I Got Schooled


I put a lot of work into the recovery groups and worship services our team leads in the jail. Each week, I pour over questions, resources, sermons, books, websites, and different recovery modalities to build an approachable yet (hopefully) effective game plan to make loads of information more palatable. This week I was handed a great reminder of what happens when I put my research down, shut my mouth, and just listen to what people have to say.

On Wednesday evenings, I join an amazing team of women to lead a recovery group inside the Female Detention Center at the Orange County Jail. This is my most precious window of time during the week. When we walk into H-Dorm, we walk through the bunk area and into the classroom. We move the tables back, set the chairs up in a circle, and 10-20 female inmates walk in, give us hugs, and find a spot for group. The group is reGROUP, which is Summit Church’s recovery ministry. We take the year-long curriculum which is presented at the church’s main campus and condense it to about 12 weeks, based on the average female inmate sentence. Over the course of their stay in jail, women who are enrolled in the faith-based recovery program gain access to reGROUP materials and engage in their own recovery group.

Most, if not all, of the women in the group at any given time are battling at least one substance or behavioral addiction. Many have several addictions going on at one time. Since jail is a time of strictly enforced sobriety, we leverage their time in jail to focus on how life became so out of control.

Last night, my plan (ha) was to hit the reset button on the curriculum, give a re-introduction to reGROUP and answer some questions, and then engage the women in a conversation about what it means to be living in a story and how their stories could look different. About 30 minutes in, my co-leader and I were asking for feedback from the group, and the women started to open up by offering what they like and don’t like about the group. What started with general comments aimed to please us moved towards more honest, gritty critiques of how the group works and what has not been helpful over the past few months.

I would like to interject at this time that a large part of my job description is to facilitate this group and oversee its general progress. If you’ve ever been in a leader role, you know how hard it can be to hear feedback about your programs and projects. I was so excited to hear the women open up about what was working for them and what wasn’t, but it was hard not to take their comments personally and wonder if I had messed things up by trying to improve them.

As the women continued to share, it became very clear to me that they did not need me to talk last night. What needed to happen is exactly what unfolded – they schooled me. Eventually I stopped taking notes, threw my binder under my chair, and just listened with both ears and a full heart. What unfolded after that was just beautiful.

The loudest feedback in the room was how awkward everyone felt after they shared something really hard in group. One of our group guidelines is “No Crosstalk”, which is common in most recovery programs. This prevents group members from fixing, stealing focus, or offending someone who has just shared. It does, however, cut out any room for encouraging words or for someone to say “You feel that way? I do too! I thought I was the only one.” (I call this the “me-too’s. Powerful stuff.)

One young gal opened up for the first time in weeks saying she felt hurt and angry over how we handled group one night, so she just stopped sharing. Another woman shared her story for the first time and talked about how hard it is to share in group because she has spent so many years holding things in it feels impossible to now just be open.

For about an hour, women shared and shared and shared. I was floored by their honesty, integrity, and vulnerability. They were so encouraging to each other, and in that hour did not need a group leader to facilitate any sort of healing. I watched them begin to heal each other, just by showing up and being themselves.

I walked out of the jail last night in awe of these women, and all of the miraculous moments I get to witness because of my “job”. While my job does entail  work, it’s more of a privilege than anything else.

I got schooled last night in jail, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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