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Health & Spirit

At 98, Chicago chaplain still brings her ministry to Illinois prisons every Sunday: 'How can I quit when people need me?'

Lolly Bowean, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

She doesn't remember the Scriptures or her sermons the way she used to.

And where the former chaplain once strode easily into prisons across Illinois, now a guard guides her through the gates of Stateville Correctional Center in a wheelchair.

But at 98 years old, Helen Sinclair is still as resolute in her mission as she was when she started ministering to men in prison nearly 75 years ago.

The way she sees it, it's her job to remind men who have been convicted and condemned that they are still loved by God, and that they have a purpose to fulfill, even while locked up.

"I feel like I'm here to serve," she said during a recent interview at her home on Chicago's South Side, decorated with artwork made for her by inmates. "How can I quit when people need me? I know I wouldn't have lived this long if I hadn't been doing this work."

And so Sunday after Sunday, despite her aging body and fragile memory, Sinclair journeys to state prisons to lead worship services she has designed to resemble traditional church affairs. She sings, offers prayers, teaches about black history and shouts words of encouragement. She offers hugs and broad smiles. She listens as the inmates testify about how God has helped them find their better selves and a sense of peace.

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The inmates call her Queen Mother. It's a name that's been embraced by her entire community.

"In her work, she found her name and her passion," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who through his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition provides support staff and other resources so Sinclair can continue her weekly prison visits. "There are some people in prison. Some have done things that are horrendous. Others are victims of their circumstances. They all need parents who will adopt them in a spiritual sense."

On a recent Sunday, Sinclair and her six-member team gathered in her living room in Bronzeville and said a quick prayer before making the hourlong drive to the prison near Joliet.

Wearing her signature colorful fabric head wrap and a long, colorful kaftan -- to resemble African royalty, she says -- Sinclair searched the room for her sermon notes.

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