Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Christmas at the Prison Chapel
This ceramic nativity set looks almost exactly like the one at the prison chapel. I wish I could show you real pictures, but cameras are prohibited.
We left my little church promptly after morning service, calling "Merry Christmas" to my parishioners as we headed out the door. It had been a good service, with several visitors. I was already tired, but now we rushed to drive about twenty-five miles to the prison where my husband, Ken, is a chaplain.
For over fifteen years I have accompanied my husband "inside" on Christmas Day. The prison is lovely, by prison standards. It started out as a reform school for boys and evolved into a men's prison some years ago. It is nestled in rolling hills about ten miles from the nearest town. This prison is unlike other Wisconsin prisons. Instead of a square cement yard surrounded by razor-wire topped walls with four guard towers, the institution is deceptively school-like at first glance. But it is a prison, nonetheless, and if one has any illusions about that they evaporate at first sight of the intimidating chain link double fences topped with coils of razor wire, the seven guard towers, and the clanging gates. What started as a school for a few hundred boys has become a crowded prison for over 1,000 men.
Ken is already at the prison chapel. Our daughter, Kris, and her husband, Daryl, accompany me inside the gatehouse. The gatehous staff are polite today--oh good. This is not always the case, and I never know what to expect. These guards are efficiently pleasant as they process us through the metal detector and on through the gate. A prison van transports us past the block "units" where inmates are housed to the pointy-topped chapel. Having originally been part of a juvenile institution means that the prison's "chapel" is not just a space in some drab meeting room, as is the case elsewhere. It is actually a separate building designed for worship. This is an unusual blessing, and the inside has a bit of the feel of life at any church, anywhere.
We head for Ken's office in the chapel basement. Upstairs, we hear a volunteer, Father Joe, conducting a Christmas Day Mass. He has a nice cantor voice, and I venture up to listen for awhile, sitting in the back row. The chapel is decorated for the Christmas season with a nativity scene very much like the one pictured above. Flashing lights abound, a bit distracting for me, but a touch of color in an otherwise drab environment. A guady Christmas tree adorns the platform next to Father Joe as he stands at the altar table. Someone has draped the drum set with many strings of flashing lights, and I wonder if it bothers the good Father? "Peace be with you" says the elderly priest, as a guard's two-way radio squawks and crackles loudly in the rear of the chapel.
We will have two Protesant worship services today. My husband checks inmates in and Kris and Daryl shake their hands and welcome them to chapel. I hear, "Merry Christmas, Ms George!" "How are you, Rev. George? Good to see you...so nice to have your daughter here...Wow, she sure looks like her daddy..." "Joyful Christmas!" "Feliz Navidad!" "Blessed Christmas, Miz George and Chaplain George..." "This is my last Christmas inside, Reverend Pastor Mrs. George. Next year I will be home." "You all have a blessed Christmas!" "Today is Jesus' birthday!" No "Happy Holiday" greeting inside the prison chapel.
In spite of smiling greetings, there is an underlying air of sadness that shows in the men's faces--too deep for words but glistening in eyes--even as mouths smile. It is impossible to forget that the congregation is all male, is all dressed in an ugly green, is mostly wishing they were elsewhere.
When the first service begins, the place is full to capacity. The choir sings a gospel version of "Silent Night" followed by a rousing, handclapping version of "Feliz Navidad." Kris and I lead them in some carols interspersed with scripture readings from Luke. Daryl reads the Gospel with expression, and when he comes to the part where Mary says, "Let it be to me as you have said," he substitutes "Hey, NO way! Can't we talk about this?" The choir gasps a bit behind us, and then men begin to chuckle as they realize he made this "error" on purpose. Several of the men quote the scripture from memory along with him as he continues. The sweet presence of God is evident.
The choir director smiles with joy as they sing. This choir diector has been in prison a long time. He is always smiling and always working hard to direct the choir well. I don't know why he is incarcerated, but I know that the love of Jesus shines in his countenance and in his words and in his songs and in his firm handshake. The men sing with abandon and joy--something that always humbles and blesses me to hear and see. Some close their eyes. Some raise their hands, and some rock to and fro. The gangly keyboard player grins at me shyly. He seems about 6 years old as he looks at me and smiles and hopes for approval. Looking at his wide and very childlike grin makes my heart both glad and sad. There are far too many inmates that, to me, seem better suited to a group home environment. For a moment I wonder what landed him in prison. I am sure that someone talked him into something.
The second service is also full. It is much like the first, except the choir director asks me to come up and sing with them as inmates arrive. I happily sing the verses to "Go Tell It On the Mountain" and the men join me with gusto on the chorus. For some reason, I sing better at the prison chapel than I do anywhere else.
We sing the lovely worship chorus, "Hallelujah." One word -- but oh, so infused with praise and depth as the little prison chapel resounds with truly glorious harmony. Many men lift their faces heavenward and they sing like an angel choir. I smile for a moment, thinking of an angel choir of felons, but it is true that this simple song, sung inside razor-wire fences, blesses me like it does nowhere else.
For both services my husband preaches from Isaiah, "For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." His words are accompanied by occasional clapping, calls of "Amen", words of agreement and affirmation.
We close with Holy Communion. I offer the bread and Ken holds the chalice. As the men file past, dipping their piece of bread into the cup, I think of how amazing is the love of Almighty God. I love Christmas at prison because of the intense awareness it brings me of my own blessings, my home, my family--and grace--Amazing Grace.
As we leave the chapel we look just beyond the fence. Six deer stand poised in the snow. Some inmates are oblivious or indifferent, but others stop a moment to gaze with us before they begin the walk back to their units for the afternoon "count." We hurry to the van, not wanting to be caught inside during count, which would mean a significant delay. No one comes in or goes out of prison during count.
I always anticipate the worship services when coming into the prison, which I usually do several times each year. Today, as always, I am equally happy to go, happy and relieved to head for the parking lot and home to my brightly lit house and my Christmas tree and my leftover ham. Looking out the van window, I silently pray for God to bless the men, especially the ones with hungry hearts. I pray that lonely prisoners will find true peace and joy, that hope will be renewed. Almost every year I complain about my husband always having to work on Christmas Day. And every year I leave the prison feeling humbled, blessed and a bit ashamed for having complained.
The sky is grey. The men shuffle on the road. No one hurries in prison. Some smile and wave to us as the van passes. The van's windows are dark and the inmates cannot see us inside, but they know we are there, and they know we can look out and see them. "How like God" I think to myself. "The unseen Presence who watches them, and me, with both sadness and joy." My eyes fill with tears. Once again as it has so many times this Advent season, the scripture becomes real to me. "Emmanuel--God is with us!"