God’s image dwells in all of us. It is part of the stuff of which we are made; it is reflected in our lives, however imperfectly. —Fr. Dominic Grassi / Bumping into God Again
Both the Old and New Testaments talk about the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and in them we can read that the Holy Spirit is more than just a force of God. It is God himself and is one of the three persons of God, part of the Trinity, God’s own presence. In Genesis 1:2 the Bible says that the Holy Spirit was present and actively involved in the creation of everything including humanity. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit manifests itself in the form of tongues of fire the Day of the Pentecost, and in 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul talks about many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit among which we can find wisdom, knowledge, healing, speaking in tongues and prophecy. As Daniel Migliore said “The Holy Spirit as attested by Scripture is the presence and power of God at work in the world to accomplish God’s purposes”
In the Evangelical tradition in which I grew up, the Holy Spirit equally has a very important role. The Holy Spirit is a living manifestation of the church and what we believe and how we believe. There are countless songs dedicated to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is invoked in one way or another in the church gatherings, assemblies or meetings. Many times in sermons and prayers, the name of the Holy Spirit or “Espiritu Santo” is mentioned even more than God the Father.
Without doubt, the Holy Spirit is an important and significant part of my tradition. Yet, despite all this, I never felt or experienced the Holy Spirit at my church or in any church-related activity.
Very often in my younger years, I struggled to communicate with God. I’d heard people in my church talk about how God communicates to and with them, or how they’d heard the voice of God or even dreamed about it. The Holy Spirit makes them speak in tongues or reveals something to them but none of those things ever happens to me. So I concluded that either something was wrong with me or perhaps I did not speak to God in the right way.
In my early twenties and when I was a third year Law student, a teacher and missionary from Venezuela was invited to my church to help the young adults get involved in social justice programs: we visited orphanages, drug rehabilitation centers and also started visiting some prisons (as a law student, the latter was my main interest).
I had visited prisons in the past, but only for research or homework. However, as a person raised in the church, I wanted to visit prisons in a less formal matter, to fulfill God’s mandate.
My church didn’t have a prison ministry program so we joined a prison ministry program lead by the International Baptism Church in my country called “Corazones sin Barreras” or “Hearts without Barriers”. The first prison I visited through the program was the Correctional for Young Males; we were part of the educational program and helped the illiterate inmates with their writing and reading skills. That experience was not what I thought it would be. I didn’t enjoy the program because it was very difficult to get the inmates to focus on class – they were often preoccupied with how to get intimate with us. This eventually led to splitting of the program into gender groups: women visited and ministered in the women and young girls’ prisons and men visited and ministered in men and boys’ prisons.
The second prison I visited was the women’s prison, and I enjoyed my time there better! The women’s prison not only had an educational program but also a technical training program and bible studies. Over all, it was a more comfortable environment for me to work in. After almost a year in the program, I became very “comfortable” visiting the prison. The guards were not difficult and the female inmates were comfortable with our presence. One day while working on a craft project with some of the women, out of the blue, one of them said to me, “I can tell you are loved.” Without pausing to think much about it, I responded with a smile and in what supposedly was the ‘right Christian way,’ “You are, too!” I thought I was being a good Christian and an educated person with my answer, but the lady started crying and said “No! You are really loved! I can tell, because I’ve never been.”
Until that point my visits to the prison were just routines. Something I did because I enjoyed it, but it lacked any real depth and personal meaning for me. After that day, I had many more conversations about love, family, life, pain and suffering with several other women, as well as that same woman. And suddenly, I started to feel in the prison, a presence that I’d never felt before. Somehow…God was there!
Until that point, I thought I was changing people’s lives by visiting them in prison, but instead God was changing mine. I started to feel different -mostly grateful, and I realized that many things in my seemingly, ordinary life and which I took for granted, were in fact blessings. A loving and caring family, clothes, food, education, protection, understanding, people who listen to my silly complaints, medicine when I need it, etc..
I knew, but did not really know how important those things were in a person’s life.
I do not have a clear image of the Holy Spirit, but I know the Holy Spirit is a life changing force, an instrument of God, and at the same time part of God. The Holy Spirit is life-filling, invigorating, transforming, and overpowering. And after that experience of God’s presence in the prison, which I believe is the first and most vivid time I was ever conscious of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, my communication with God blossomed; it stopped being uncertain and undefined. I still do not hear the voices or have the dreams that many of the people in my tradition experience, and I certainly cannot speak in tongues, but I learned to communicate with God in my own terms, and also to more listen more carefully.
The trinitarian persons (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit), are precisely, not self-enclosed subjects who define themselves in separation from and opposition to others. Rather, in God, “persons” are relational realities and are defined by intersubjectivity, shared consciousness, faithful relationships, and the mutual giving and receiving of love. –Daniel Migliore, in Faith Seeking Understanding
One of the greatest discoveries in my ministry, was that the Holy Spirit does not live in a specific place or person; but everywhere and in everyone created by God’s inclusive, all-encompassing and unconditional love, and that includes prisons and prisoners.
And if God does not discriminate in dwelling in humans and indiscriminately being present in all kinds of places, how can it be okay that women are discriminated against in church leadership and are oppressed and marginalized in all places in society, including the church?
Would the God Who so freely and so indiscriminately dwells among and in humans, including even prisoners and prisons, neglect to call a woman to any role or capacity in the church and in world???
So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts11:17)
Jhanderys Dotel-Vellenga is a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to the United States in 2013 to pursue a theological education. Before moving to the United States she was a missionary in a Caribbean-based council for mission. She’s worked on issues of Human Trafficking, Gender Based Violence, Hegemony and Prison Ministry.
and lived in Grenada (West Indies) where she was part of Her Majestic Prison educational program and taught Spanish, Personal Development and Pacific Resolution of Conflicts.
Jhanderys has a great interest in interfaith relationships and multicultural communities as well as social justice and equality. She has visited several countries and participated in several international gatherings and trainings which equipped her with a multicultural education and opportunities for personal and ministry growth.
As a youth, she developed a lifelong passion for mission and empowerment of the disenfranchized. As an adult life, she’s convinced of the importance of and committed to social justice. Her goal is to awaken this awareness and committed in others by motivating and encouraging others by her own examples, giving her best in all she does, and never being afraid to say “I don’t know”. Through her passion and commitment, she hopes to inspire people to find creative and positive ways of dealing with the problems that are part of their lives.