Becoming a pastor wasn’t always on the cards for Sharon Ball, but when life turned her on, she found her calling serving the needs of those behind prison walls. Today, December marks Ball’s first month as a new chaplain serving inmates at the South Dakota Prison for Women in Pierre.
Ball wasted no time meeting his new congregation, leading the Saturday night service at the facility on East Highway 34 near the National Guard compound. Sunday night service takes place at the out-of-town placement just east of the National Guard.
Ball’s life took a turn for the worse when her then-husband, 35, was sentenced to two years in prison. And not long after her husband went to jail, her son was there for five years.
Ball said their home state of Oklahoma does not have family members at the same facility, leaving his visits shared with one on Saturday and the other on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Ball decided to get his Bachelor of Arts degree to become a pastor. She hoped her path would lead her to serve within the prison walls, but there was no guarantee that this was where life would lead her.
In 2011, Ball became an ordained chaplain and eventually remarried. Her current husband is a deacon in Oklahoma who plans to visit her in Peter before Christmas.
While in Oklahoma, Ball remained spiritually active, serving as a musician playing the piano and organ in various churches. But with the sting of her son and ex-husband in prison, Ball said she felt ostracized in her community.
âIt was almost like people would choose to walk across the street when they saw me coming,â she said. âThey really didn’t know what to do with me. There are a lot of women like me, through no fault of theirs, who overnight their lives become incredibly painful. Of course, in the South Dakota Women’s Prison, there is a reason they are there, in my situation on the outside my heart went out to them.
Ball preached to incarcerated women in the presence of the Church of Hope’s steering committee as part of a four-day interview process in October.
âYou could almost hear an audible gasp from the prisoners as I told them my story,â she said. “Afterwards, one of the committee members said to me, ‘You had them in the palm of your hand. They knew you had a difficult life, no different from theirs.'”
Ball believed her insight as a person with previously incarcerated family members led to her selection as a chaplain.
“Believe me, I have scars on my heart, and the prisoners have scars,” she said.
Ball said she does not call women “inmates,” which she said was contemptuous and dehumanizing.
Ball understands that the Church of Hope is not and cannot be supported by its parishioners, who are within the walls of the prison.
âAt the moment, my understanding is that the Church of Hope is in a stable financial position, even though things have gone badly during the year of COVID,â said Ball, whose contract is for all of 2022. “Many churches are supporting this ministry, but the need is ongoing. And, whatever you offer to give, like Bibles, you want to offer to everyone as well as to the 450 women in prison.”
Ball said the church is also providing an outing bag with toiletries and other essentials, and that other organizations are also helping to get back to “normal” life.
âCertainly we invite financial donations,â she said. “And we invite volunteers – they are a real encouragement where women feel lonely and abandoned. I have been told that most of the churches in the Peter and Fort Peter area support this ministry.”
Peter’s First Baptist Church led the ministry along with other churches before the board of directors hired Ball.
âLauriel Wempe, Care Pastor, has been a soldier keeping the fort through this COVID mess,â said Pastor Russell Jones. “I have helped from time to time, doing a few baptisms, but I have no official connection with the Church of Hope. We have a few members of the board of directors in our congregation.”
Ball said the Community Bible Church, led by Pastor Chance Sumner, assembles 500 gift bags – gallon Ziploc bags of essentials such as socks.
âFor a lot of women, this will be the only Christmas they will have,â Ball said.
Ball has a busy schedule ahead of her, with sermon preparation only part of her job.
There are several specific hours, currently 17 and increasing, at the prison for women to sign up for 30-minute pastoral counseling sessions. There is even talk of a future Praise Band made up of female prisoners.
And there is also the bottom-to-top work associated with any new leadership position.
âThe job involves a certain amount of public relations work,â Ball said. “I hope to support local churches, such as Sunday mornings when their pastors need to be away. The things we do throughout the year will include things such as organizing inspirational books through the Hospice Thrift Store.”
Ball also said that the “In Concert for Christmas” at First United Methodist Church from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on December 12 would raise free will offerings for the Church of Hope.
Ball said people face many challenges with daily chores after serving prison time that others might not consider in their daily routine.
âInstitutionalized people develop coping skills, some of which must be forgotten and relearned,â Ball said. âIt’s overwhelming to come out. You have to make choices. How am I going to work? Some who may have been incarcerated at a young age don’t know how to hold a checking account and other things that most of us take for granted. “
Education is another area where people who have finished serving their sentence may run into problems. Ball is more familiar with Oklahoma stats, but is working to catch up on issues directly related to South Dakota.
“In Oklahoma, only one in four prisoners overall has third-grade reading skills – virtually not literate,” she said. âIt makes life pretty dark once you’re released. You no longer have a driver’s license, and now with an incarceration record, who would hire you anyway? “
Jones said his congregation is trying to support the Church of Hope.
âWe can do more to help women on their spiritual journey,â he said. âWhen they come out, I think there is a weak point in their reintegration into society. We can do more to help them integrate. Many of these women, if they fall back into their old lives, will end up in prison. “
Ball wants to address the issues women face after release. And while it can be a daunting task, she remained optimistic about its impact.
Ball told this desire through a story that she says is as old as the hills. Someone was picking up beached starfish from the tide and throwing them inside. Someone told the person that he couldn’t make a real difference with all starfish. Then the person exclaimed, as they sent back another starfish, “I made a difference for that one. “
âIf I can make a difference for a woman, it will be a start,â Ball said.