By AMANDA GREENE
Religion News Wilmington
Photos by Matt Born
Editor’s Note: This story is the result of a year spent following the Rev. Jennifer Kostyal’s prison ministry.
Danielle Norris awoke in her bunk at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh at 3 a.m. one morning in 2011 to a nightmare.
Beside Norris’ bunk, she found a book she’d laid there, a bible study by Wilmington minister the Rev. Jennifer Kostyal. She hadn’t really read it until that night.
“I dreamed I had been in a car crash, and I was standing over my own body, and it scared me so bad ‘cause I saw my two little girls there really wanting their mama back, and I couldn’t hold them ‘cause I was dead,” she wrote in a letter to Kostyal days later. “I got up and was crying so hard and begging God to help me when I found your book laying on a little table. I think that when I prayed so hard for God to help me that he did by sending me your book.”
A six-inch high stack of letters from female prisoners regularly tops Jennifer Kostyal’s desk each week at her Transformed by the Word Ministries office in the tiny town of Scotts Hill, in southeastern North Carolina. She hand-writes a letter back to each female prisoner, some who write from South Carolina or Tennessee institutions.
“The women say this bible study really blessed us because you’ve lived our story,” Kostyal said. “All of the abuse as a little girl for me was worth the healings of these beautiful women.”
The chaplain’s chaplain
In prison, the minister is in her element, all bright smiles and holding hands. Her story of healing from 10 years of sexual abuse at the hands of an extended family member resonates with the women of NCCIW, where 80 percent report being sexually abused in their lives, according to prison officials.
Her sermons there are charismatic and no-nonsense.
And when Kostyal prays, God is “Daddy.”
But her life today is starkly different from many of the prisoners she visits throughout the South.
Kostyal is a tall, brassy Southern platinum blonde in middle age – a former Miss North Carolina Fourth of July.
She lives in a large house near a coastal marsh and attends Scotts Hill Baptist Church. Her children are college-bound. She could have had her own church congregation.
But Kostyal chose female prisoners because she believes she can offer them the same healing from abuse that she has received.
Her bible study, “Taking Off the Robes,” in which she intertwines her abuse and redemption story with bible passages, is in most of the women’s prisons in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina. Kostyal has prayed with death row inmates in North Carolina and Tennessee and leads conferences in Southeast prisons on abuse and forgiveness.
Her life story, “Finally Free,” will be published in May this year by Destiny Image, the same company that publishes Bishop T.D. Jakes’ books. The first 1,300 copies are going to the women at NCCIW. And she’s working on a new bible study by the same title, expected to be released in June.
‘A battle for women’
Though she’s ordained, Kostyal is careful not to define herself as a professional counselor. She holds ministry conferences at the prison, the largest in North Carolina with about 1,300 inmates. And last year, she began ministering to the growing teen population there.
Speaking to Kostyal in 2010, NCCIW Warden Bianca Harris said: “My hope is that those who attend your sessions will find the spiritual strength to seek mental health for counseling. From a business aspect, this is a battle for women.” When the warden needs spiritual counsel, she often calls Kostyal.
Kostyal is so popular among the administrators and prisoners at NCCIW, she won the 2009 Volunteer of the Year Award there out of more than 450 candidates.
“There’s things I’d share behind prison walls that I’d never share outside,” Kostyal said. “I love going into the prisons. It is amazing to see these women, they’re just like you and me.”
Given the events of her childhood, it’s ironic Kostyal feels free to minister amidst high walls and razor wire.
This is a woman who once couldn’t fly without having a panic attack, a claustrophobia that began when she was five. In addition to the sexual abuse in her past, during summers in rural North Carolina, a childhood babysitter would lock her inside a corn silo and beat it with a tobacco stick, telling her snakes inside would bite her.
The first time she visited a prison “I was terrified of being locked up. But when I heard that big door lock, a sense of peace just hit me I can’t describe,” she said. It’s six years later, and she’s still telling her story in prison many times a year.
A broken toe and high heels
Very little keeps Kostyal from preaching special sermons at NCCIW.
In October 2010, she preached at a yearly breast cancer awareness service there called Pink Sunday. Despite a broken toe, she still dressed in her bubble gum pink suit jacket and black three-inch heels. Shrugging off her pain, the minister grinned, saying, “These women never get to see high heels.”
For many of NCCIW’s prisoners, religion plays an active role in their rehabilitation. By self-reporting, 80 percent of NCCIW inmates say they are Christian, 10 percent are Muslim, and the final 10 percent consists of Native American beliefs, Wiccans, Catholics and Jehovah Witnesses.
“They are looking into the Bible, in a Christian’s case, to find comfort, and further, to find their places as to how other biblical people got over difficult situations,” said the Rev. Nagako Mori, the prison’s clinical chaplain. “The Bible is the source of hope . . . The religious groups provide my inmates with a sense of community, belongingness, because they suffer from the feeling of alienation from their loved ones.”
Kostyal sees her role in prison as a four-letter word: hope.
“Sin is sin. They’re paying for their crimes,” Kostyal said of her practice of not condemning the women.
Her theological view is part of why prison administrators respect her.
“No human being should use the name of God to judge and punish another human being. There are laws that punish the guilty ones,” Chaplain Mori said. “Jesus says, ‘I come to save, not to judge.’ Our inmates need to hear something that will give them reason to have hope, not further damnation.”
Kostyal’s sermons are usually heavy on inspiring one-liners. Reading the passage on the redeemed prostitute of Jericho Rahab in the book of Joshua, Kostyal said: “look beside you and say I’m a Rahab. Look behind you; I’m a Rahab. When you get freed of your past and someone mentions your past, it no longer affects you.”
“Your present circumstance does not designate your future placement in God,” she said.
The women wait on her words; soak them up.
One woman called out: “Glory, hallelujah! Heal me!” during Kostyal’s prayer.
“Women of God, after this night, I need you to no longer look at where you are,” Kostyal said. “I need you to look at where God is taking you.”