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.
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 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 caftan — to resemble African royalty, she says — Sinclair searched the room for her sermon notes.
At Stateville, about three dozen maximum-security inmates were gathered in a drab gray and tan theater building on the prison grounds.
As the men sang gospel songs, Sinclair sat listening, at times nodding her head to affirm them. At one point she slumped her petite body into her chair and wrapped herself in a blanket to keep warm amid the drafts.
But when it came time to deliver the sermon, Sinclair stood from her wheelchair, tossed the blanket back from her shoulders and used her cane to walk to the wooden podium. As the men in the choir sang out, she turned to face them and rolled her shoulders, bopped her head and started to dance and sing along.
“I am so happy to be here,” she called out to the crowd, her voice strong. She told them she wanted to preach about a passage in the Bible’s book of James and how life’s circumstances can shape character.
“How many people got patience?” she asked, then looked among the men for their responses. “Now you do. Before you came here, you didn’t have an ounce of patience.”
She told them she knows many of them are fathers and that they must stay involved in their children’s lives.
“We look at our young people and wonder what’s wrong,” she said. “Well, the old people didn’t make time for them.”
Sinclair has transformed into that spiritual mother for dozens of men, some who count her as their only family, Jackson said.
“She doesn’t collect lawyers’ fees or a salary,” he said. “She does it because she cares.”
Sinclair was born in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1920. When her stepbrother, Eli Watson, was arrested and later died in custody in a prison farm, it lit a fire in her family.
Her mother, Jessie “Ma” Houston, began visiting the local jail every week with her Bible in hand, and she became one of the first and few black women to focus on ministering to prisoners. She continued the work after the family moved to Chicago in 1925.
Sinclair would later graduate from DuSable High School, get married and work as a phone order clerk for Montgomery Ward. She started accompanying her mother on her inmate visits in 1945, at first just because Houston needed a ride.
“What I remember is how brave my mother was,” Sinclair said. “When my mama went into the prisons, there weren’t many black preachers. All the prison chaplains were white. My mother insisted on being there.”
Eventually Sinclair became not just her mother’s chauffeur but her partner in spreading the gospel.
“When I started, I was standing in my mother’s fame,” she said. “I became her shadow.”
As life went on, Sinclair would wear many hats. She worked in administrative positions, as a hairdresser, a salon owner and a classroom assistant, and she taught early childhood learning. Eventually she became an ordained minister at Chicago’s St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
In her 60s, she joined the Peace Corps and served in Malawi. A few years later she enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University and obtained her bachelor’s degree.
“I’ve lived so much, I can’t remember everything,” she said.
Through it all, her weekly prison visits continued. She believes it’s where she’s needed most. She’s had a hand in creating programs that have helped prisons become places where inmates can transform their lives, not merely serve time. She realized she could advocate for inmates who were overlooked and often voiceless.
“There is so much that happens in the prisons,” she said. “I don’t just pray, jump up and down and preach. I investigate. I speak up for the brothers who can’t do it for themselves. I make sure they are treated with humanity.”
Eventually she was tapped to work full time as a chaplain for the Illinois Department of Corrections, and she made it her mission to get to know the inmates and their families. She drove hours to visit each institution to conduct her worship services. And she focused on ways to reform prisons so they actually rehabilitate men.
“I ain’t got time to tell you about Jesus. I’m busy doing what he did,” she said.
“We come in to preach and pray, but we also fight,” she said. “We’re going to be there for you — whatever it takes.”