Hope in a jail cell

Lorene Hoffman doesn’t look like the type of person who willingly walks into jails. She’s petite, soft-spoken and poised. But for 33 years, she went twice a week to the local jail to share the gospel with female inmates.

The Buckner Villas resident is humble about her ministry. She tears up as she talks about how much the ministry affected the women, who were in jail for crimes like robbery, child abuse, stabbing and murder. She has collected letters full of hope and gratitude over the years from the women she ministered to.

“Most of the women ended up in jail because of crimes they committed while under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” she said. “Some were waiting to be taken to the state or federal prison. We had some troublemakers, but most were sincere and wanted a better life. Their hearts were hurting. They knew they had done wrong, but did not have the power of God to help them.”

After Lorene became a Christian, she prayed for God to show her how to serve him. Little did she know, her close friend Norma had been praying for the same thing. Soon after, the two started a Bible study at an alcohol rehab center in Rapid City, S.D. A year later, the center moved, and they couldn’t continue their ministry, but they knew they were being prepared for what lay ahead.

They continued to pray about what to do next, and their answer came in the form of a semi-weekly Bible study for female inmates at Pennington County Jail in Rapid City.

When they first started, the building was small and old. Lorene and Norma would go into the cells, sit on the floor or on the bunk beds and teach the women about Jesus. Once the new jail was built, they had meeting rooms so more women could attend.

“I wasn’t ever scared but … it opened my eyes to things I had never seen before,” Lorene said. “One time, a girl had a strip tied around her head and the officers told her to take it off before she went to Bible study. And oh, you’ve never heard a person talk to those men in that way. She just used the worst language. “Those things were hard to contend with, but that’s what we were there for.”

It was difficult to leave some of the women each week, she said. They were not allowed to touch them, hold their hands when they prayed or have any sort of physical contact with them, but Lorene and Norma didn’t obey those rules.

“We always held their hands, we hugged them and cried with them,” she said. “There was one girl, she was pregnant and she didn’t have anything. So we bought some things for her. We went to see her in the hospital. Of course, that’s a very trying time because all her other children were in foster care.”

There are dozens of other stories that stay with Lorene everywhere she goes. The 33 years she spent in the jail has changed the way she sees people, the world and herself.

Since moving to Buckner Villas in Austin, Lorene has joined the “care team,” a group of women who help new residents and residents who are in need. It’s no surprise that even though she has retired from her full-time ministry, she’s found other ways to serve.

“I pray all the time that I can live what I learned, but that’s the hard part. It bothers me if I hear someone criticize another person for the way they look or the way they talk … We look at the outside but God looks at the heart. When I look at someone, I try to see them how Jesus would see them.”

Chelsea Quackenbush White is a communications specialist for Buckner International. Reach her at cwhite[at]buckner[dot]org.

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