In 1992, a seminarian asked Christie Billups to lend her musical talents for a Catholic Mass inside Cook County Jail.
Billups, who said she always "been drawn to people who were excluded or sometimes left out," knew immediately she'd found her calling. Now the peace studies adviser at Lewis University in Romeoville, Billups is sharing that calling with a unique event.
On March 4, the Still Point Theatre group will present an interactive play, "Visiting Room," at Lewis University about women who have experienced incarceration. Several women who were formerly incarcerated will present the play.
Sponsored by the Lewis University peace studies program and the Br. Jeffrey Gros, FSC Institute for Dialogue, Justice and Social Action, the play is performed by the women of Grace House and directed by Hector Alvarez, according to a news release from Lewis University.
Grace House is a part of St. Leonard's Ministries in Chicago, Billups said.
"The fact every human being is created by God and, therefore, is worthy of being valued and loved is a narrative a lot of people don't hear in relations to prisoners," Billups said.
Audience members will be invited to sit across from one of the performers to listen to "stories of struggle, loss, and redemption" according to the release.
"It's my understanding they bring someone from the audience to be the so-called visitor," Billups said. "And that person sits across from the woman getting ready to tell her story."
A discussion will follow this 30-minute play. Billups feels a performance of this kind is a good way to raise awareness about women and incarceration.
"In academic institutions, our go-to tends to be speakers, PowerPoints and lectures. I happen to be a huge fan of the power of the story," Billups said. "When we hear the story, and especially if we can hear the stories from the people who lived them, it changes people's mind and hearts in ways than simply imparting data."
Billups also feels the "Visiting Room" also will shine some light on what she considers "an invisible group of people." Many people associate incarceration with men than with women, understandable because "far more men are incarcerated than women," she said.
The need for awareness
But between 1980 and 2004, the incarceration rate for women went up 787 percent, Billups said. Part of this increase was because of the war on drugs, she said.
"A lot of women who had gotten caught up in addiction and other challenges related to the insurgence of drugs in the communities also got caught up in the desire to incarcerate, rather than to treat, people who had addictions," Billups said.
Many of these women also became "caught up" in violence related to addiction or abuse, Billups said. Again, many of these women were incarcerated as opposed to having the issues leading up the incarceration addressed, she added.
"How do we turn around the demonizing or marginalizing of people," Billups said. "We bring the resources that can help them heal so they can go back to being productive mothers and productive workers and productive people in the community, in ways that help them thrive."
Billups said she ministered at Cook County Jail through various programs, including music and a "ministry of presence," which meant listening to, as well as being there for, people.
"It really ignited a passion for me," Billups said. "All those stories and all those relationships really formed me in a lot of ways that I continue to try to teach about women."
The “Visiting Room” is part of Still Point’s Persephone Project which seeks to reduce recidivism rates and unemployment among women exiting the Illinois prison system. The program compensates participants for creating an original show and uses the tools of theater to teach transferable work skills to foster self-worth and dignity, according to a news release from Lewis University.
According to the Lewis University website, the peace studies minor is an interdisciplinary program within the College of Arts and Sciences, which engages students in addressing contemporary social justice problems.