FEATURE STORIES

Barb Tuffendsam: Answering the Call to Women’s Prison Ministry

 

by Brenda Huff
January 2011

 

The stimulating aroma of freshly brewed coffee and baked bread, along with the steady influx of chatty customers and warm palette of colors, engaged our senses midmorning at a busy Panera Bread restaurant. Bright sunshine streamed in through windows promising another hot, humid summer day in Cincinnati. It was here, in late June 2010, that I met with Barb Tuffendsam for a lengthy interview amid much hubbub.

Barb facilitates the Women’s Prison Ministry at her home church, the Vineyard Community Church in Springdale, Ohio. The ministry provides a plethora of services to inmates: mentoring, Bible studies, letter writing, and post-release support through social outlets. This is an impressive, wide range of components. I needed the ministry broken down to grasp how it functioned as a whole, and to understand its origins. I also wanted to understand Barb as a person, and what had propelled her into this kind of ministry.

--Footprints--

Early Fall, 2010: Nondescript in her summer attire of shorts, a comfortable blouse and sandals, Barb listened carefully to my inquiries, and gave meaningful, insightful answers. A keen intelligence and sincere kindness lay behind her piercing blue eyes. Sitting at a small table away from the crowd, we began with her personal history and spiritual journey:

In August, 1995 Barb was at a crossroads. She was disillusioned with her life. Her worldview was not measuring up to reality. One morning, as she climbed into the driver’s seat of her car, she experienced a spiritual awakening much like Paul’s encounter with Christ while on the road to Damascus. She glanced toward the passenger seat. She was astonished to see a set of footprints in sand on the floor. She immediately understood the meaning of this vision, and it was life-changing.

Prior to this encounter, she had been an avid atheist. She had lived her life thinking that she could direct her destiny through reason and intelligence. Apart from reading Margaret Fishback Power’s poem, Footprints in the Sand, Barb had been unimpressed with Christianity. She liked and remembered this poem. When she saw the footprints, she understood what God was telling her: She had been doing life on her own, which wasn’t working out so well, and He wanted to help her. From that moment on, she became an avid Christ-seeker and subsequent follower.

In 2002 Barb was led to serve in men’s prison ministry and began training through Prison Fellowship Ministries in Columbus, Ohio. “I attended Prison Fellowship Training in January 2002; Prison Fellowship’s Leader Training around 2006, and Mentor Training in 2007,” she said. In 2006 she began serving in women’s prisons; Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, and Franklin Pre-Release Center in Columbus. She started mentoring a female inmate at ORW in 2007. Barb traveled to Columbus every other weekend for training and to serve. She recounts the experience as “tiring, but exciting.”

She remembers that one evening an inmate attended a meeting “just to get away.” He didn’t really care about God. He asked Barb why she was there. She responded that she felt it was what God had her to do. Many meetings later, and after much prayer for this man, he told the group, “I don’t believe [in God], but I’m going to church until I figure things out.” This kind of impact kept Barb serving in prison ministry over the long haul. She felt as though she saw the face of God within the ministry.

Barb has uniquely served in both men’s and women’s prisons. This is what she says about her experience: “I think it was a good training ground to start in the men's prisons. Typically men are less emotional and their relationships seem to be less complicated. Many women in prison have children and are really broken over not being with their kids or they worry that the system will grab their kids and never return them. I have not seen the men talk about that deep pain and agonizing concern nearly as much as the women do. Often the women have allowed themselves to be defined by others so it is harder for them to break through to who they really are and to see themselves as God sees them.”

In addition to prison ministry, Barb led groups in the Growth and Healing ministries at Vineyard Community Church and volunteered at the church’s Healing Center. In 2007, Barb felt led to start a women’s prison ministry at her church. She approached the Growth and Healing office, and wrote up a plan for the prison ministry. She also talked to contacts in Columbus and at the Healing Center. She began to pray for a partner in this arduous undertaking.

Barb’s prayers were answered when she met a former inmate who shared her vision of working with incarcerated women. Barb considers it no small miracle that God brought them together to partner in this ministry. Each one’s unique experiences, skills, and involvement in prison ministry mirrored and complemented the others. Working together, the ministry got off the ground in March, 2008.

