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‘A battle for women’ – Rev. Jennifer Kostyal’s fight for women in N.C. prisons

Religion News Wilmington

Photos by Matt Born

Rev. Jennifer Kostyal reads a letter from a prison inmate in her Hampstead home Thursday, August 5, 2010. Kostyal has been answering letters from inmates for over 5 years through her Transformed by the Word Ministries. Staff Photo By Matt Born/Wilmington Star-News.

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

Rev. Jennifer Koystal waves to the prisoners as she leaves the 5th annual Pink Sunday at the North Carolina Correctional Institution For Women in Raleigh Sunday, October 24, 2010. It's the biggest yearly event in North Carolina's largest women's prison. Photo by Matt Born

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

The 5th annual Pink Sunday is the biggest yearly event at the North Carolina Correctional Institution For Women in Raleigh. Photo by Matt Born

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.”

Offering hope

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.”

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What to expect in 2012 from Religion News Wilmington

Dear readers,

Thank you for reading Religion News Wilmington in 2011!

In 2011 we gave you:

  • Non-sectarian news of faith issues through the winter holiday seasons
  • 15 community contributors on many areas of faith including Catholicism, Judaism, evangelical Christianity, Humanism, world faiths and more

But hold on to your seats, folks, because 2012 is going to bring amazing things to this venture.

In 2012, get ready for:

  • A spiffy new magazine-slick site launching in the spring (our national template from Religion News LLC) with daily quotes, featured stories and bloggers, a community religion calendar, community church/faith organization listings, opportunities to advertise, fund-raising events and so much more!
  • At least 30 community contributors writing about the faith issues and intersections of public life and religion today
  • More media partnerships in radio, online and more
  • More local faith news (I hope to get to write much more frequently as the new site launches.)
  • A community speakers bureau. Need an interesting speaker about the faith news of today for your next community organization meeting? Call on Religion News Wilmington.
  • More multimedia slideshows and locally-produced videos of faith events and views in the Wilmington area

So please keep reading and *Like* us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @iwritereligion.


Amanda Greene, Editor

‘We are one in Christ’ – three churches combine Christmas cantata efforts

By Amanda Greene
Religion News Wilmington

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They come from three different churches. One is an affirming congregation, welcoming gays, lesbians and supporters. One is the oldest African American church still standing in North Carolina. Another is a 90-year-old brick congregation off Market Street.

Though the congregations of St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church and the more petite Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian Church and Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church have some differences in beliefs and practices, they meet in the middle in song during the Christmas and Easter seasons.

Members of each church’s choirs are performing the soulful Christmas cantata “Magnify!” at7 p.m. Friday night, Dec. 9 at Pearsall Presbyterian, 3902 Market St. and at 7 p.m.  Saturday night, Dec. 10, at St. Jude’s MCC, 19 N. 26th St.

The 40 choir members jostled for space on risers, chatted and joked excitedly before launching into “O Holy Night” with spot-on harmony at a dress rehearsal for the cantata Thursday night.

“This cantata really is what the Christmas season is all about for us,” said Pearsall member Joy Shortell just before a gospel version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

The churches started collaborating on their Christmas cantata five years ago for practical as well as neighborly reasons – Pearsall didn’t have enough choir members to carry an entire cantata, said Rev. June Highfill, Pearsall’s pastor.

Since then, the joint performances and activities between the churches have evolved into joint worship services, picnics and visits to nursing homes.

But the cantata is still the jewel of their collaboration.

“It’s such an unbelievable experience when these people come together at Christmas and Easter,” said Rita Todd, a member at Chestnut Street Presbyterian. “I look forward to it every year.”

At least for Pearsall Presbyterian, the road to acceptance of the partnership with a congregation that accepts gays and lesbians was rocky at first, Highfill said.

“When sexual orientation is understood in the church as something we’re born with and, like gender and race, not a choice,” she added, “the church affords itself the opportunity to enjoy yet another part of the wonderful diversity with which God has blessed us.”

This summer, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., of which both Chestnut Street and Pearsall are member churches, voted to amend the Book of Order to a broader statement about who could be ordained. The new definition of those called to church office included the statement: “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”

Rev. John McLaughlin, pastor at St. Jude’s, said the three churches’ Christianity directs their sisterhood.

“All three churches are followers of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The professional direction of the choir this year has allowed us to relax and focus on the meaning behind the words as one community in Christ.”