Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength.
I was raised in a trailer. My parents struggled to feed and clothe me. Because I grew up without having much, I promised myself one day I’d be very rich.
Decades later, I had built a successful business. I finally had what I could only dream of as a child—a big house, fancy cars, expensive jewelry, and all the material things I could ever want.
At the height of success, I found myself under investigation for a crime I didn’t commit. I faced the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. All those possessions I had accumulated and cherished I was likely to lose. I had always felt I was in control of my life and my destiny. Once I was at the mercy of the legal system, I realized I was in control of nothing.
I lost my business, but I found another calling. I lost my riches, but I discovered riches of the spirit. I lost my faith in the system, but I discovered another faith—a faith in things that never depreciate or corrode or collapse. I found faith
in God and the indomitable power of redemption—for myself and for a group of incarcerated women who’d been catastrophically abused by the system, by spouses, by parents, and by themselves.
Instead of chasing the American Dream, rehabilitating these women became my career. I learned that within each of them—even the most terrifyingly brutal felons—dwelled an undeniable spark of the divine.
Junkies, grifters, armed robbers, prostitutes, drunks, dealers, and murderers became my new social circle. They were former inmates of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama—another monolithic bureaucracy
that warehoused the forgotten until they disappeared, returned, or died. Its motto could have been “Abandon hope.”
They became the Loveladies. In the beginning, no name would have been more improbable. In time, no name could have been more fitting.
This is my story.
This is their story.
Meet the Loveladies.
Chapter 1: Have I Lost My Mind?
Fear is faith that it won’t work out.
Oh my Lord, what have I done!” I gasped. I stared out the kitchen window as six violent criminals stomped up my driveway. Hunter, my four-year-old adopted son, stood on tiptoes trying to get a glimpse of what had me so terrified.
“Your mama has messed up big-time,” I said.
For the last month, I had pictured this moment time and time again—but it had looked very different. In my imagination, the women would skip up the driveway, giggling and talking excitedly. I’d open the door with a loud “Welcome!” and women would race toward me, enveloping me in big, grateful bear hugs. After they’d thanked me profusely for being so wonderful, we’d sit around the kitchen table, have lunch, drink tea, share laughs, and get to know each other. But these women stomping up my driveway didn’t look like they wanted tea. They looked like they wanted blood.
Had I lost my mind?
Jeff, my husband, had predicted this. “You’ll get yourself killed, Brenda,” he said when I first told him my plan to rehabilitate female convicts. “You’ve had a lot of wild schemes in your life, but this is the craziest I’ve ever heard.” Yes, but a lot of my schemes had worked out, and besides, this was different. This time it wasn’t about me.
Now six very scary women, just released from the roughest women’s prison in the country, were in my driveway.
I thought I had figured it all out. After spending months helping female convicts at a work release center, I thought I understood them. I had spoken with the inmates, we had prayed together, and they had seemed genuine in their desire to turn their lives around and start over.
But now I doubted everything. How could I have been so stubborn, so driven, so foolish? How could I have put my little boy in danger?
The night before, I’d combed through their “jackets”—prison files—and discovered with horror that the parole board wasn’t sending me the nonviolent offenders I’d visited at the work release center. Instead, the women who had
just shown up in front of my house had spent, collectively, one hundred years behind bars for crimes such as armed robbery, possession, drug dealing, prostitution, and manslaughter. I found out later that these were the hopeless cases—cases stamped cannot be rehabilitated—that all other programs had rejected. At the work release center, I helped women who were struggling to get their lives together. But the women coming to my home were so hardened, so dangerous, that the system had given up on them. These were not the women I had bargained for.
I was supposed to rehabilitate them? For the next nine months to a year? I wrapped my arms tight around Hunter. I should have dropped him off with the nanny, but I had been running late. My heart pounded so hard I was sure Hunter could hear it beating. I didn’t want to scare him, so I took a breath and tried to find a portion of calm.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared. I’d hired a housemother, a cook, and a driver. I owned a six-thousand-square-foot house with seven bedrooms and six bathrooms on ten acres of property that no one lived in. Hob Hill was perfect: it would become my “whole-way” house for parolees as they transitioned into the real world. This is a good plan, I reassured myself.
These women would learn a skill and receive counseling, therapy, and, if need be, treatment for addiction. Since my program was faith-based, I’d teach them about Jesus, His unconditional love, the power of faith, and the reality of redemption. Then I’d get in my Cadillac Escalade and hightail it back to my new home in a gated community a few miles away.
I reminded myself that I was just supervising this program. You see, I’d be able to supervise it without really getting my hands dirty. I wouldn’t give up my whole life. This would be more a hobby than a vocation.
And this is how I’ll be able to keep that promise I made.
Much of my family had been understandably furious with me for pressing forward with my plan, but Melinda, my twenty-eight-year-old, caught my passion and crazy vision. She and I had spent the last month preparing for the women’s arrival. I bought couches, chairs, and tables for the common areas and beds, comforters, dressers, and night tables for the seven bedrooms. I painted the rooms in calming colors—blues, yellows, and every shade of purple. Each bedroom was named after a fruit of the Spirit—joy, peace, self-control, love, patience, kindness, goodness—which I’d carefully painted on the bedroom doors. Each room had color-matching comforters and thick bath towels. I’d decorated the rooms with paintings—many of my favorite getaway, the beach—and supplied them with empty frames so the women could fill them with photographs of their children and families.
I put the word out to churches that I was looking to hire a cook, a driver, and, most important, a housemother who would run the program in my absence. I soon found the perfect housemother—Claudia. She was forty-eight, single,
big, and strong with a gruff, no-nonsense attitude. She had spent time volunteering at the work release center. When I met with her, she told me that God had called her into prison ministry and she was ready to get started.
I asked if the thought of working with female ex-cons frightened her. She laughed as if I’d asked the most insane question. “I’ll take tigers by the tail,” she said. “This is the work I was meant to do. I’m not afraid. It’s my calling. I know I am going to change lives. The Lord sent me to do this.”
I hired Claudia on the spot. She was so excited that she hired a moving company to haul all her bedroom and living room furniture into the upstairs master suite and office area. After she surveyed her new home, she nodded. “This is
where I’m meant to be.”
Likewise I’d hired a cook and a driver.
I could make this work. I had to make this work. For months I’d pleaded with the parole board to release women into my custody so I could help them get their lives back on track. I had told the board their system didn’t work and needed an overhaul. After all, 30 percent of the women released from Alabama prisons returned to prison within the first six months.
They laughed at me. “What do you know about rehabilitating these women?”
“I know that giving them ten dollars and a bus ticket is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I know I can do better.”
In Alabama, there were only two options for newly released prisoners: They’d get their ten bucks and transportation back to where they committed their crimes. In a short time they’d go back to old ways with old friends. Or they’d spend a few weeks in a halfway house, where they’d receive food and shelter but little else, then be put back on the street.
No matter their destination—bus ticket home or halfway house—once they were released, these women had one thing in common: they had no hope. And they had no hope because they couldn’t envision a future outside of prison.
To me, the solution was obvious. My whole-way house would be a place where they could change their lives by learning skills and receiving counseling. We would give them a picture of a future they themselves could create, one in which they could succeed.
I have always considered myself visionary, but the parole board used a different term—delusional. Ultimately I wore them down and they finally agreed, probably just to make me go away.<...