--Not for Whimps--

The ministry began as a program to train mentors. It began partnering with StepUp Prison Mentoring, a program run by Don Whitaker at the River City Correctional Facility in Cincinnati, Ohio. StepUp is a program that helps inmates make a positive transition back into society through affirming relationships and in conjunction with the resources of Jobs Plus, a job placement agency for hard-to-place candidates.

Mentors paired with inmates assist with goal-setting, give support and provide encouragement. Mentors trained in the program commit to a six-month relationship with their mentee: three months prior to release, and three months post-release. The goal of the mentoring program is to facilitate reentry of an emancipated individual into the community with support and help from others within that same community.

Initially, the ministry attracted a core group of committed women, some of which continue to serve in the ministry. Eventually, doors opened for S. to conduct a Bible study at River City, and Barb became certified as a Chaplain. The program continued to expand and offers creative support to inmates and the formerly incarcerated through many outlets: It hosts Friday night women’s groups, spa nights, Christmas parties, and summer picnics, among other things. Inmate referrals come from Columbus prisons, and through a relationship with the Columbus Women’s Ministry at the Columbus Vineyard (This is a well established group led by Deb Scott, who Barb met at Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW). They trained and served together, and often shared ideas). I attended two meetings of the group in the spring and early summer of 2010: a mentor’s meeting, and a joint mentor-mentee meeting.

The mentors are a tight group of friends who share in the ministry and support each other through its myriad challenges. At their core they are dedicated, intense, bound by a passion to serve, and share great humor: The humor is needed to offset the intensity involved in this kind of ministry. As someone put it, “This [ministry] ain’t for whimps!”

At the mentor’s meeting, everyone around the table was invited to share. Betsy gave a good report about her mentee, Liz, who is preparing to move into her new house, and showed pictures of the house on her laptop. Debbie is working with her third mentee from River City, and said the ministry is very challenging. She has had to learn boundaries. She was attracted to the ministry after her son’s friend was shot and killed during a break-in. Betsy and Debbie are group veterans, having been with the ministry since it began.

Ruth Ann was visiting the group and is an author and prison evangelist. She gave sage advice about speaking to inmates “where they are,” and to “keep it simple and concrete.” Sally and Vicky have each been with the group for about a year. Vicky is working with her second mentee, and describes the experience as “fulfilling, rewarding, and challenging,” Sally has mentored three mentees and loves letter writing. She also goes with Barb to conduct Bible studies. She says that she loves connecting with people and talking about the Lord.

I observed Barb during the meeting. Though soft-spoken with an easy going, humble demeanor, she is nevertheless a skilled and seasoned leader. She is very organized, insightful and systematic in her role. She gave an excellent overview of the ministry’s goals and current roles, and led the group into a brainstorming session about how the ministry could expand. The meeting was informative, supportive and energetic with clear objectives and agendas. It was respectful and inclusive of all the attendees.

--Holy Discontent--

One of Barb’s goals for the ministry is to offer continued training and learning experiences to the mentors. To this end, she and some of the other mentors take advantage of leadership training classes at the Vineyard and attend other useful courses to improve their skills. She brings outside resources to the group and is always reading and expanding her own knowledge base.

During this meeting, she talked about a book she had read, Bill Hybel’s Holy Discontent. In the book, Hybels talks about the ‘fundamental state’: what a thing it is made for. He talks about the importance of having a vision, of dreaming. She carried the concept over into the ministry. She talked about inmates having a limited picture of their future, and of not grasping their full potential. Often their only goal for the future is to be released from jail or prison. She talked about encouraging inmates to have a bigger vision, to dream of what their lives could become.

The mentor-mentee meeting was similar, but with a lighter, fun tone. Two formerly incarcerated women, Liz (Betsy’s mentee) and Brittney, attended. Brittney had been newly-released from a Dayton correctional institution, and talked about simple things she had missed that she could do again, like wearing sandals and putting on perfume. Both women shared stories about crazy rules they had to follow during incarceration, and the weird things they got into trouble for. They also talked about their current struggles and goals, and what they needed help with. There were serious moments interjected with laughter, along with food and games.

