The huge, elliptic pots in the rear of the station wagon burgeon with baked beans and fried chicken. With more than one minister up front, the wagon could be headed for a church picnic. Except that it’s a drizzly, chilly March day in Chicago. Except that the wagon bypasses the parks on its route and instead swerves off the street and up to a small guardhouse. And except that the Reverend Consuella York—65 years old, five feet, two inches tall, a Baptist preacher clad like a nun—is riding shotgun.

Mother York, as she is called, probably likes church picnics, but not on Saturdays. On Saturdays her flock is composed of convicted murderers, drug dealers, rapists, and armed robbers. This Saturday, like almost every one during the last 37 years, is no exception. So the station wagon, pots clunking in the back, pulls away from the guardhouse and behind the towering walls of Cook County Jail.

While her assistants begin wrestling with the pots and boxes of food, Mother York heads inside to the jail’s waiting area. She is barely beyond the door when she meets a former “parishioner.” This erstwhile inmate, over six feet tall and looming above Mother York with a broad smile born at the sight of her, is hugged, then peppered with solicitous interrogations about his well-being. But suddenly Mother York becomes businesslike and draws back. She asks if he has been attending church.

“Well, I’m going to start. You see, I’ve had this job and had to work on Sundays.…”

Mother York steps forward and against the man’s chest, mock-glaring up into his eyes. “Don’t make excuses to God,” she scolds. “You been tithing?”

There follows another attempt at stammering justifications, and Mother York again interrupts, pressing hard enough against the former convict that he backpedals a step or two. “You be in church tomorrow, and you tithe for all the Sundays you missed. Don’t rob the Lord.” With that she washes the severity from her features, as if it were a necessary but unpleasant cosmetic, and starts up the winding stairs with a shining, serene smile.

“Bye-bye, darling,” she says over her shoulder, and the man departs ramrod straight and proud.

Mother York’s party—a half-dozen associate ministers and volunteers from the Chicago congregation she pastors, Christ Our Way Missionary Baptist Church—congregates gradually upstairs. They are abustle (loading carts with food, deodorant, bars of soap, shampoo, and pocket New Testaments) in a room with signs warning that a visit to the washroom requires a search before and after. A constant stream of blue-shirted guards passes through. At one end of the room stands a metal detector and behind it the hulking iron door through which the cellblocks are entered.

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“God, Love, And Understanding”

With Mother York, these intrepid Baptists keep about their business, pausing only to eat a few bites of fish and chips. An incongruous, relaxed air pervades the place. Guards almost apologetically ask visitors in Mother York’s entourage to show identification. The volunteers, for all the concern they betray, had just as well be packing picnic lunches. The orchestrator herself finishes her fish, attends to some counseling on the pay phone, then finds a bag of pecans and assumes a peaceful but ceaseless orbit around the room. Guards hold out cupped palms like imploring children and receive their treats. Most bend to kiss her; she offers her cheek gladly but with the deliberateness of the blessing it is.

Eventually everything is in order and Mother York’s party strings through the metal detector, each person pausing on the other side, facing away, and all stretching out their arms, standing cruciform for the guard who briskly pats them down. The imposing door is opened and they enter the cellblock—a brave, almost jaunty little train of saints and fried chicken.

The hallway is dim and long, painted orange and white in the motif of the cellblocks. Mother York has no more passed the barred bay receding into the first series of cells when there is an explosion of excited greetings. The minister and her friends happily shout back at the inmates. Then a guard appears and talks softly in Mother York’s ear. It seems an unruly inmate has again acted up and been placed in “lockup.” The guard will let her talk with the troublemaker if she pleases.

Mother York proceeds to the appropriate bay and calls out the inmate’s name. Soon there appears a tall man with closely cropped hair. Mother York demands the hand of this former gang leader and gets it through the bars. She grips his wrist, slaps it lightly, and squeezes it to the point that he grimaces.

She says she hears he has been out of line, then coaxes him through a public apology, punctuating his hesitancy with humor that has both the offender and his fellow inmates laughing good-naturedly. (The words of a jail official are appearing more and more credible: “She’s the only person who could go anywhere in this building during a riot,” he says of Mother York. “She has that much respect and credibility. There are inmates who wouldn’t hesitate to give their lives for her.”)

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The confession finished, Mother York passes two slices of pound cake through the bars, telling the inmate to take them and go back to his detention. After he is gone, she admonishes the other prisoners not to tease him about what has just transpired. With that more cake and candy are dispensed.

In like fashion, Mother York makes her way through two cellblocks, then takes an elevator to the basement. There is situated her chapel, with its concrete floor stoic and solid under chipped layers of maroon paint, and crosses adorning the rectangular pillars. Beneath one cross a small plaque reads: “Mother York, You bring us God, Love, and understanding. We love you.”

Unlocking Hope In A County Jail

Soon about 150 inmates have arrived and filled the chapel’s simple pews. (The services are so popular that attendance is alternated between cellblocks.) Sitting beneath windows covered by heavy, iron plates, they begin singing and handclapping with Mother York—“Come by here, my Lord, I need your mercy.” After convicts read some passages from Scripture, Mother York preaches.

On Jesus: “He understands you. He died between two thieves, so he knows about thieves.”

On hell: “There’s no excuse to let your soul be faced with hell when you can accept Jesus.”

On God’s concern (while she fingers an inmate’s forelocks): “He knows every hair on your head.”

After she is finished, there is more singing, praying, and testimonies from prisoners—it goes on for two hours. When the service is completed, the inmates line up and, with more order than is witnessed at the ordinary potluck dinner, receive paper plates bent under chicken, beans, bread, cake, nuts, and candy. Mother York is stationed at the end table, personally handing out soap, Testaments, and other cleansers. Inmates linger in front of her, soaking up her expressions of concern as long as they can.

In a quarter of an hour, assistants are back outside, reloading the long, white station wagon. Maybe in a few weeks, when Chicago’s belated spring arrives, it will carry food to a church picnic. As for today, Mother York will be along shortly, but now she remains deep in the belly of the jail, praying with the inmates on death row.

By Rodney Clapp, former associate editor at CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and an editor for InterVarsity Press.

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