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Women known as ‘the church ladies’ bring comfort inside jail

December 30, 2018 GMT

LIMA, Ohio (AP) — They’re known around the Allen County jail simply as “The Church Ladies.” Like clockwork, they arrive each Thursday morning and go through doors most women hope to never enter.

They go through metal detectors and up the elevator, into a small, non-descript room containing little more than a table and a dozen or so chairs.

A short time later, another group of women is escorted into the room. They’re all wearing the same black and gray-striped, county-issue jail uniforms. They’re doing time behind bars, but for a brief moment — for an hour or more on Thursday mornings — these women do their best set their real life problems aside.

The Church Ladies are here, and it’s time to laugh, cry and rejoice.

The Church Ladies are Barbara Ward, Jean Foy and Marie Keys. They’ve been ministering to women in jail in Allen County for a long, long time. All told, the three women have more than 90 years of jailhouse ministry under their collective belts.

Representing no individual church or denomination, they comprise the New Beginnings Ministry.

Ward, 73, the unofficial leader of the group, said she has been “doing this for more than 40 years, starting at the ‘old’ county jail,” where she would go every Tuesday night to offer hope and encouragement to female inmates.

Foy, 71, is in her 22nd year of ministering to prisoners, while Keys, 80, laughed and said, “I’ve been doing this longer than Jean.”

On a recent Thursday morning, a dozen inmates entered the makeshift chapel at the jail. Their attendance was voluntary, and most (admittedly not all) seemed genuinely excited to be there.

On their way into the meeting room, several of the inmates stopped to hug the older women who were there to minister to them. Smiles were prevalent all around.

One inmate was serving a 120-day jail sentence for a drunk driving offense. She described the chapel session as the highlight of her week.

As the inmates took their seats around a U-shaped table, Keys announced the morning would start with a prayer, followed by a song. When some of the inmates joked about their inability to carry a tune, Keys replied, “The Bible doesn’t say we have to make it sound good; it just says, ‘Praise the Lord.’”

The women laughed, and then, standing with their hands joined, began to pray.

Then it was time to sing. And by the second verse of “This is the Day the Lord Has Made,” the women were clapping and sporting huge smiles as they belted out “We are going to rejoice in the Lord.”

Several of the women were crying, but their tears on this morning were far removed from the sorrows that led them to the dreary penal institution in the first place. Instead, the tears stemmed from a feeling of love and joy that was impossible to ignore in the small, stark room.

Bible study is an informal part of the weekly sessions, with the inmates often taking the lead. One young woman read a verse from the book of Psalms she found particularly heart-warming. Another read from the book of Philippians.

Between readings, Keys encouraged the women to become affiliated with a church — any church — upon their release from jail.

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Information from: The Lima News, http://www.limanews.com