ST. GABRIEL — Mary Riley has plenty in common with the manger that cradled the newborn baby Jesus.
That’s why, she said, it took her less than an hour to write a short story titled, “The Manger.”
The story, which she also illustrated, is now a 16-page children’s book that was recently given to hundreds of children at the annual Children’s Christmas Extravaganza at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.
“I identified with the little manger, because both of us plodded along our entire lives functional but not outstanding,” Riley, 69, said recently, reading from the book’s epilogue. “Then one day Jesus touched our lives.”
“They laid Jesus in the manger, and when he first touched the hay the manger was never the same,” Riley said. “The first moment Jesus touched my life, here in prison I was never the same.”
She is serving a life sentence at LCIW and has been in prison since 1985 for killing an Amite woman with a knife during a fight.
Riley’s life dramatically changed in 1992, when, she said, she heard the voice of God telling her to trust Him, so she did.
Since then, she has been active in the Christian community at the prison, where about 1,100 women are incarcerated. Two years ago, she enrolled in the newly established New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Extension program. To qualify, however, she had to pass an English course.
“Our first assignment on the first day was to pick an inanimate object out of the Bible and become the object and write a story,” Riley said in the prison chapel.
“Immediately to my mind — another God thing — came this picture,” she said, holding up the book showing the cover drawing of a smiling, straw-filled wooden manger. “And so I became the manger, and I wrote the story and (the instructor) just fell in love with it.”
Flory Reynolds is a retired English teacher who teaches the pre-seminary English class and also volunteers with the interdenominational Kairos program and the Roman Catholic Metanioa program.
“I had a red pen in my hand — as all English teachers do —- but I dared not put a red mark on that paper because the story was just so fabulous,” Reynolds said.
Later, Riley approached her with artwork for the story and wanted 250 color copies made to pass out to the children at the Extravaganza, Reynolds explained. Reynolds contacted LSU Press editors and designers and found a donor who paid for the publishing. The books were printed in October and given to the children on Dec. 1.
“It was a divine appointment,” Reynolds said. “It’s a gorgeous story, and Mary Riley’s own story is wonderful.”
Running from abuse
Riley doesn’t like to talk much about her life before finding God, but did say she grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, “in a very abusive family.”
She attended Sunday school and youth activities at a Methodist Church. “That’s where I was safe,” she said, but her mother used her love of church as punishment.
“We’d practiced Handel’s ‘Messiah’ for the choir for a year and then two days before the service, I was not allowed to go,” Riley said.
She ran away from home at the age of 13, went to New York City and lived on the streets. She joined the U.S. Navy at 18, “but that didn’t work out,” she said.
“I had several marriages — went from one man to another, anybody to take care of me that would show me some kind of love even though it wasn’t really love,” Riley said. “I didn’t know what love was until I came here.”
In 1965, she came to Louisiana, “the day (Hurricane) Betsy hit,” she said with a rueful smile. Her stormy personal life soon landed her in prison after she killed an alcoholic husband who she said often beat her.
“I went to a big family reunion with my eyes all black and blue,” she said, a frown clouding her countenance. “I told them, ‘If he beats me again, I’m gonna kill him,’ and the following day that’s what I did.”
She served five years in prison. Then in 1985, she got into the fight with the Amite woman, was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
Finding God, love in prison
“This is where I learned what love is really all about,” Riley said, a big smile brightening her face. “This is where I have family. We adopt the young girls as children. I have grandchildren in here. I have sisters in here and they love me.”
But she didn’t find that love right away. For many years, she was what she describes as “the hardest” of hard cases.
“I was filled with rage,” she said. “Everybody stayed away from me. Eight, nine years, I’d been that way most of my life. My life was filled with rage. That’s why it was so easy to kill somebody.”
But the steady, calming influence of a prison chaplain, the Rev. Gary Sumrall, slowly began to soften her hardness.
“He would walk through (the chapel sanctuary) and when he passed me, he’d tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Anytime you get ready to talk come see me,’ ” she said.
