Christmas in Jail
Bessie Shipp was spending Christmas in jail. A slender black woman, Bessie was watching her life slip rapidly away. Though she had not been sentenced to death by the state, she was under a different death sentence: Bessie had AIDS.
I met Bessie that Christmas Day in a North Carolina prison for women. I had come to give a Christmas message to the inmates there.
The atmosphere was glum. The small crowd that gathered to hear me preach was somber and subdued.
After the service, a prison official said, “Do you have time to visit Bessie Shipp?”
“Who’s Bessie Shipp?” I asked. When they told me, I confess, I was taken aback. This was several years ago, and I had never visited an AIDS patient.
And yet, just the night before, I had seen a television story about Mother Teresa and the AIDS patients she was caring for. How could I do anything less?
“I’ll go,” I said.
We walked down a narrow corridor, and a heavy door was opened to reveal a small, dark cell. There, sitting in a hard-backed chair was this tiny woman, wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering in the cold. To my surprise, I saw a Bible on her lap.
After chatting a few minutes, I came right to the point. “Bessie,” I said, “Do you know the Lord?”
“I want to,” she replied softly. “But I don’t always feel like He’s there.” And her voice trailed off.
“Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Savior?” I asked.
Bessie looked down, twisted a Kleenex in her thin hands, and finally whispered, “Yes, I would.”
So we prayed together in that cold, concrete cell. And Bessie made a decision that would change the rest of her short life: She gave it to Jesus Christ.
Only days later Bessie was paroled. Friends and prison officials had been trying to get her released for a long time. But the timing was providential. She stayed long enough to meet Christ, and then she went to her home as a new Christian.