her “Where do you live?”  “I live in Raleigh,” she replied. “That’s where I live!” the man exclaimed.

He asked her how difficult it was for her to get to work. Her reply?  “Actually, it wasn’t difficult and I had an escort.”  “Really?” he asked.  “What kind of place is it where you live and can get escorted to work in bad weather?”   “Well”, Teresa Jean paused, “It’s a gated community.”

Now the man’s curiosity was raised. He continued, “What a great place to live and work! I’d love to live in a place like that1 How did you get in?”  Teresa Jean answered that she “met” the qualifications as determined by a panel of peers.

The man exclaimed “I would kill to have a job and live in a place like that!”  Without hesitation, Teresa Jean replied “Yes, that would do it.”

You can’t make this stuff up.  Here is a woman who has 5 children and 10 grandchildren that she rarely gets to see. During our visit, she offered insights into the harsh reality of prison life where violence, drugs and sex are rampant.

She said she was glad she was tall because her size intimidates others who might try to abuse her physically.  She has accepted her circumstances, or as she said last Saturday while waiving her hands “I’m over it. Time to move on.”

This story illustrates a principle that Teresa Jean has learned.  You may not be able to control your circumstances, but you can make sure your circumstances don’t control you or your attitude. It’s a choice and you can make it. She has trusted in God for all things, and has accepted that the only thing within her control is her attitude.

After our visit, I reflected on people I know who are in prison without bars. They might be “imprisoned” by family issues, divorce, loneliness, depression, despair, uncertainty or health problems. It might include those who live in desperation. The “prison” may be deep bitterness for something (or someone) in your past with no room for forgiveness.

The circumstances might even be connected to where you live, or even where you don’t live. Some have responded like Teresa Jean and have decided they just need to move forward.  Others feel trapped by their plight or are resentful of their situation and it affects their attitude and their life.

Many carry around this baggage for much of their life, never realizing that they have the ability, in Christ, to jettison it and to “move on” as Teresa Jean puts it.  As a mentor, one of the steps that I take in my interaction is called “freeing up.”

The process involves helping your mentee figure out what baggage he has in his trunk (or in Europe, his boot), and to help free him up because it is holding him back from achieving his (or her) vision and dream.  It is a way of helping break the chains that holds him or her back.

The challenge here is both personal and practical.  Personal to the extent you have baggage that imprisons you.  How can you break the chains?  Have you sought help from others, or are you just content to go through life shouldering the baggage by yourself?  If so, you are as much in prison as Teresa Jean only you haven’t dealt with the issues that confines you.

On the flip side, have you reached out to those in prison?  Not just those behind bars, but to those who might be lonely during a Holiday, or to shut ins, or to those who are desperate and just need a friend to talk to. You don’t need to go to a medium security prison to find them.

For mentors, you can play a valuable role in the life of a mentee by helping them overcome the chains that imprison them and holds them back from being the best they can be.  You are not trained counselors – that’s not your job – but you can provide guidance on how to help your mentee free himself of things that holds them back.

Bill Mann

MENTOR TAKEAWAY:  A mentor may be the means to help a mentee break the chains or circumstances that has held them back, sometimes for years.

WORSHIP:  Listen to Vertical Church Band sing “I’m going free – Jailbreak.”

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