On March 25, 2015, Jena Barnhill emerged from the water at Crossings Community Church. Looking into the crowd, she saw her roommates and Stand in the Gap family. The women were on their feet cheering. They had come in spite of the spring storm and tornado sirens outside.
Jena looked down at her ankle to the symbol of her past. Unwrapping the tight layers of plastic trash bags and tape from her leg, she could tell that her Department-of-Corrections-issued GPS ankle monitor had suffered no ill effects from it’s submersion in water. Two years later, Jena tears up at the memory. “The monitor wasn’t supposed to be underwater, but I knew God would protect that ankle monitor for my baptism,” she says.
In 1998, Jena was an overweight 21-year-old living in her hometown in California. From an early age, she struggled with an addiction to food. Her weight became part of her personality and a large part of the way she viewed herself and context for her relationships with other people. That year, she had gastric bypass surgery forcing her to stop using food in the same way. The weight came off quickly and with it, Jena says, “I began to lose pieces of who I was.” At the same time, her mom and stepfather were divorcing. “My world was turned up-side-down.” Jena calls herself “very young” and “unequipped” to deal with the rapid and radical changes in her life.
She began drinking heavily. One night, after the bars closed, an acquaintance introduced her to methamphetamine. Jena calls meth “an instant hook.” After one hit, Jena was an everyday user.
Drugs led Jena and her boyfriend, Rich, into criminal behavior. Jena lost her job after attempting to embezzle from her employer. She went to jail in California on seven misdemeanor charges. She says, “I became this person that my family no longer knew.”
After a few years, Jena and Rich decided to escape their troubles by moving to Oklahoma, Rich’s home state. By the time Jena had their son, Brantley, in 2004, Jena and Rich were using drugs regularly and “involved in criminal activity.” Brantley was adopted by Rich’s mother before Jena delivered their daughter, Colby, a few years later.
“For the first three years of her life,” Jena remembers, “we couldn’t get it together.” Colby was in foster care when Jena picked up the charges that sent her to drug court. While participating in drug court, Jena did not use drugs. But she could not stop the criminal behavior. The excitement and cash influx of her lawless behavior, she believes, was more addicting to her than drugs ever were. However, immediately following her May graduation from drug court, with all charges against her dismissed, Jena began using drugs again. By June, she “picked up another case” that would eventually land her in prison.
“I became this person that my family no longer knew.”
Jena was incarcerated for two and a half years. She served time at Eddie Warrior and then Kate Barnard Correctional Centers. At Eddie Warrior, she started attending nightly church services. Each night, Jena was in tears. “At the time,” she remembers, “I thought ‘Why am I so affected by this?’ Now I know it was the Holy Spirit working in me.”
She attended Stand in the Gap’s Women in Transition class. Meeting the instructor, Rhonda Bear, was a watershed moment for Jena. “I thought that because I’d been in prison, my life was over. Rhonda did not embody anything like my stereotypical idea of what an ex-offender looked like. That gave me hope.”
After being transferred to Kate Barnard, Jena became close friends with Tammy Franklin who was, at the time, a fellow inmate. Tammy discipled Jena in the early days of her faith in Christ. When Jena’s release date drew near, Tammy suggested she take the Women in Transition class again. Jena says that taking the class again, this time with facilitator Kathy Peacock, “reminded me that I needed a [post-release] plan.”
Jena applied to live at the Hope House, a Stand in the Gap transitional living partner in Oklahoma City. “I knew that my journey as a Christ-centered woman had just begun and I wasn’t ready to put a stop to it.” Transitional living homes provide accountability, security, and structure for women as they transition out of prison. “It’s such a transition period. So much can go wrong,” Jena says. “I couldn’t have asked for a safer place to be.”
But living at the Hope House meant a huge sacrifice for Jena. Women who live in the Hope House must commit to no romantic relationships for one year. “I have known Rich for half of my life,” Jena says. “I thought, we won’t be together while I’m in the program, then we will just be together after.” But after a few months, “I began to feel what it felt like to stand on my own two feet. I had never had that before. I realized I could never go backwards.” Today, Jena and Rich co-parent their two children, who primarily live with Rich in Texas, but they haven’t been a couple since they were each released from prison.
“Now I know it was the Holy Spirit working in me.”
Jena was introduced to her Stand in the Gap small group a few months after moving into the Hope House. Unusually for her, she felt an instant connection to the four women who made up her Stand in the Gap small group. “I feel like God guided me through the process of being vulnerable and it has been easy for me. This group encouraged me to get honest with myself and share that with other people. It’s a relief. I know they are going to love me, no matter what I say, no matter what I disclose, it’s a loving relationship.”
At their regular group get-togethers every woman shared her God sightings and prayer requests. Two years after their first meeting, Jena’s small group still meets for dinner as often as possible. Jena feels like participating in the lives of women who have had many different life experiences has provided her with invaluable perspective and life skills. Her faith has grown “immensely” by praying for and being prayed for by them. She takes great comfort in knowing they are “a phone call away.”“I just love them,” Jena says of her SITGM small group. “I can’t even put words to it. I’m very grateful.”
In the years since her release, Jena was baptized at Crossings Community Church where she remains active in her spiritual journey. To this day, she tears up when she hears the song “Oceans” by Hillsong, which was playing during her baptism. She is currently volunteering in a new Stand in the Gap small group, mentoring a woman who has just been released from prison.
She has worked her way up from entry-level cashier to Corporate Trainer and Catering Representative with Schlotzsky’s. Her job takes her across the country, training new employees and helping to open new franchise locations.
Jena’s mother moved from California to be near Jena and her grandchildren. Jena and her mom live together and are working to rebuild the relationship they had before Jena’s addictions.
Although Brantley and Colby live in Texas, Jena sees them as often as possible. She is restoring her relationships with both of her children and is in the process of becoming Colby’s legal guardian.
“I’d be a liar if I said that life was just perfect,” Jena admits. “But I prayerfully get through each day and I trust in God to make a way for us. If I believe that, then there is hope.”
Formerly incarcerated women are ready and waiting to be matched with a Women in Transition small group of mentors.
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