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The One About the Venerable Beader

“I’m just a bog standard, middle-aged, middle-class woman.”

That’s how Jenny describes herself. It’s hardly the most flattering description but then no one would ever accuse Jenny of bigging herself up.

She’s worked in a variety of jobs, brought up a family, contributes lots to her church, and enjoys a potpourri of enthusiasms: daily dog walks, political podcasts, good chocolate, and, in recent years, making jewellery from glass beads. She loves thinking about which colours to put next to which, how big the gaps should be, how big the beads. She loves the stringing: the concentration it takes that clears her mind of everything else and brings a certain calm. She loves the little click as one little bead slides down the string to hit another. And she loves the result: something lovely, made with her own hands.

She does it just for the joy of it, wearing her creations herself, or giving them as gifts. But sometimes one thing leads to something entirely unanticipated. When a group from her church needed funds to support a mission trip to Uganda, she wondered whether she could sell some pieces to support them. Now, glass bead jewellery comes in quite a range of price bands: from a couple of pounds for something simple, to a couple of hundred for something with Venetian glass, to around £50,000 if you happen to be looking for something antique from Van Cleef and Arpels. She really had no idea what her necklaces and bracelets were worth, but, as it happened, she had a friend with a daughter with some retail savvy. And the answer came back. And Jenny was able to support the mission trip.

What also came back was a very different opportunity.

As it happened, her friend’s husband was responsible for educational activities in the local women’s prison. He’d heard about the benefits of beading from another prison, and had wanted to start a group. As it happened, he had a fit-for-purpose room, some equipment, and funding. What he didn’t have was a teacher. Would Jenny do it?

Or to put it another way, would Jenny, a bog standard, middle-aged, middle-class, amateur glass-bead jewellery maker, with no teaching experience at all, go into one of Her Majesty’s women’s prisons, and sit in a room for three hours, twice a week, with women who’d committed a variety of crimes from murder to white-collar fraud, many also suffering with mental health issues? For no money? Sound good?

Well, you wouldn’t need to be a fan of The Shawshank Redemption or Orange is the New Black or any of the myriad of prison dramas that have gripped our screens over the years to regard this opportunity with a gargantuan dollop of trepidation. And in Jenny’s case the dollop was indeed gargantuan. But it also immediately felt heaven-sent. God was leading her into it.

‘The girls’, as they call themselves, enjoyed the beading from session one, and took great delight in educating Jenny in the ‘ins and ins’ of prison life. And Jenny just loved seeing the pride in their faces when they made a bracelet, loved seeing a community of trust grow, loved hearing the women talk about their lives, sometimes chaotic, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny.

Quite quickly the prison noticed a dramatic improvement in the mental health of a number of the women: the rhythm of beading, the atmosphere, the chat in the room, and the outlet for frustrated, or never exercised, creativity all contributing. Jenny’s gifting, as it happened, extended way beyond beading. She was a bringer of peace. And the prison now assigns her the women with extra complicating factors in their lives – prolific self-harm or violent offences, for example. Or women who, if they were in a men’s prison, would have to be segregated to protect them from other prisoners.

Still, as Jenny puts it, “I’ve never truly feared for my safety, but there have been times when I’ve been very, very, very nervous. I’m certainly on high alert during every workshop, alert to the atmosphere, to what the women are doing, how they’re interacting, and where the scissors are. And there are times that are simply upsetting: when someone is distressed, perhaps after getting bad news, or when they’ve self-harmed, and the wounds are deep and fresh and visible. But it is always more than worthwhile, so much more than worthwhile.”

She’s become very aware that, as the girls say, everyone is only one bad decision away from prison. She’s met women whose crimes horrify her, and women who have done things she might have done herself. She knows that they are there because they have broken the law, but all she feels for them is compassion. “Surely given to me from God,” she says. “I see girls who have not had the opportunities I have had, broken girls who have made bad decisions – but haven’t we all? – and who need to be given the opportunity for a new start, to be given hope.”

The women come and go, some moved to other prisons, some released. And to those who are released, Jenny gives patterns, ideas, supplier contact details to make it easy to carry on beading if they want to. In one particular case, it was impossible to do that in person, so Jenny asked the prison if she could send a package. The woman had been a self-harmer since the age of 8 but the time beading with Jenny had changed all that radically, as indeed had the fact that Jenny came in at the weekend to take her on the prison parkrun. Jenny ended the note she wrote to her by encouraging her to hold onto hope, that there was always hope. The other girls asked her what she’d written so she read it to them. One of them – soon to be released herself – asked Jenny if she would write her a letter before she left. Naturally, Jenny did. The woman loved it. And told Jenny that she had a box of precious things at home and she would put it in there.

Joyously, the woman who had been self-harming got a message to Jenny through one of the group. She’d been beading. Her mum had ordered supplies and she was allowed a needle, and she was going to the gym every day as well. She thanked Jenny for the beading and the parkrun, but wanted her to know that on top of that, Jenny as a person had helped her more than she would ever know. As Jenny said, “That message from her was one of the most precious things God has ever given me. And such an encouragement to keep going…”

Mostly though, Jenny rarely hears about the girls who’ve moved on. For security reasons, they don’t know her full name or where she lives. She’s trusting them to God, believing, as Dr. Edmond Locard, the father of forensics, said: “Every contact leaves a trace”.  So she gets on with working with those who are with her. Her church has joined in too, providing craft activities on family days for the women to do with their children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Who knows where it will lead?

Last December, the prison Governor presented Jenny with a Recognition Award for her outstanding voluntary service to the prison, acknowledging both her craft and interpersonal skills, and the many ‘most complex’ women she had helped who, because of Jenny’s work, were able to progress into other educational activities. Not bad for a bog standard, middle-aged, middle-class woman. But a bog standard, middle-aged, middle-class woman open to God, and who, as it happened, had something in her hand, ‘just a hobby’ actually, that she was willing to give to him. And let him do with it what he will. Like a young boy giving his five loaves and two fish to Jesus on that Galilee hillside, and marvelling for the rest of his days, surely, at what Jesus did. Like bread made by human hands, bread made from grain reaped, threshed, winnowed, ground, kneaded, shaped, and baked by human hands, taken by the Lord himself in that upper room, to make something beautiful for the Father, and for us.

What, I wonder, is in your hand?

What, I wonder, is in your hand that the Lord might thread onto the bracelet he is crafting … bead by bead, deed by deed, word by word, person by person, day by day?

 

***

‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.’

1 PETER 4:10

I wonder what strikes you. What biblical connections do you see?

What in your life would you describe as ‘just a …’? How might God work through it?

 


 

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