Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Pittsburgh Women’s Community Corrections Center in Shadyside and the Lady in the Basement

heather-and-small-group.jpgOne phone call can change everything.  I was just getting used to the idea of being the period pastor to a small contingency of Presbyterian Women when a call came from a group of women I didn’t even realize lived in our neighborhood.  And now, I can’t imagine life without them.

Re-entering a community after being incarcerated is not easy.  I admire these strong women.  They have shared their blood, sweat, and tears; they have shared their hopes and fears; and they have shared a higher power that has seen them through some difficult years.

Heather and quilt.jpg

Heather was with us for 13 months.  On her last day, she was presented with a certificate (for 400 service hours), a cake, and a quilt made from  fabrics she will remember serger-ing for the girls.  She is a joy and an inspiration.  One afternoon, we (Heather, Constance, MaryEllen and I) took a short break from sewing to compose an article of the church newsletter.  Heather shared some of her personal story and gave a few details about what life is like for a woman living at the CCC.

The following is the article published in the Third Church Spire.

The Pittsburgh Women’s Community Corrections Center houses 50 women. Below is a creative interpretation of how a typical woman arrives at CCC and how she might interact with the community around her, including Third Church.

My name is Elizabeth, but since I’ve been in prison, people call me Lib. I don’t feel like Elizabeth anymore. I’m trying to put the stupid decisions I made as an addict behind me. To support my habit I had to sell drugs. I got caught selling to an undercover cop. I was sentenced 2 to 5 years at Muncy State prison. I was there for four months while I waited to be sent to one of the therapeutic communities. I was sent to a TC that had a boot camp style of living where I had to be up, dressed and have my bed made by 6:30 every morning. It was awful. I was there for almost four months. Then I went to inpatient rehab and I didn’t leave that building at all in the two months. After that I came to the CCC house in Shadyside.

Once I arrived at the house, I was assigned to a counselor whose responsibility is helping me to re-integrate into life outside prison walls and to live without taking drugs. The first items of business included signing up for medical assistance, food stamps and getting a job. I was assigned to a large dormitory style room with 11 other women share one shower and one toilet. I have 1 pillow, 1 sheet and 1 blanket. I have 2 drawers and half a closet to store my limited wardrobe. I have nowhere to “hang out” so when I am not sleeping I still lie in my bed or I go to the TV room on our floor. The TV room has two love seats and a chair. So even if we sit close together, the room is not big enough for everyone to use at once. I was able to get a phone (that I paid for) after I was at the house for a while. I hadn’t had a cell phone since my arrest.

The shared kitchen is on the bottom floor. There is one table with 7 chairs. We have one coffee pot that makes 12 cups. Mornings in the kitchen are not pleasant with everyone trying to get coffee before we leave for work. Things settle down around 8:00am when a lot of people leave for the day. We have locking tackle boxes labeled with our names that stack in the refrigerator. Our dry food is in a storage locker in the basement with a lock and labeled like our refrigerator boxes. The limited space makes it difficult to grocery shop. Most of us buy convenience foods that are smaller and mostly prepared. I have two friends that I know will share space with me. One of us will keep a gallon of milk, the other will keep lunch meat, and the third will keep a head of lettuce.

Some of the women are able to apply for jobs near the house. Some women are not able to work so they log service hours in the community. I am unable to work, so I come to the Wednesday Days for Girls at Third Church. I came here and I was afraid to sew, so I would only trace the patterns. I was asked a few times to learn to sew, but I was too nervous. Then one day, I was told I had to sew. After the initial shock and panic attack, I learned how to sew a straight line. Now, I don’t want to go back to cutting and tracing. I love sewing and spending time with my new friend Constance. And I love the snacks. Being here is the best part of my week.

My new friends have also invited me to volunteer at Treasure House. I got to shop a little too! I have a Literacy Pittsburgh tutor that I met at Third and I’m working on my GED.   I’m hoping to come to worship soon, but my weekends are often unpredictable. Sometimes I get the opportunity to go home on furlough and other times I really need the support of an AA meeting.

What no one knew at the time this article came rolling off the copier was, the name Lib has special significance.  People in recovery groups rely on a “higher power” and sometimes, they assign this god a name and attributes.  One woman (not Heather) shared with me that her higher power was ‘the guy upstairs’ or Gus.  Over many conversations she shared some of her experiences with Gus.  I tired to be an active listener without passing judgement, but one afternoon I couldn’t hold my tongue.  I blurted out ‘Gus is a jerk’.  The shocked look on her face told me, that I, the only pastor she knows, called god (the one she thought I believed in too), a jerk.  There was silence.  And then, there was laughter; tension-relieving, belly-aching laughter.  I said, you need a better god, one that loves you.  Tears.  I can only describe what welled up in our eyes as the Holy Spirit filling us to overflowing.  Of course, a machine needed threaded, stitches needed to be ripped out, and the sewing project needed our attention.  We wiped our eyes and got back to work.  As the weeks went by, we came up with a new higher power, the lady in the basement, Lib.  She has attributes of both Mary and Martha, and she’s a little bit of a badass.  Lib bleeds, sweats, and cries.  She is strong and gentle.  Most importantly, she is full of love.

I believe that God is love.  God is a mystery that we cannot begin to understand or describe.  I know that some might think creating and naming a higher power makes me a heretic, and it probably does.  But, I see it as a way to work out new understandings of  God.  Talking about Gus (the guy upstairs) and Lib (the lady in the basement), allows me to see God the way other people do and to help them see that there is more to God than I or they can imagine.

We love because God first loved us.  1 John 4: 19

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