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Va. woman creates ministry from prison experience

Former inmate Sarah Taylor says she felt God’s love after receiving cookies from a volunteer with Kairos Prison Ministry, compelling her to start a cookie ministry at Quarry United Methodist Church in Saltville, Va., following her release.
A UMNS photo by Annette Spence.

By Annette Spence*
Nov. 18, 2008 | SALTVILLE, Va. (UMNS)

Long after the homemade cookies were gone, Sarah Taylor kept thinking about the message of love that came with them.

It was 2002, and she was serving time at Fluvanna Correctional Center after making what she calls "bad choices." A woman from Kairos Prison Ministry gave her a bag of cookies. When Taylor asked, "Why would you give this to me?" the woman didn’t miss a beat.

Church members prepare some of the 3,600 cookies they'll distribute through a prison ministry. A UMNS Web-only photo courtesy of Sarah Taylor.

"Because we love you and Jesus loves you. We are praying for you, praying that you will find God here," she said.

For the inmate who doubted God and painfully missed her family in Saltville, the gift of homemade sweets packed a powerful message. Today, she is back in her hometown, leading her small church's congregation in baking thousands of cookies so other inmates will get the same message.

"It’s a powerful ministry," said Taylor, 43, a member at Quarry United Methodist Church. "I’ve seen stone-cold ladies turn to a pillar of tears over a simple gesture. They really change."

The Kairos practice is for volunteers to pray over the cookies, hoping that someone in prison will experience a taste of God’s love. For Taylor, the concept that someone would "take time out of their day" to "bake cookies for a bunch of derelicts" was life-changing.

"I realized that there are still good people out there, people who still forgive," she said. "For so many years, I had shut down. I often wondered what I had to do to get God to work in my life."

The volunteers, she said, "saw me as a person—not as a number or a criminal or someone in a blue and orange uniform. They saw me as a person."

'Labor of love'

Twice each year, members at Quarry UMC stir up batches and batches of cookie dough for the male inmates at Wallen’s Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va. They did it for the fourth time in October, pledging 300 dozen, or 3,600 cookies. Quarry’s average worship attendance is only 50, so they have begun to ask other churches in the denomination's Holston Conference to participate.

"I would love it if Holston Conference churches could someday supply all the cookies needed for a Kairos week at Wallen’s Ridge," Taylor said.

Kairos Prison Ministry is a national organization addressing the spiritual needs of incarcerated men, women and children. Twice each year, inmates in participating prisons are invited to spend a long weekend learning about Christianity. Participants receive home-baked cookies throughout the weekend, then take cookies back to their quarters when the weekend is over. Non-participating inmates also receive cookie gifts.

Wallen’s Ridge has 1,200 inmates, and volunteer bakers from several churches supply them with more than 2,000 dozen cookies, according to Mike Henderson, a Kairos organizer in Roanoke, Va.

"Most of these guys don’t get gifts like that," he said, referring to the cookies. "They sense that it’s a labor of love, and they’re touched and moved.

"The cookies are also a draw, an enticement to share Jesus Christ. Many times the person who didn’t participate in the 'walk' the first time will come around the second time, because they were touched by the gift of homemade cookies."

Tasting God's love

Taylor received her first cookie gift as a non-participating inmate during a Kairos weekend, which inspired her later to join the "walk" with a friend. She became close with several of the Kairos women who visited her at Virginia Correctional Center in Goochland, where she was incarcerated for the second part of her seven-year sentence.

When Taylor was released in October 2006, 12 Kairos friends were waiting outside the prison gates, along with her family. They walked her out the gate and took her to breakfast. Taylor still talks weekly with a few of her supporters.

Even before Taylor was released, she begin thinking about how she could extend the same kindness to others in her situation.

"I knew that when I came home, I needed something substantial to help me stay focused and not fall into the same bad patterns," she said. "I also didn’t want to forget what I had left behind."

On her return home, she called Kairos and was connected with Henderson, who’s since counted on Taylor and crew to provide a truckload of sweets for the men of Wallen’s Ridge.

"She feels like it’s her responsibility, her privilege, to participate in a ministry like this," Henderson said. "Because of her own experience in prison, she has a powerful testimony."

In turn, Taylor knew she could count on her friends at Quarry UMC. She calls the Rev. John Roe her "best friend"—a stalwart supporter especially when community members won’t let her leave the past behind.

Now, the same church friends who were heartbroken when she fell, who sent cards and prayed when she was locked away, are standing next to her in the kitchen, creating what Taylor calls "the tangible gift of God’s love."

*Spence is the editor of The Call, the newspaper of the Holston Annual Conference.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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