The following article was submitted to Guideposts Magazine. This is the edited version that will appear in a special December 2020 issue. The original was published earlier in December 2019 as Christmas Eve in Jail. This is a true story.
I stood in front of a metal detector at the parish jail. A guard patted me down and handed me a visitor’s badge. This wasn’t where I wanted to be on Christmas Eve.
Tina, my church jail ministry partner, had called earlier to say she couldn’t make it to the women’s Bible study at the prison like she’d promised. But the group was expecting someone. I pictured them sitting around a metal table in the communal cell, waiting to be uplifted by Tina’s lesson. She always led the meetings; she knew what to say. What did I have to offer these women spending Christmas in this lonely, dismal place?
The guard took my purse and waved me through the metal detector. Another guard accompanied me to the women’s wing with my Bible.
A door buzzed and I heard a clamor of voices before I walked into the cell. Roughly 30 women in orange jumpsuits and jail-issued sandals stood with expectant looks.
“You’re here!” one of them shouted. A few began pulling sheets off their bunks and wrapping them around themselves like tunics or cloaks. A semicircle of chairs seemed to be arranged for some kind of performance.
“Everyone in the audience, sit down!” shouted an imposing inmate of Native American heritage. The woman strode toward me and introduced herself as Jenny.
“We don’t want a Bible study today,” she announced. “We’re putting on a play. All we need is a real audience and here you are.”
With that, Jenny stepped back and opened a Bible. The women in sheets took their places. When they were ready, Jenny read: “Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
Two of the inmates walked to the middle of the semicircle, and I realized they were Mary and Joseph. This was a Nativity play. Jenny read from the gospel while the women played their parts, stopping at various points to sing.
The baby Jesus was a pillow, carried lovingly by Mary and placed on a chair—the manger. The shepherds came in led by angels. The three wise men followed with their gifts of ramen noodles and toiletries.
Jenny moved everyone through their roles with jailhouse bluntness: “Get in there!” “Pay attention!” “Next!”
I joined in singing “Silent Night.” The women had surprisingly lovely voices. After the song, Jenny ordered everyone to kneel before the baby Jesus. The actors kneeled.
“You too!” Jenny shouted to the audience. “Now!” One by one the inmates kneeled. I knelt too.
The room was silent.
I did not know these women particularly well, but in my visits with Tina I’d gotten a general idea why most of them had ended up in jail. Domestic disputes. Drugs. Bad checks. Prostitution, maybe to support an addiction. Crimes of poverty, with jail time inevitable because no one could afford bail.
Tonight, all of that seemed to vanish. These women were full of joy and purpose. Jenny read from the prophet Isaiah:
For unto us a child is born,
Unto us a son is given;
And the government will be upon his shoulder.
And his name will be called
Wonderful, counselor, mighty God,
Everlasting father, prince of peace.
A moment more of transportive silence. Then Jenny barked, “Okay, play’s over!”
I applauded, genuinely moved, and the group rushed toward me from the makeshift stage. “Did you like it?” “Was our singing in tune?” “Could you imagine the real story?”
I was surrounded. No one expressed bitterness over missing Christmas at home, or worry about kids and elderly parents left behind. No one sounded lonely or depressed or fearful. The women needed no more from me than my appreciation for their effort. In the story of Jesus’ birth, they had clearly found the love and forgiveness they yearned for. Tonight, all that mattered were God’s forgiveness and promise of new life, as real as that pillow placed lovingly on a chair.
When the visit was over, we all wished each other a merry Christmas and the door buzzed. I was escorted back to the exit and handed my purse.
Night had fallen and I walked to my car under the glare of security lights. I remembered how apprehensive I’d felt going in. It occurred to me that the first Christmas was probably a lot like this. Two poor refugees with nowhere to call home, sleeping in a stable. The baby Jesus, born as a nobody with a mission to rescue the lost. This wasn’t where I’d wanted to be on Christmas Eve—until I saw that Jesus himself was inside, bearing the priceless gift of God’s loving grace. I was honored to have witnessed it.