Barb says that the community night meetings are purposely on Friday nights. She met a woman named Rhonda at Rachel’s House where she has sometimes volunteered. Rhonda was from Cincinnati, and she and Barb became fast friends. Rhonda struggled with an alcohol addiction, and fell off the wagon one Friday night. Rhonda was soaking in her bathtub with nothing to do that evening, as she thought, “Wouldn’t a beer be nice,” according to Barb. After that, she frequented the bar scene and the addiction became rampant. One evening, she left a bar drunk, stepped off a curb into oncoming traffic, and was killed. She was 35-years old. Barb has never forgotten the tragedy and hopes to give inmates something to do on Friday nights to keep them from returning to their former, destructive lifestyles.

Barb writes that the mission of the ministry is “to find and walk alongside women as they are coming from jail or prison and compassionately address their physical needs and emotional wounds and so draw them into a richer relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Their written ministry vision states: “We are a group of women who love the Lord and feel compelled to walk alongside women who are or have been physically in prison as they successfully re-enter society. We recognize that this is done through a strong relationship with the Lord – both our relationship and theirs. As we walk with them, we can compassionately address their physical needs in their search for housing, transportation, jobs, financial planning, healthcare (physical and mental), along with mentoring them into building a healthy community including healthy relationships with Jesus Christ, their family, and friends. We are a close community group and we can call on each other in times of crisis.”

In a nutshell, Barb says that the overall goal of the ministry is to “get people closer to the Lord; in relationship with Him.” She says that is really their only hope. This is done through teaching, showing them love, and developing relationships (with God and people).

--Work in Progress--

The ministry is an evolving work in progress. When asked about the direction the ministry is taking, Barb says, “For right now we will continue to find ways to connect and facilitate the growth of healthy spirituality, community, and relationships.”

“We have a gifted group of volunteers,” she says, “ who constantly look for ways to help women in re-entry, and as new volunteers come into the group new skills are added. We're not done defining ourselves yet; as we work though life with women while incarcerated and when they get out we are learning more about what help really looks like. We've had many ideas but one need that keeps coming up is a place for the women to get together in community where they can learn new life skills and can encourage and challenge one another.”

The ministry comes with its ups and downs. Barb says, “My biggest challenge is in consistently having the faith to really realize that God is in control. In the Bible, Paul tells us, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.’ I really have to keep in mind that it is on His timing, not mine. One example is that some women are ready to move from what landed them in prison, while some are not quite ready. So, sometimes we need to realize we are at the point where we've done all we can. Then we have to turn the results over to God.”

She adds, “My greatest blessing is when I see a real breakthrough – not just the words but the life- changing breakthrough. Even a small one, like when I see a tear from someone who had only shown me how tough she was. Or when I see someone who has had a hard time saying ‘no’ to others begin to respectfully stand up for what is right and not run away or lash out in anger.”

Barb recently retired from working at Procter and Gamble. She continues to spend a great deal of time with the prison ministry, and has branched out to revisit former passions too. Years ago, she earned a law degree at Salmon P. Chase College of Law in Northern Kentucky, and she has always had a penchant for constitutional law. She feels outraged with the loss or violation of an individual’s constitutional rights. She comments that even in the days before she knew Christ, He was preparing her for ministry work with a heart for others.

She says, “I can’t stand it when people lose the right to be who they are, especially women.”

As we wrap up our interview, and down our last swigs of coffee, Barb is on her way to a Kentucky law firm. In her spare time, she does some volunteer work for the firm. She is also a proud mother of two grown sons, and four grandchildren. In addition to her continued work in the ministry, she has time now to babysit her grandkids, and enjoys spending time with her family.

We say goodbye in the parking lot, and I watch as Barb drives away. I am amazed by the impact of her ministry, and her willingness to be God’s vessel and to answer His call into prison ministry. She has an aura of quiet discontent: at perfect peace and yet pressing on in obedience to her call. One life can make such a huge difference and be a great inspiration to so many others. This is Barb Tuffendsam’s example.

 

Editor's note: An initial was used to protect the identity of an individual sharing her story.

 

Share/Bookmark

 

 

 

 

 

Barb Tuffendsam

Barb Tuffendsam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mentors and mentees meet regularly on the front line of re-entry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liz and Betsey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women in the ministry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The prison ministry is one of the most effective in Ohio.