Prayer that Opens Prison Doors
With a lawyer for a father, Claudia’s interest in the criminal justice system began at a young age. And a marker moment at 14 when prayed for by another teenager gave her a sense of something beyond interest – a sense of purpose, a call to be a voice for the voiceless.
Proverbs 3:27 – “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” – became a foundational verse for her life as she grew in age and the awareness of the affluence from which she came, giving her a sense of responsibility and shaping her life choices.
Spending a transformative year with Jackie Pullinger in Hong Kong, Claudia became introduced to those on the other side of the criminal justice system, whose lives had become caught up in it for varying reasons. She was overwhelmed by the amount of potential, talent and wisdom she saw within those who were viewed as “villains” yet who, in many ways, were actually victims of life circumstances stacked against them. She realised these were the “oppressed ” of whom Scripture speaks and she left Hong Kong with a yearning to serve the prison community.
At twenty years old while in uni, she heard her name called in the night, much like when God called to the young Samuel. She experienced a dream-like vision where she saw a huge prison in Scotland that had been cleared and replaced with a field where a farmer was plowing. The farmer spoke to her saying, “Pray, so that My seed might have fertile ground to grow in.”
This confirmed the call on her life to serve the prison community and being an activist, she responded with action rather than prayer and began to do volunteer work in prisons.
Her first time walking up to HMP in Edinburgh, she experienced the odd sensation of familiarity, as if she had been there before, as it was the same prison from her vision. And this is where she began to really learn about intercessory prayer. She would pray as she walked the corridors, and feeling the spiritual atmosphere of deep despair and resistance, she often felt unable to pray except in the Spirit.
She remembers one day in particular, sitting in the cafe when the women prisoners came in and the atmosphere of trauma and despair was so thick she felt intimidated, doubting that even prayer in the Spirit could make a difference. But she pressed on. Then came the sound of a lovely, genuine laugh and a slow trickle of laughter began to spread across the room, conversations became more animated and life was reflected in the women’s faces. The atmosphere completely transformed. No one had publicly called on God, but it was like God had decided to turn up and bless these women with his presence, not taking any credit for it, simply out of his kindness towards them.
In spite of moments like this, because prayer didn’t fit her image of what “success” looked like, Claudia would lay prayer aside and put her energy into trying to build projects and teams. Nothing would happen so she would pick prayer up again. This was a pattern for a while. Because the experience of God’s call on her life to this work had been so profound, she struggled to understand why she wasn’t seeing amazing fruit or didn’t have incredible success stories. What Claudia couldn’t see at the time was the deeper work God was doing in her. A work of surrender and humility.
After three years of trying to start an Alpha Course in the prison but being met with resistance, she had all but given up. Challenged by a friend to pray again, she picked prayer back up, but it would be two years before those prayers were fully answered. After 5 years of frustration, discouragement, perseverance and on and off prayer, Claudia finally took part in the first Alpha course in HMP! But it was someone else who had started it and was leading it. Claudia simply assisted and prayed, yet with deep joy. And that was when she began to accept that the “Farmer” in her vision had not called her to be the one who plows, but to be the one who prays.
What amazes Claudia, 10 years on, is that the transformative work happening now in HMP and in the prison community around where she and her husband lead a church, is not because of her faithfulness in prayer. But rather God has been full of grace and faithful to her. She sees now that God was protecting her from becoming the centre of her own story and though that time of training was incredibly hard and painful, it was also amazing and is what has laid a healthy foundation for her leadership today.
And it has taught her something else. The prison community lives under a heavy covering of shame and rejection that has been placed on them by others. Human efforts can do little to lift it from them. Only the Spirit of God can break through that shame and rejection and bring freedom and a new identity. And that is the power Claudia is partnering with when she prays.
Claudia is married to Thomas and together they lead Stenhouse Baptist Church in Edinburgh, where they both now serve and befriend the prison community in different ways. They are excited to welcoming a new member to their family this summer!