Christmas in Jail

Bessie Shipp was spending Christmas in jail. A slender black woman, Bessie was watching her life slip rapidly away. Though she had not been sentenced to death by the state, she was under a different death sentence: Bessie had AIDS. I met Bessie that Christmas Day in a North Carolina prison for women. I had come to give a Christmas message to the inmates there. The atmosphere was glum. No visitors were allowed, even though it was Christmas. The small crowd that gathered to hear me preach was somber and subdued. After the service, a prison official said, "Do you have time to visit Bessie Shipp?" "Who's Bessie Shipp?" I asked. When they told me, I confess, I was taken aback. This was several years ago, and I'd never visited an AIDS patient. And yet, just the night before, I had seen a television story about Mother Theresa and the AIDS patients she was caring for. How could I do anything less? "I'll go," I said. We walked down a narrow corridor, and a heavy door was opened to reveal a small, dark cell. And there in a hard-backed chair sat Bessie Shipp, wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering in the cold. To my surprise, I saw a Bible on her lap. It was open. After chatting a few minutes, I came right to the point. "Bessie," I said. "Do you know the Lord?" "I want to," she replied softly. "But I don't always feel like He's there." And her voice trailed off. "Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Savior?" I asked. Bessie looked down, twisted a Kleenex in her thin hands, and finally whispered, "Yes, I would." So we prayed together in that cold, concrete cell. And Bessie made a made a decision that would change the rest of her short life: She gave it to Jesus Christ. Only days later, Bessie was paroled. Friends and prison officials had been trying to get her released for a long time. But the timing was providential. She had stayed in prison long enough to meet Jesus. Going home as a new Christian, Bessie was immediately drawn into a church and a Bible study where her new-found faith could be nurtured. She was baptized in her home. A short three weeks after her release, Bessie contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. A Prison Fellowship area director visited her and found her spirit strong to the end. "These are the happiest days of my life," she whispered. "I know Jesus loves me, and that you do, too." Two days later, Bessie died. She went to meet the Savior she had accepted only a short time before, on Christmas Day, in a cold prison cell. When Jesus came to earth, He wasn't born in a grand palace. He was born in a dirty stable that reeked of animals, with mice scurrying underfoot. And Jesus still comes to us wherever we are. Not only to warm, well-lit homes but also to run-down tenement buildings and grey prison cells. So wherever you are, why don't you ask Him to come to you. And He will do it. Just like He came to a young woman dying of AIDS in a North Carolina prison one cold Christmas Day.


Chuck Colson



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