Ydania Peralta stood among 50 inmates at the Homestead Correctional Institute, their eyes glued to her as she spoke to them. The topic: Jesus’ forgiveness and grace.
Along the front sat Monica, an inmate that had been struggling with the guilt and shame that abuse had brought over her. As Ydania, the Prison Ministry Director at Christ Fellowship, prayed over the group of women that afternoon, Monica raised her hands in the air and let out a cry of relief.
“I’m free! I’m finally free!” she yelled. And as she cried, the inmates around her rose up, placed their hands on Monica, and prayed.
Ydania watched the inmates in awe.
This mother of three never foresaw herself leading Bible studies in a prison. Had you asked her as a child what she wanted to be, Ydania would’ve replied with “police officer.” Instead, she and her husband, Eddie, were married when she was 17 years old, had their first child at 20, and got divorced by 26. Eddie had decided to accept Christ, but Ydania wanted nothing to do with it.
During the separation, Ydania tried to lose herself in anything she could grab a hold of. She became a workaholic, leaving her mother to take care of her daughter, and began seeing a man who was very “controlling.”
Ydania thought she had command over her life, but in reality, she was slowly sinking into depression. It wasn’t long before she was anorexic, weighing only 98 pounds. In a point of despair, Ydania attempted to take her life.
“I felt very lonely,” she said. “I think the reason why I did it was because I was done. I was drained with life.”
Ydania awoke to find herself in a hospital with the possibility of losing her daughter.
Throughout the two years of their separation, Eddie had been consistent about inviting Ydania to church with him, but she had always been quick to decline. As she sat in the hospital bed, processing the reality of her life and what she had done, Ydania decided she wanted a better life for herself and her family. She needed help. She needed a savior.
“I called my husband and I told him I couldn’t do this anymore, and he invited me to church,” Ydania said. “I went and that’s when I accepted Christ. It was one of those moments where your life does change when you have Christ in your heart, because you start to see things through Jesus’ eyes.”
Christ slowly began to heal Ydania’s heart and restore her family. She and Eddie were soon remarried and had two more children.
With her new life now founded in Christ, Ydania wanted to pursue the things that had greater meaning and purpose. When the opportunity arose to volunteer for a bonding event, activities planned intentionally for children visiting their incarcerated parents, she didn’t hesitate.
Volunteers would adopt a family and go with them to the prison for the visitation. They would pray over them and answer any questions the family had. The parent and child would get one hug in the beginning and one hug at the end of the visit. Afterward, the volunteer would take the child and family to do an activity, such as bowling, so the last image in the child’s mind was not leaving their parent behind in prison.
“I remember the first time I went. I stood in a corner and cried because I’m able to go home and hug my kids, and they can only hug them at the beginning and at the end [of the visit],” Ydania said. “They don’t know when they are going to see each other again. I went home thinking I wanted to do more with the inmates, not just bonding events.”
Ydania was led to join Prison Fellowship, a ministry that equips local churches and trained volunteers to spread the Gospel and nurture disciples behind prison walls. Ydania had never led a Bible study before, so she went for the first time with two women and observed as they taught the small group of inmates. Every two weeks, the three women gathered to lead Bible study in the prison. At the time of Ydania’s fourth visit, she received an email that would push her outside of her comfort zone and inevitably change her life; the two small group leaders were no longer leading the group, they had not informed the inmates of the change, and it was all on Ydania.
“I cried,” she said. “I called Prison Fellowship and I told them I couldn’t go by myself, and the field director told me I had to. So I cried and prayed and showed up by myself.
“When I walked through the door, there were only three inmates there. I told them what happened and they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We’re here to help you.’ We opened in prayer and that began this prison ministry.”
Over the last five years, that small group has grown to more than 50 women, including the initial three inmates Ydania began with. Eleven core volunteers help facilitate the group at the Homestead Correctional Institute for Women, and have helped expand the ministry to four other prisons including the Dade Correctional Institute for Men, South Florida Reception Center, Everglades Correctional Institute for Men, and the Federal Detention Center for Men & Women.
“There’s no reason to fear going into a prison,” Ydania said. “You need to understand that God is in control. The Lord met us where we’re at. In the same way, the inmates cannot come to us, so we need to meet these people where they are at. They are desperate to learn and know more about God.”
Last month, the Prison Ministry was able to partner with the Homestead Correctional Institute to provide a program promoting hope and purpose to 25 handpicked inmates. The women, all of which are sentenced to life in prison, packed 200 backpacks of food for hungry children in the Miami Dade County Public School system.
Ydania recalls the smiling faces of the woman as they packed the backpacks and wrote encouraging notes for the children, dwelling on the possibility that they could have been packing a backpack for their own child on the outside.
“I’m there to talk about how much the Lord loves them, what He did for them, and that there is hope,” she said, “whether they stay there for the rest of their life, there is still hope and they can still be a blessing to someone else. To the new inmate that walks in through the door and doesn’t know anything about anything, they’re going to be a blessing to that person.”
For Ydania, the Prison Ministry has been a vehicle the Lord has used to make her bolder, more compassionate, and forgiving.
“My experiences have taught me to speak Christ more and to grab a hold of Him more,” she said. “I can trust Him. He’s given me a reason to serve others and help someone else that really doesn’t have an interest. Whatever they’ve done, they’ve done. The past is the past, and it stays there. Aren’t we new in Christ?”
By Jeannie L. Rodriguez
For more information on the prison ministry and how you can get involved, visit their website.
CF Stories is a collection that displays God at work in the lives of people at Christ Fellowship in Miami, FL. Each of us are a part of a bigger picture that shows God moving in our city, and these stories aim to give a name and a voice to many of the 100,000 they are reaching in our city and around the world. First published on the CF Blog.