My First Day as a Jail Chaplain by Mary Ann D'Onoforio

Preface from Julie Markese, Director of Thrive Church Network and Church Coaching: A few weeks ago, I had a chance to catch up with Mary Ann D’Onofrio, who is an ordained chaplain, on what God has been doing in her ministry. She is seeing tremendous results! During our conversation, she recounted the story of her first day as a County Jail chaplain, and I’m sharing it with you.

It’s challenging to be a woman in vocational ministry. Mary Ann has a congregation of 900 and she preaches four times a week. This may be the first time many of you are hearing about the revival in the DuPage County jail. I hope we can better encourage and support the women in our District who are making such a difference. JM

When I accepted a position as a prison chaplain for DuPage County in April 2011, I was excited but largely clueless about the great prejudice against women in ministry. On my first day, I was frisked, given a badge, had my picture taken, given a short tour of a very large facility, handed a set of keys, and then told “get to work.” I soon discovered not everyone was excited about me being there. 

I was assigned to a basement office with three male volunteer chaplains who appeared to run the place. One was old and kind, another wary, and the third one harsh. When I entered the office, he leaned in close to my face and said “Hey, girly girl, you might as well pack up your bags now and take yourself home. This is not a place for a woman. You should not be here. You are unqualified because you are a woman. You should not minister to men. No man will ever want to talk to you. Get out!” I could not believe the hatred and prejudice in the voice of another minister. 

But as I listened more closely, I heard another voice – the voice of fear. I began to pray. “Lord, am I such a threat to his masculinity and his perceived religiosity that he really believes You cannot use me?” The Lord responded, “Jesus ministered to all, and you should, too.” Simple … easy. And so I said to this man, “God has placed a clear calling on my life, to be here in this jail. Jesus loved everyone, listened to their stories, and met them right where they were, no matter if they were male, female, Jew, Greek, free, or slave. Until God tells me differently, I’m here at His will to love His people. I’m not leaving until He tells me to!”

Five years later, I’m still here. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only time I have encountered that chaplain’s attitude. It makes me sad, and I don’t understand it. God has used me in this jail. I preach four services a week, do pastoral counseling, approve religious diets, and oversee 30 volunteers. My husband and I teach a parenting class together. I’m a mom to many inmates who have never known a mother’s love. I’m a friend and a pastor to many who are coming to church for the first time in their lives.