Friday, December 26, 2008

Another Prison Christmas

Almost every Christmas for the last 17 years, I go to the prison where Ken is the chaplain. Pictured here is a photo I found on the web. It is one of the housing units there. You can see the lovely setting for this prison, rolling hills. You can also see the razor wire. The prison chapel is just a short way down the road in front of you.

Every year has been different--different faces, insights, observations, emotions, and joys. But some things are the same, year after year. Every year, without fail, going to prison on Christmas Day puts a crimp in my schedule. This year our son Josh left before eating our wonderful Christmas dinner because he knew dinner would be after we returned from prison. He did not want to encounter the forcasted ice storms, so he left about noon.

Sigh. Why do I have to go every single year? One would think I'd learn, but I never do.

What do I never learn? Well, every Christmas I travel to the prison chapel and every year I wish I didn't have to go. And every year the prison visit becomes one of the highlights of my Christmas.

I didn't want to leave our daughter's home, but the drive had been pleasant--a trip through fields, woods, and farmland. The trees were frosted and the snow was deep everywhere but the sun had come out after many days of dreary clouds. It was cold, but that wasn't so bad because the snow-covered countryside was beautiful in the sunshine. I prayed and then I sang loudly all the way to the prison, practicing a song I would share during the chapel service.

Last year I posted about the people I met who were waiting, in an overcrowded, overheated room, to be called for a visit with their loved one. I was sitting there with them because of the decision of a cranky prison guard who probably did not want to be working on Christmas Day. Getting through the gate and into the prison is sometimes the most stressful part of a prison visit. This year I was greatly relieved that I passed through without incident.

A van carried me from the gatehouse to the prison chapel. The guard/driver was young and fairly cheerful, talking about the holidays, the weather, driving too fast for the road conditions, and blaring rock and roll on the radio. We careened up the hill to the chapel. Whew...glad to arrive and hop out. As I stepped into the back of the chapel, where Ken smiled a welcome, I heard Father Joe concluding the Catholic Mass. Later he greeted me warmly. We see each other once a year--on Christmas at the prison chapel. His voice is about gone, and he tells me that he conducted four masses yesterday and three so far today with more to come. He looks exhausted, but he smiles, his deeply lined face creasing, and he pats my shoulder, wishing me a "Blessed Christmas, dear girl."

The cheery greetings from inmates never fail to make me smile. "Merry Christmas, Pastor" or "Hello, Mrs. Chaplain" or "Hi, Pastor Chaplain, ma'am" and so on. They are never sure what to call me.

The Protestant choir practiced a version of "Silent Night" that sounded like a military march (I kid you not). The drummer did his best to play with enthusiasm if not skill, the choir members swayed in rythm, the guitarist played with concentration and the director did his best to keep it all together. Prison church is a lot like a junior high classroom on the verge of explosion.

The worship service was not as crowded as usual, perhaps because this year there are two chaplains so there was a Christmas Eve service as well as the usual one held on Christmas Day. As always, I am struck with the faces that pass: the happy smile from a very old man with no teeth, a middle-aged black man with a grizled beard and a warm handshake, a somber redhead, bushy hair pulled back in a ponytail, the downcast eyes, limp handshake and stooping posture of a large man with sweaty hands, the ones who avoid eye contact, the ones who make a point to smile and nod, the one who told me Christmas is the best time of the year, even in prison, because that is when Jesus came.

Some men sit silently with eyes downcast. However, many inmates respond vocally to my song and to the message. I love preaching at the prison. Who couldn't preach with passion and joy when being urged on by comments, amens, applause and words of affirmation? The singing, as always, made me smile. The presence of God was with us, as always. Why is it that I so often sense God at the prison chapel in a way I do not find elsewhere? I don't know.

This year I noticed the young mad sitting beside me during the singing. He looked remarkably like a young, dark version of my husband's brother. His face was smooth and his beautiful eyes sparkled as he sang. He looked like a wholesome, teenager, handsome and sporting an Afro. (Afros, it seems, are coming back in style.) During a particularly loud, "Ooohhhhh" from the choir, he turned to me and grinned. I wondered what this young man, full of life, had seen and done to be in this place. I thought, "He should be enjoying Christmas dinner with a family, opening presents, perhaps planning a Christmas visit to his girlfriend. He should be singing in a church choir, or playing the part of one of the Wise Men in a Christmas pageant." Instead, he wore drab green prison garb and sat in a prison chapel with broken, lonely, often wicked men.

When the service ended, I stood at the back to send the men back to their units with a smile and a "Merry Christmas." The young guy with the Afro shook my hand and told me to enjoy the rest of my day with the family.

I drove back to my daughter's warm home in the country, acutely aware that Ken was not far behind and that we would arrive to find Kris, her husband Daryl, beautiful little Trinity, a decorated tree, good food, and fun. My thoughts returned to the young Black man who had sat beside me in the pew. I wondered about his life. He couldn't have been more than 19 or 20.

I thought about the children I had seen in my days of working in Milwaukee's inner-city neighborhoods and elsewhere. Beautiful children who were old beyond their years, who roamed the streets and spoke of things they should not have known about, who came to the park unsupervised, who stole and swore and swaggerd, and begged for attention in ways both positive and negative. These were precious children who were not really children, people who went, seemingly, from being toddlers to fending for themselves.

I wondered if that young man had been one of those? Had he ever just been a child? Did he have a mother who went to church and prayed for him? A father who wondered what happened? Did a grandmother send him money and Bible verses when she wrote? Or did he have no family that counted? Had he ever known the love and care of his daddy? Had he graduated from high school, or did he (like over 65% of prisoners) read somewhere below a 6th grade level?

What had he done, this fresh faced "youngster" to land himself in prison? What would happen to him? Would my friend Much2Ponder, have him in one of her classes? I know how much she wants to encourage her students at the prison school to hope and to work for a better life. Would he hear and absorb the message of Jesus' love that my chaplain husband tries, day after day, to share?

I can't stop wondering about him. He is the other end, the result of the too-soon-old children of the city.

Be near them, God of Love, Lord Jesus our Hope, Sweet Holy Spirit of Comfort. I weep and I pray for the young man with the Afro, for the toothless elder spending his life in prison, for the sad redhead, the ex-carny guitar player, the choir director, the one who asked me to autograph his devotion book, for Father Joe, the guard, my chaplain husband, my teacher friend. Oh God, have mercy on us, your fragile creation. Save us. Give us wisdom as we work to make this world a better place. Sustain those who seek to be your hands, your feet, your words, your face. Amen

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