Sumrall also tapped her artistic abilities. She was a tutor in the sewing classes, so he had her sew banners for the sanctuary. She headed a painting crew, so he had her paint murals on the chapel walls.
Met God on a ladder
“I have a fear of heights — well, did have — and he would hold the ladder for me, because we had to sit it in the baptismal fount for me to get up high enough to reach,” Riley said. Then one day Sumrall didn’t show up, because he had to take some required vacation time.
“Somebody was going to have to hold this ladder and there was no one,” she said, “So I said, ‘God, if you want this done, you’re going to have to hold this ladder.’ And he said, ‘Have faith.’ ”
Did she actually hear a voice? “Yes!” Riley said.
“And I could put that ladder anywhere in that fount, standing on one leg, put it in impossible positions, and it never slipped, never fell,” she said. “And that did it.”
“He showed me I was worth saving, and I could trust him,” Riley said with another big smile. “It was an awesome experience with God. Needless to say, when reverend came back, that wall was finished.”
Sumrall baptized her in that chapel fount in 1994, and mentored her until he was transferred to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola several years ago. He has many fond memories of LCIW and his deep friendship with Riley.
“Words have power and because of that, I say what I mean and mean what I say,” Sumrall said in a slow, deliberate voice during a phone conversation about Riley. “There are some words I very rarely use and ‘mean’ is one of those words.
“Mary Riley was the meanest individual human I have ever met in my life when I first met her,” Sumrall said. “After working with her two solid years, she had a real encounter with the Lord, and she made a complete transformation.”
Sumrall credits Riley for being the driving force behind the annual Christmas Extravaganza that he then coordinated with Insight for Inmates beginning in 1998.
“It all started with one question she asked, ‘Chaplain why don’t we do this?’ ” Sumrall said. “She’s not stopped from the time she had that true conversion. She has been doing everything she could do for the (prison) church.”
Forgiveness behind the wire
Shortly after Riley’s “awesome experience” with God, her victim’s granddaughter was incarcerated at LCIW for a 21-year sentence.
“She hated me with a passion, and they not only put her on the same wing with me, she was downstairs right across to where every time we stood count we stood looking at each other,” Riley said.
For two years Riley showed her kindness and eventually they worked together on the same painting crew. After a poignant Mother’s Day-themed Bible lesson, Riley said, “she looked at me and said, ‘Miss Mary, I always wanted a mother who would love me unconditionally and you’ve shown me that. Do you mind if I call you Momma?’ ”
“For the next 17 years she did,” Riley said with tears welling up in her blue eyes. “When she left here, she still called me Momma.”
A Bible student, counselor
Riley has taken every Bible class offered and has read her Bible cover to cover “at least five times,” she said.
She especially enjoys the seminary classes, although she is glad the Greek course is completed.
Kristi Miller, prison chaplain and instructor for the seminary’s 24 students, credits Sumrall for bringing the seminary to LCIW, specifically for women such as Riley.
“She’s like any senior adult going back to college,” Miller said. “It’s hard, but she rises to the occasion. She is a great student.”
Riley counsels many of the newly incarcerated women, Miller said, and is a mentor to many others.
“She really has a heart for these young women in helping them build their self-esteem, helping them find their identity in Christ,” Miller said. “She sees firsthand how God has brought healing in her own life through forgiveness and redemption, and she’s hungry to see that in other people’s lives. I call her one of my ‘elders.’ She is definitely an example, a great resource for these younger ladies.”
In spite of a life sentence, Riley said she has found joy in her circumstance.
“God can use even the lowest object or person to do his will even an old beat-up manger or an old sinner,” Riley said, quoting from her book’s epilogue. “When Jesus was lifted out of the manger there was a lasting impression left behind.
“Nineteen years ago Jesus came into my life and left a lasting impression on me also.”
She added, “Anyone can change no matter your circumstances — even in deep sin, no matter what — God loves you. Look what he did for us at Christmas time.”