Brenda Lovelady Spahn knew at eleven years old that she was called to missions. She wanted to be a missionary in a foreign land. She did not heed her individual call from God until 2004.
After a brush with the legal system, God had her attention. She realized what that "foreign land" looked like - and it was right here in Birmingham, Alabama.
Brenda began the ministry with her daughter Melinda MeGahee (the current Director of The Lovelady Center) by entering the Birmingham Work Release Center to bring hope through the love and promises of Jesus Christ.
Part of Brenda and Melinda's ministry was to pray with the women who were being released, only to see them return to prison! Seeing this "revolving door" of the prison system made it clear that there was no viable rehabilitation/life-changing program for recently released female inmates in Alabama. This was a rehabilitative failure that Brenda and her daughter could not accept. Being the crusader that she is, Brenda decided it was time for a change.
Brenda had heard some of the women talk about going through a half-way house, and how little those places had helped them. This was the inspiration for Brenda's concept of a "whole-way house."
"Because God doesn't do ANYTHING half-way," she often says.
Brenda decided that she wanted to open the doors of her own home to female inmates and give them an opportunity - to teach them how to live a new life.
Let that sink in. She brought them into her home to live with her.
Excerpt from the July 5, 2005 Birmingham News Article, still featured on the Prison Talk website, "From Prison to Mansion, Ex-inmates Get Fresh Start"
Faith and fear
From her days at Tutwiler Prison, Richardson already knew, and Spahn has learned fast: The baggage that female prisoners carry is heavy.
Betty Shipp, a 23-year-old resident who spends much of her time hiding behind the music from her headphones, was locked in prison from the age of 14. She served nine years of a 20-year sentence for her role in a Montgomery murder.
But before all that, Shipp was shuffled through foster homes, some where she was abused. She's not sure why she spent so much time in foster care. "When my eyes opened, I was in prison, 14, and I was still pretty much a child. I never got a chance to ask those questions," she said.
One day, Spahn took Shipp to Chuck E. Cheese. The young woman returned home with plastic rings on her fingers that she'd won at the games.
The program is a faith-based nonprofit and receives no government funding. Each woman with a job pays $110 a week. Spahn, who is married with four adult children and an adopted 5-year-old son, said she'll soon need help paying the bills and may apply for grants.
A recent Wednesday night devotional began with the praise report, a chance for the women to pass along bits of good news.
One woman had gotten a job at a Waffle House. Another was getting married.
"I finally got to go to the dentist," Shana Daniel, 27, said, showing off a sparkly set of teeth. She's there for drug possession. Spahn has spent thousands on teeth. Drug use and prison dentistry, where extraction is the rule, have ravaged mouths. She's praying for dental charity.
After the testimonials, Spahn, also an ordained minister, shared a spiritual lesson. "What every single one of us is dealing with right now is a lost battle, not a war. We're walking through the consequences right now, but it has nothing to do with our salvation. Man doesn't forgive like God does," she told them.
For comic relief, she told a story, starring Curry, about the night an alarm went off. Curry called Spahn, who was out of town, and Spahn told her to go lock the basement door. Curry was scared. She covered the phone and yelled to her housemates, "She says one of y'all have to go down there and lock the basement door."
It was decided that everyone would go. They proceeded in a daisy chain, holding hands for safety in case of a burglar. A couple of the women grabbed kitchen knives.
"These are the hardened criminals I have in this house," Spahn said.
The Lovelady "Whole-Way House" began with seven women in Miss Brenda's home, and has grown into The Lovelady Center, serving over 500 women and children daily.
Brenda has chronicled the intriguing story of Lovelady's beginnings in her book, Miss Brenda and the Loveladies, soon to be a major motion picture by Lionsgate.
With her daughter Melinda by her side, Brenda has watched The Lovelady Center grow into the largest transitional program of its kind in the country.
The Lovelady Center receives no state or federal funding because it is a faith-based, Christ-centered program.