Widow, 79, serves faithfully in prisons
ST. LOUIS—Most would think that a woman of 79 years would just relax, enjoy her time alone, and just spend time in her garden or on the telephone making sure her grandchildren stay spoiled. While this may be the norm, St. Louis County resident and member of South County Baptist Church, Ann Jesse, is far from typical.
Being married and widowed twice, she now lives in a quiet neighborhood in South St. Louis. Though she lives in a residential area, she makes a point of going to those who aren’t quite as blessed.
With both of her husbands being killed in random, bizarre accidents—a falling tree killed Art Rosen, and Lyman was killed by a tractor that fell on him—Jesse has had many opportunities to share her testimony about God’s provision during hard times.
Shortly after Lyman’s passing, Jesse began teaching fifth graders at Riverview Baptist Church.
“That was when God called me to do something I had never thought twice about doing,” Jesse said. “When I was simply content with teaching fifth graders, the Lord began to convict me. He’d ask me the simple question, ‘Do you love ALL my children?’” The conviction grew louder and stronger throughout the weeks leading up to Jesse surrendering her life to a new and unexpected ministry.
“The Sunday morning I surrendered my life to prison ministry, my pastor preached on Jonah,” she said. “Jonah did not love the people of Nineveh, and I realized that my answer to the question the Lord had been asking me was similar to Jonah’s, ‘No, I didn’t love all His children.’”
Jesse had been a volunteer on the Mission Service Corps for a while where she would go with groups of people to other countries such as Russia, but not to criminals right here in the United States.
“I fought with God for months about it … I even went to nursing homes thinking to myself ‘now this should satisfy God,’ but in the end I was just running away and justifying my actions like Jonah did,” Jesse said. “That was when God said to me, ‘These (in prison or jail) are my children too, Ann.’”
“When I heard God say that to me in an almost audible voice, I called the sheriff of Miller County and asked him if he would let me lead Bible study in a local correctional facility. Of course I didn’t think he’d take me up on it, but he did!
“When I arrived there my task was to lead the women of the facility in Bible Study. These women, the ones I was so afraid of, they were just like us, they just made mistakes.”
After that first Bible study with the women Jesse believed she was finished. Then a guard said, “Are you ready to see the men?”
“I didn’t know what to do so I just said OK,” she said.
She was let into a gym where the men were. “When I first saw the men, they looked like giants to me. I mean they were, some of them being seven feet tall or taller, but as I began telling them, ‘God loves you,’ they went down to normal size. It was like the Philistine army and the Israelites.”
News traveled about Jesse’s ministry. The pastor at Riverview Baptist, Chuck Phillips, called and said, “Hawthorne needs a Bible study.” “All I could do was go. The Lord was opening doors, and who am I to not respond to His voice,” Jesse said.
“I realized they’re people just like us, and they need God.”
That Friday night men came to Jesus Christ and accepted Him as the Lord of their life. God’s ways are so amazing that He even set up the time that Jesse would be there, a Friday night. Because of this, two Muslim men went to the Bible study thinking that it had to be a Muslim service that takes place on Friday night. Little did they know that they would meet the real Lord that night, not Allah, but the loving, full-of-grace Savior, Jesus Christ.
“I have learned when God tells me to just do it,” Jesse said. “There are times when I have no idea why in the world He wants me to do things, but if I just obey Him, what great blessings I receive.”
Such was the case for Jesse one night as she was returning home from ministering at a nursing home. “I kept hearing the Holy Spirit tell me to go to Hy-Vee …again I began to argue with Him saying, come on, it’s been a long day, Lord … there’s nothing I need at Hy-Vee. Nevertheless God kept on telling me to go to Hy-Vee, so I went.”
“Well, I got there, went inside, and just stood around trying to look like I was there for something. I said ‘OK, you got me here, now what?’ All of a sudden I heard a man say my name, ‘Ann?’”
Turning around she didn’t recognize him, considering it had been eight years since she had last seen him. The young man went on to say, “I was in your Bible study at the Miller County Jail.” He went on to tell her that while he was in jail he’d met another man who also came to the Lord. Now they are active members in their church and the two recently stood up in front of their church and gave their testimonies.
Before Gov. Matt Blunt closed Hawthorne prison, Jesse went there to lead Bible study. As she was in the hallway a large man walked by Jesse and said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in your Bible study.”
Unafraid to speak, Jesse turned to him and with her finger pointed straight at Him said, “Son, one day you’re gonna be standing before God and He’s gonna ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my kingdom?,’ and you won’t have an answer and then He’ll remind you that you had a chance to hear and accept His truth but you said that you’d rather be dead than hear it.” The study started, and quietly in the back Jesse saw that same man sneak in to listen to God’s Word being taught.
“What are the people doing?” asked Jesse. “We need to reach out to these people before they get into trouble. My family and other Christian brothers and sisters think I’m crazy, but I’ve learned that when God speaks I better listen. Not only are the people we come into contact with blessed when we obey, but we’re even more blessed by obeying the voice of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesse has allowed the Lord to use her in mighty ways, but it wasn’t always that way. Just like many of us Jesse said, “Before I was called to the prison ministry I realized that I didn’t love those kinds of people.” God’s Word is sharper than a two-edged sword, and he used it, along with His own conviction through the Holy Spirit, to call Jesse. In Isaiah 6 after King Uzziah’s death, the Lord asked the prophet Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”
“Why don’t people want to do God’s work?” she asked. “People have different callings, that’s true, but I know of many Christians who just sit around and do nothing but use excuses.
“People come up to me and ask questions like, ‘How can you surround yourself in those situations?’ and make comments like ‘I could never do that!’ They are people just like you and me, and the prison ministry is a ministry that teaches people what love is. God taught me what love is, and He can do the same for you.”
Every Saturday she goes to the St. Louis Justice System to lead Bible study. While she is there she uses the study, “Lessons for Christian Living” by William MacDonald. Jesse is actively involved in Prison Fellowship and Set Free Ministry.