Christmas Behind Prison Walls

December 21, 2012·

bokeh-christmas-treeThis is a long one, but I had to write about it. It’s been stewing in me all week. Trust me, it’s worth it.

I know. My posts have been a little heavy this week, but hey. Sometimes that’s life. Life is sometimes heavy. But, I don’t feel sad. I feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with joy, and grace, and blessings. I feel just so purely blessed right now.

Many of you know, as I’ve written about it on here before, how I volunteer almost weekly at a few women’s prisons in Raleigh. One of them is a maximum security prison, the other is minimum security – more transitional in function – i.e. where many inmates from the maximum security facility go as they prepare to be released.

Anyway. Well, I served at both prisons this week and they were just particularly amazing visits.

On Sunday, I along with four other women from my church, went in to the minimum security facility to hold a Christmas service. We brought food and prizes and it was going to be a nice evening of worship and time to just hang out and fellowship with the ladies.

One of our team members spoke to the women about what Christmas means to her – Christmas is forgiveness. And she spoke on forgiveness and how, so often in our lives, not only do we need to forgive others to feel the weight lifted off, but most importantly, we need to forgive ourselves.

Well, for the next while, the evening turned into women standing up and giving their testimonies on forgiveness. Woman after woman stood up and spoke of her past. A past full of hurt, pain, suffering – childhoods and teenage years and adult years filled with everything from molestation, rape, incest, drug addiction, to prostitution.

The women poured their hearts out. They needed to be heard. They needed to openly admit they’ve forgiven those who have wronged them. And they needed to admit that they’ve forgiven themselves for what they’ve done that landed them in prison – or they admitted their struggle of forgiving themselves.

I sat there as I listened to these women, tears streaming down my face, in complete and utter awe. And then I felt a huge sense of calm come over me. I am so blessed.

Sure, my life hasn’t been easy. In fact, sometimes it’s been really hard and I’ve had some not-so-awesome-things happen to me. But in the end, I have a home, a husband, a family, a job, a car, dogs, friends, a church, and a community who love and support me. I can pay my bills. I can put food on my table. I am blessed.

Then, if that wasn’t enough, on Tuesday I had the opportunity to go and be a “judge” for the annual “Christmas Dorm Decorating Contest” at the maximum security facility.

I went into it thinking it was really just an opportunity to go into every dorm and unit on the prison grounds, visit with the women, wish them a Merry Christmas, and look at their decorations.

Sure, that happened, but what I saw is something I’m honestly still trying to process.

I’ve served at this prison for over a year and a half, but I’d never really been anywhere other than the auditorium. As I walked the prison grounds with our group, I saw ladies I recognized from church services. “Hey Molly!” they called out. “Look! It’s the newhope ladies!” I heard. I’d wave, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas!” and keep walking.

Although the scenery isn’t much, it’s a lot to take in when you go. The way the grounds are broken up into units and the different colors inmates wear depending on their classification. It’s a lot to process.

We went from dorm to dorm, witnessed a fight, and continued on looking at the decorations the ladies had done. Most were simple – using cardboard and wrapping paper, making makeshift “fireplaces” or “Christmas trees” to spruce up their living quarters for the season. Many also decorated with Christmas cards and letters from family members and children of the inmates.

We went into a unit and the walls were covered in sheets, and there was paper shreddings all over the floor, and clouds made out of cotton balls, and a sign read, “Heaven’s Playground.” The inmates were dressed as angels – using their bedsheets and robes to adorn themselves in all white with makeshift cardboard wings on their backs.

They handed each of us a ribbon as we walked in.

The “voice of God” said, “Let the little children come to me!” and an inmate began to do a beautiful dance. The play featured each inmate as a child, representing each of the children who passed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings – they spoke of what they loved and what they did and how they’re spending Christmas with God in heaven.

It was one of the most beautiful, moving things I’ve ever seen in my life.

And it was in the confines of a 10×20 jail cell.

We left there and went on to visit other dorms, and then we headed to Death Row.

We walked through thick doors and high barbed wire fencing to get to the other end of the compound where Death Row is.

When we walked in, there were four women sitting in the Death Row “dayroom.” Two of them looked like they could be your grandmother – sweet looking little old ladies. They had decorated their area to look like a living room, all made out of cardboard and wrapping paper, of course. Their theme was the Veggie Tales and a family on Christmas morning talking of the meaning of Christmas.

I sat and watched these four women, four women who have clearly gotten close over the many years they’ve been sitting on Death Row together, talk like family and talk of the meaning of Christmas. What it meant for Jesus Christ to be born on that day and what he’d one day do for each of us.

Christ was born, died, and rose again for you. Because he loves you,” said one inmate.

Me? He loves me. But I’ve been a bad girl in my life,” said another.

Yeah, He does. That’s why he died for you. Because He knew you’d be bad, and He knew we’d all be bad girls and boys in our lives. And thankfully, because of Him, we can be forgiven and cleansed of our sins,” said the other inmate.

It was just one of those moments that I wish I could accurately describe and I know I won’t be able to ever do it justice.

After the “play” was over, one of the inmates said to us, “It’s been a tough year for the women on death row. A lot of sickness, pain, and loss. And honestly, we didn’t want to do anything for Christmas this year. But, when we heard of the devastation in New York after Hurricane Sandy, and we saw all of the death and destruction, we were reminded of how much we are blessed with and how much we do have. And so, we decided to celebrate Christmas in honor of them.”

Yeah, Death Row inmates feeling blessed with what they have. Talk about perspective.

After it was all done, we each got up and said Merry Christmas to the inmates, gave them hugs… yes, hugs, and left. I didn’t say much after that.

We saw even more amazing things after we left Death Row – the women we so unbelievably creative with their decorations and their plays and their designs. But I just didn’t say much. I just took it all in. I just kept absorbing it.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around this if you’ve never experienced it. But never once while I sat there did I think of what these women had done to land them on Death Row. Heck, throughout the whole prison, I never thought of what they’d done. Instead, I tried to see them as God sees them. His children. Children who yes, have made mistakes. Huge mistakes. Life altering mistakes. But God loves them no matter what.

And I just saw past all that. I saw past the prison bars and uniforms. And I tried to see them as beautiful women and children of God.

I’m not condoning what they’ve done. At all. But, what I am saying is everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes and does things they aren’t proud of. But everyone deserves a hug, or a smile on Christmas, or just a reminder that God loves them.

I know this is way too much information for a Friday. And if you’re still reading at this point, I’m impressed. But the truth is, I process things through word vomit – and often that word vomit manifests itself through a blog post.

I just want to make sure that I have this documented. And I want to be able to look back on this and remember.

When I’m feeling down, or throwing myself the pity party of the century, I want to be able to read this and remember how truly lucky I am.

While we’re in a culture of take, take, take, want, want, want – I need those constant reminders of “Want what you have and you’ll always have what you want.”

In case you’re curious, yes, I took that picture of the Christmas tree and the top of this post, and no, it has nothing to do with prison. Can’t take pictures in prison. But it was Christmas themed. So I used it.

What reminders do you need to keep you wanting what you have?