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Jail ministry offers hope and solace for female inmates

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MASON CITY | Pastor Jani Dahlin of Praise Community Church in Mason City spends an hour each week bringing spiritual healing and hope for the future to female inmates at the Cerro Gordo County Jail.

Dahlin's jail ministry started in late August 2013 when she went to the jail to visit a former parishioner. But when she arrived, the inmate said another woman incarcerated at the jail also wanted a visit.

She visited with both women individually, giving them each a Bible.

"They were very happy to get it. They were already doing Bible study together," Dahlin said.

She expected to go back in about a month because her initial contact was scheduled to be in jail for six months.

"But she sent me a letter right away thanking me. She gave a me a list of four other ladies who wanted me to come visit, Dahlin said.

"I just thought, I guess I'm going back sooner than I thought. And so I went back and saw them again and saw a couple other ladies and every time I'd see someone I'd leave a Bible for them."

Her visits continued this way until December when her initial contact was due to be released. She decided to ask Jail Administrator Shad Stoeffler if she could hold an hour-long Bible study for women every Monday afternoon. He agreed.

The Bible study is different than her individual meetings with the inmates. Previously, she talked with the women on the telephone behind a glass partition. Now she is in the same room with them.  

The number of women attending the Bible study fluctuates from five or six to a high of 11.

"I felt like it was a great opportunity to bring encouragement and just affirm their value as people," Dahlin said. "Even though they've gotten into a hard place in life, there is hope for them and so it's just exciting to be able to come in and be a voice for hope in their lives. They really soak it up.

"It's been a really neat opportunity. I was definitely kind of intimidated when Shad first said I could go every week and be in this room with a bunch of ladies I don't know, who don't know me."

Stoeffler said the program is important in helping the inmates to keep positive thoughts. He also said the role of the program in stemming bad behavior in the jail shouldn't be underestimated.

Each session starts with the women introducing themselves and talking about how they are doing. Dahlin introduces the week's Bible passage. The women take turns reading passages. The program ends with questions, comments, prayer requests and finally, prayer.

"It goes pretty fast," Dahlin said.

What does the program mean to her?

"For me, the word that comes to my mind is privilege. To me it's a privilege to be able to go and speak into the lives of people that are at a very difficult place. I try to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. I just can't really imagine at least from my perspective. Unfortunately for them, it's not hard for them to imagine and it's one of the reasons they're there,"' Dahlin said.

"They just have not known the potential of what their life could be. It makes them vulnerable to fall into things that are destructive for their life."

Dahlin said the jail setting strips away all of the distractions of the outside world and it enables the inmates to see the things that are really important.

"I see myself as being able to help them to kind of get focused on those important things, the value of their life and the potential of it," she said. "Of course, to me, God is the one that gives that value and so just trying to help them to focus and to see that and to know that even they are in low position in this world  the sky is the limit.

"God can give them the strength and the value and the love and the things that they need in order to move toward that potential and so that's why I say it just feels like a privilege to me to be able to speak that encouragement in their life," Dahlin said. "It is very rewarding."

She said the women seem open to the teachings.

"When you get to the bottom or close to it, you're ready to grab onto something that can really help you to get back out of that pit. That's what I would hope it would accomplish."

Dahlin and her husband, Pastor Jeff Dahlin, are the parents of six children ranging in age from 6 to 18. She is pastor of discipleship for children and adults. Jeff Dahlin is lead pastor at Praise Community Church.

Dahlin said she was heartened by a letter she received from one member of the Bible study group.

"For some of us out here you are all we really have who gives us any kind of support or shows faith in us, that we're not just worthless criminals," the letter reads. "We are people who have made some mistakes in our life that we can bounce back from."

Dahlin underscored the value of every person.

"It's a rough world and there are so many things that can influence us in really bad directions," she said.


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