The Church Ladies

I live in Humble, TX., a suburban area to the northeast of Houston. Every Wed. I go with a group of women from my church to the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Houston. We stand at the corner of Webster and Main and wait for a white, windowless van to arrive and disgorge its passengers. The driver and prison guard opens the back door and unlocks the metal cage and the women step out, squinting in the blinding Texas sun after the dark inside the back of the van. The driver calls their names, hands them each a piece of paper, gets back in the van, and drives away. This is the way Texas releases its state prisoners, after they have served their time in jail.

Sometimes they are dressed in prison whites, but more often they are in donated civilian clothes that were tossed (indiscriminately, apparently) to them as they prepared for the journey. Often, the clothes are so ill-fitting they are pathetic.

Each woman carries either a red grapefruit bag or, if she’s lucky, a white mesh laundry bag that contains her few possessions: books she has accumulated in prison, a bible, her collection of letters, a month’s worth of medication, if she takes any. She wears brown canvas prison issue shoes. She is dazed and confused about what to do next. Everything about her appearance screams, “Vulnerable target, just out of prison,” to the local drug dealers and pimps. Given the chance, they will whoosh down upon these women to offer their “assistance.” But not today.

Today is Wednesday and the church ladies are there waiting for them. Arrival time for the prison van is unpredictable. We try to be there when it pulls up to the curb but sometimes it comes early and we have to walk around and look for the women when we get there after they do. They are easy to spot, but we try to meet the van when it arrives because we feel very protective. We surround them like long lost family, giving hugs and welcoming them to freedom. We find out who’s going where. We walk with them around the corner to the bus station entrance. No one is messing with our ladies today. They have all the assistance they need, thank you very much. Some have a Greyhound voucher to get to wherever they call home. We wait with them while they stand in line to cash in their vouchers for tickets. Others have family in Houston but no way to contact them. No money for a metro ticket or even a phone call. Our cell phones become their lifeline.

When bus tickets are in hand, most will have to wait two or more hours before they leave. It’s about noon. They had breakfast at 3:45 that morning. They have no money to eat again until they reach their families, if they have families waiting for them. We offer them a hamburger, escorting our new friends across the street to a room behind the Salvation Army service center. The Salvation Army has allowed us to use this room for our work with these ladies. We all eat together, hamburgers from McDonald’s, chips, and canned soda. The women laugh and tell us it’s the best hamburger they’ve ever eaten in their lives.

Now it’s time for clothes. Jeans or capris and a shirt that fits make them look and feel human again. The prison issue shoes are discarded and they choose from bins of donated sandals, flip flops and sneakers. Baskets of donated jewelry allow them to choose a bracelet or pair of earring. We give them bags with toiletries and help them transfer their possessions from the mesh prison bags to various totes, duffels, and purses that our congregations have collected. They look and feel like entirely different people. Their confidence soars. They are not prisoners anymore. They are just travelers, like all the other passengers who will board the Greyhound.

Some of the Houston ladies have gotten through to family on our cell phones. If no one can pick them up, we give them fare for the metro. We form a circle and pray for God’s love and strength to surround them as they reenter society and confront old problems. We all walk back across the street to the Greyhound station. The women don’t look or feel so vulnerable anymore and their confidence helps keep the predators at bay. Hugs are exchanged and goodbyes said and we watch the traveling women as they get in line to go through security before boarding buses.

We confirm that any remaining Houston ladies have arrangements either to be picked up by family or to catch the metro. Everyone has to have a plan for getting home and the means to carry out the plan before we will leave. But sometimes, there is no home to go to. Family doesn’t want them back or they have no family that cares enough to be bothered. But we don’t leave them there on the street. We drive them to a women’s shelter and we contact someone who can work with them to find housing. We often don’t know what happens after we leave them at the shelter, but making sure they don’t spend that first night on the street is at least something we can do and it puts them in contact with others who have services we can’t offer.

I mentioned that I do this every Wednesday. But prisoners are dropped off on Webster Street 5 days a week, year round. My church began this work after learning about it through another congregation that meets the ladies every Friday. But every time we drive away and head home, it’s always there: a little nagging voice that says, “What about tomorrow? No one will be there to meet the ladies who are dumped on a downtown sidewalk, dazed and vulnerable. What about Monday and Tuesday? “

The women sometimes say to us, as they step out of the van, “Are you the church ladies? I’ve heard about you. I was hoping you’d be here on the day I got out.” I am a progressive Christian and until I began this work, the phrase “church lady” conjured up in my mind the Saturday Night Live caricature of the 1970’s. It was not a designation I would have appreciated. However, now I find it pleases me a great deal to be able to respond, “Yes, we’re the church ladies. Are you hungry? Do you need to use a phone?”                                      Kathie Gallagher