It happened following the exchange of peace during the worship service on a Sunday just before Christmas. The location was the 9000 floor of Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. But the real location of this powerful moment was within the human heart.
Jail can be a hard place to be anytime, but when the holidays roll around, the sense of separation from family and friends can be especially challenging for those who spend Christmas locked up. The longing for family and friends during this time sometimes makes it harder to feel a connection to the delight and wonder of the season. Some feel forgotten while the world outside seems to go about the joy of Christmas without them.
And so it was on the Second Sunday of Advent in the jails. Worship in the jails is different – and beautiful. There is no chapel on the 9000 floor, which houses our gay brothers and trans sisters, so we gather in a small classroom off the main corridor. When the 25 or so if us are gathered there is not too much space left. So we gather close around the altar set on one of the classroom tables. I always have a few volunteers that are willing to help lead the service by reading Scripture, leading the prayers and even helping serve Communion. It is sometimes loud in the corridor outside our space, but we welcome it all as part of the experience. On the is day, we heard the Gospel story of John the Baptist – the voice crying out in the wilderness – calling for us to prepare the way of the Lord. We also recited the Benedictus, from the moment in Luke’s Gospel when Zachariah first praises God and then turns to his infant son, John, and telling of his future as the prophet of the Most High. We reflected on what it meant to prepare the way in the context of the jail setting, how we are all called to be John the Baptist in our own way, and what it meant for us to be the voice crying out in the wilderness of prison. We took Zachariah’s words personally, as if he was speaking directly to us when he said that we are called to prepare the way and that the tender compassion of God would break upon us. We considered the question of are we not all called to be prophets in our own time. It all became so first-person, so personal. And then it happened. God’s grace came crashing through the cold concrete and steel box we call the county jail.
After we exchanged the peace with one another I started distributing Christmas cards to the inmates, which is common practice this time of year. But in addition to the usual handful of cards given for inmates to mail to their families and friends, this time there was an additional special card for each person – a personal card with a personal message just for them. The cards had been written by people, some of whom were young children, who wanted our friends in that room to know that they are not forgotten. They were messages of encouragement, hope and love. The men read their cards with looks of astonishment. Their eyes big, their hearts beating, it seemed like they couldn’t quite believe what they were holding in their hands – these messages of love just for them.
James is a soft spoken, gentle African American bother who seems out of place in this sometimes harsh and chaotic environment. I have come to know him as a deeply spiritual man who prefers silence to chaos. He seemed undeterred by the Deputies shouting out orders to inmates being moved by our classroom. He sat silently staring at his card. It seemed as though I looked in his direction just as he looked up at me. Our eyes met, tears streaming from his, which inspired my own. He asked if he could read his aloud to the group. The card talked about how although they may not know each other, they did know that the card he was holding connected them in a wonderful and mysterious way. It said that they would be praying together through this card and that they hoped their connection would bring some peace and joy to their hearts.
Soon others began reading their own cards. They were filled with messages of love and care. Many men were weeping. I was weeping. God was weeping with us. Tears of compassion and love. Some rested their hand on others shoulders as they read. One person said that the Christmas card they were holing was the only piece of mail they had received in all their months in jail. It was deeply personal and healing. There was such a profound sense of connection through cards and tears and grace. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: a room full of men no longer forgotten sharing love through hand-written Christmas cards. Scripture came alive that day. Those tender voices of love crying out from the wilderness. The path within our hearts was prepared for the indwelling of God through love from people no longer called strangers. And yes, in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high broke upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness and set our feet into the way of peace.
God’s grace came crashing through those concrete walls that day and entered the hearts of all those whom God loves.