Tucked away in the same neighborhood as Central Baptist Church is a reentry house for women coming out of prison. After discovering that this house is near our church, the question was asked as to how we could be involved in meeting the needs there.
In the fall of 2016, a Central women’s event was held featuring prison ministry, and included a young woman telling her story of being incarcerated and her struggle as she began a life of change. A survey was handed out at the end of the event to get input as to whether women from Central would be interested in starting a ministry for women who have recently been released from prison. The response was overwhelmingly in favor, with women signing up to be involved in various ministry areas such as Bible study, providing money for Bibles, food donations, providing prayer support, and organizing a clothing closet. The ministry, now called Living Grace, was born.
One of the first requests from the reentry house was for clothing, since the women coming to the house from prison typically only have the prison issued clothes they are wearing. Two of us signed up to start the clothing closet and we both felt a calling to do this. Our vision was clear: we would establish a respectable, organized room filled with clothing donations that would be clean and in style, hanging on racks by size. We would try to accommodate all types of clothing needs for all seasons in every size, including pants and jeans, shirts and sweaters, dresses and skirts, coats, gloves, scarves, and hats, underwear, socks, pajamas, bath robes and slippers, shoes and boots, purses, jewelry, and bath towels. More than that, we wanted this room to reflect a sense of warmth and acceptance, to convey the message that there is no judgment regarding past mistakes. By providing clothing for the women, together we are looking ahead toward making a fresh start with new goals. Most of all, we wanted the love of Jesus to be felt in that room.
We began by asking for donations of gently used women’s clothing and prepared the room by purchasing racks and hangers. Before long donations started arriving and the room began to fill. It was important to us that the clothing would be clean and wrinkle free, and that the room would be well maintained. As we welcomed our first women, we began to understand what the specific needs were and how we could accommodate them. We also realized how easy and yet important it is to develop relationships with the women as they shop for clothing. As the ministry began to take shape, we began to project that this could easily take us into a broader, long term ministry.
One of the concerns of this new clothing ministry was whether we would continue to receive clothing donations once the initial excitement wore off. Quite the opposite happened, which presented a new problem of outgrowing our space, and introduced a growing need for storage. We were delighted when a newly remodeled space was created for us, providing us with not only a much larger display room, but also a sizable storage room next to it. By now the space was taking on a more polished boutique look, and it was given the name Grace Boutique. We were also ready to include the women from another reentry facility.
The Grace Boutique has now been in existence for 2 years. We have a predictable schedule for the women from both houses (RS Eden and VOA) to come to shop for clothes, scheduled on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. On those days, in addition to the two of us in the Boutique, several other Central women are also there to provide snacks and a time of conversation while two or three women at a time are shopping in the boutique. It is an informal time of building relationships and offering encouragement. As the women fill their bags with clothing, they often become emotionally overwhelmed at the gift of clothing they are receiving. They tell us how worried they were as their time in prison was ending as to how they would be able to afford to buy clothes for a job interview or how they would find an adequate winter coat to wait at the bus stop when going to work. Every shopping day we hear them say, “You don’t know how much this means to me.” They feel beautiful in their new clothes, something they haven’t experienced in many years, and even something so simple as a piece of jewelry can bring them to tears.
By now the Grace Boutique has provided clothing for many women who have come and gone from the houses, and it has been the springboard from which relationships have formed and other ministries to the women have developed. Women who may have felt hesitant to attend a worship service at Central have been introduced to our church by coming to the Grace Boutique and while here, have met Central women and experienced the acceptance and love shown to them at Central Baptist Church. While at the boutique, they were invited to attend a Wednesday night Bible study. Women from both houses now regularly attend the Bible study and Sunday morning worship services. Eleven of the women have made the decision to be baptized during a Sunday morning worship service. Some of the women from the houses attend Celebrate Recovery on Monday nights at Central on a weekly basis, and a few of the women who have been part of the Living Grace ministry but have finished their time at the house have continued to attend the Bible study or attend church. When the women who have been involved in our ministry leave the reentry house, they are given a quilt made by the Dorcas women, and these quilts are a great comfort to the women as they leave us.
The Lord has richly blessed the Grace Boutique ministry. From the beginning the plan for it was not clearly laid out and remains so even now. It is by faith that we continue in the way that God leads in order for every aspect of it to bring honor to Him. We could not exist without the generous donations of clothing that continue to come in week after week, many from people we do not know. We are also grateful to receive monetary donations that help with the purchase of new underwear. We have been blessed with a volunteer seamstress who helps with clothing repair needs; and have also been blessed with our own Grace Boutique shopper who canvasses thrift stores and garage sales for specific needs, both of whom came to us before we even knew we needed them. A men’s clothing room also now exists, although operating somewhat differently than the Boutique. We have a devoted prayer team that prays regularly for the Living Grace ministry. We continue to lift the Grace Boutique, the entire Living Grace ministry, and all those who are touched by it up to our sovereign God to bring Him honor, and we look forward expectantly for what the future will bring for this ministry.
There are several ways that you can be involved in the Grace Boutique ministry:
-You can ask for your name to be added to the Living Grace prayer team and receive prayer updates weekly by contacting Sandy Kestner at email@example.com.
-You can come to a Grace Boutique shopping day to meet the women, provide a snack for the morning, or volunteer to drive the van. To join the team, contact Lori Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Michele Hedberg at email@example.com.
-You can donate ready to wear, clean clothing of any season in any size. The donated clothing can be left in the church office on Sunday or during office hours during the week.
-You can donate money, which will be used to purchase new underwear and other items. You can do this either through a designated online gift (Link) or by making a designation on your offering envelope for Living Grace Ministry.
From the women who say this over and over every shopping day, “Thank You!”