Last year, I led a small Ash Wednesday service at my church. I placed ashes on foreheads as I spoke the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I reminded everyone that the season of Lent invites us to slow down—to pray, fast, repent and be generous to others.

I had no idea how often we would be reminded of our mortality in the weeks and months that followed. The spread of the deadly coronavirus was a constant reminder of our human frailty. Many of us lost family and friends, and we all watched the COVID-19 death tracker on the nightly news.

I left that Ash Wednesday service planning to fast from sweets. Just a couple of weeks later, I had broken my fast. The pandemic had robbed me of so much, I didn’t see the need to deny myself even more. COVID-19 has forced us all to give up a lot: restaurants, concerts, church services, vacations, sports and family gatherings. Not to mention the disorienting loss of control and certainty. I hadn’t planned to give up that much during Lent.

But I am so grateful to have had unlikely guides through the pandemic: people in prison. I have read hundreds of letters from Crossroads students over the past year, and their stories and wisdom have been guiding lights.

Looking inward: Honesty about our pain

Crossroads student artist: Vincent H., California

The letters from behind bars have been raw. Facilities have been closed to visitors for months, and incarcerated men and women are lonely and scared. Some facilities have been on 24/7 lockdown. Many letters from Crossroads students read like modern-day psalms, expressing the full range of human emotions before God.

The students’ honesty about their emotions has served as a reminder to me to be vulnerable with others and with God during what has seemed like an extended season of Lent. During COVID, we all have wrestled with a wide range of feelings and fears. We need to name them and bring them to God. It’s only in this posture of honesty that we can open ourselves to the grace, love and healing of God.

“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting,” the psalmist wrote (Psalm 139:23–24). I see similar prayers written in letters from people in prison all the time.

During “Coronatide,” we also have been on an extended fast. It has exposed the idols in our lives—the things we turn to for comfort or to anesthetize our hearts from the pain of life. It has been a gut-wrenching process to receive repeated reminders of my tendency to turn to things of this world for my ultimate fulfillment and how slow I am to turn to God for comfort, peace and life.

I am often encouraged by the letters I read from students who are turning to God as the true source of contentment and rest. Their letters are reminders to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

“It gives me peace when I think of God loving me so personally. I feel so protected, and my worries have been put away and gone,” one of our students wrote from his locked-down prison facility.

Looking outward: Blessing others

Not only are Crossroads students looking inward during this time, but they are also looking outward, finding creative ways to bless people around them.

Brandon and fifteen of his friends in a Florida prison made over 30,000 masks in their facility’s sewing room. David, a Crossroads student in Texas, joined people in his facility for a daily prayer call to pray for their families, loved ones and the world. Daniel bought cans of soup from the commissary, decorated them in colored paper and gave them away to people in his California prison facility at Christmas. In a Michigan prison, Bahaa is teaching art classes and caring for the weary souls of fellow prisoners. He pays for the art supplies for his students out of his own pocket.

Crossroads students have challenged me throughout the pandemic to continue to serve and love sacrificially.

As we head into another pandemic Lenten season, I want to invite you to share your journey with someone in prison. As a Crossroads mentor, you will study the Bible alongside people in prison and exchange letters with them. I think you will find, as I have, that they are great companions on the journey of faith.

Learn more about walking alongside someone in prison as a Crossroads mentor here.