My Invitation

At noon on a Wednesday in July, I traversed the front lawn and multiple raised beds of the Community Garden adjacent to the Journey House. I waved at the ladies working there, as they laughed, pulled weeds and picked tomatoes. I circled around bird feeders and trees decked with wind chimes. Then I crossed the covered front porch - a maze of wrought iron love seats, picnic tables, and stacked donation boxes - and rang the doorbell.

A little white dog and a diminutive nun named Gabe welcomed me. Gabe wore jeans and a red T shirt with a cell phone clipped to her belt. I recognized familiar faces among the swarm of guests - fifty or so - who, like me, had been invited for lunch by a mutual friend. We had gathered at a Kansas City homestay residence for women recently released from incarceration. I assumed it was a fundraiser. The place was warm and smelled like chicken.

I scanned the crowded dining room, its picture windows festooned with garlands of paper flowers. The only empty seat at the huge U-shaped table was across the room beside a young, thirtyish-looking woman - about my daughter’s age. She was sobbing. Umm… I wove around the seated guests and sat beside her as though an invisible place card with my name marked the spot. I stole glances at her. Shiny black hair and perfect teeth accompanied a tongue stud, elaborate fingernails, each a different color of glitter, and a purple serpentine tattoo on the underside of her forearm. She swiped tears and mascara off her cheeks with her cloth napkin.

The gal on the other side of me and the guy across the table were engaged with their seatmates. I felt nervous and a bit stranded. The founders of Journey House - Georgia Walker and Rose McLarney - stood on a raised platform at the end of the room. Kiddie riding toys, dolls, a miniature kitchen, and a highchair were stacked behind them. The founders welcomed and thanked us for coming. They explained that during lunch we would be hearing from some of the current residents about their experiences living here. Then we applauded a troop of women, the cooks, who marched out of the kitchen carrying lunch plates.

I didn’t taste a bite of chicken. I am not sure I even ate a bite of it; I was discombobulated by the bereft girl beside me. “Drue?” announced one of the welcomers from the stage minutes later. She gestured in our direction, “Would you like to start? Share a bit about yourself with our guests and tell how you came here?”

My seatmate nodded, and stood, spilling her purse off her lap and onto the floor. While she silently gazed out over the crowd, I picked up her stuff - phone, cigarettes, makeup, and a brush - and returned them to her bag, relieved to have something to do. “I… I can’t believe this,” she said finally. “I mean, all of you coming here for us….” The room quieted. “I left prison two days ago with nothing.” She spread her arms. “I’ve been locked up almost three years and now I’m in a real…home!

“Prison furniture is cold, bolted-down metal. Immovable. But here, this morning before lunch, I arranged my own bedroom - a real bed, dresser, lamp, and rug. I hung a picture of my daughter….” (Silence then soft clapping.) Drue turned and spoke directly to the women on stage. “You truly want to help us. Genuine.

“Months before I was released, I did a phone interview in the prison Resource Library with Georgia Walker to see if I might be a match to live here. Going back home was no good for me… anyway, I didn’t have any place and they won’t let you out without a homestay plan. I must have said something right because at the end of our talk Georgia…” Drue turned and smiled at her, “said, we want you here. I mean, who says something like that? It saved my life. And… finally, I have hope I’ll reconnect to my little girl here.” Drue sat down. The room took a collective breath and clapped again. I turned to her. “That was so brave,” I whispered. “I don’t even know what…” I sputtered, “I’ve never…. I don’t….”

She watched me brushing my tears away and handed me her wet napkin. “Here. Sorry it’s so soggy.”

I’m not sure what happened then. Maybe it was the magic of wiping my face with a stranger’s tears, but with no warning these words marched from my mouth, “I will see you again.”

I have been discombobulated and laughed and cried many times at Journey House since I met Drue, but I never saw her again. Driving home that afternoon and for weeks after I wondered, “Why in the world did I tell her that I would see her again?” I found out a few months later…

The founders of Journey House and Peace House, Georgia Walker and Rose McLarney, knew I was a writer. They made an invitation: “Will you interview our residents, collect their life stories to help people understand this place and what we are doing here?”

So, since 2018 I have taken my seat across the table from Journey and Peace House women and recorded their stories. The conversations have changed my life. They have forced me to re-examine my own ill-informed, recycled assumptions and snap judgments. What I didn’t know about the complex, compelling lives of women who’ve been incarcerated was pretty much everything.

But these women do know something… and now I know something too. We relate to people, not statistics. Learning someone’s story, especially if it is someone you might never otherwise meet, is a rare gift and invitation.

Why would ladies volunteer to share their life stories? Because they know that the path into prison starts at a young age. They know that breaking silence and offering their hard-won wisdom and struggle might “help another vulnerable young girl out there on the brink like I was.”