Christmas in July

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.

Christmas Eve In Jail

I have been thinking about helping women in jail as part of my church’s outreach. I have done it before, over twenty years ago. Here’s a story from a Christmas Eve visit to the local jail. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed being part of this experience.

The buzzer sounded. The doors opened. I stepped into the confines of a women’s jail. It was Christmas Eve. I might have been late, but here I was, about to encounter thirty women prisoners. I thought about the conversation I had a few hours ago.

“Laurie,” Tina said, “I’m not going to the jail tonight. My sister and her family surprised me with a visit. They came all the way from Pennsylvania. I’m sorry.”

I still remember my thoughts as I hung up the phone twenty-five years ago. I had never led the Bible study with the lady prisoners, and I had never gone into the jail alone. In the few short months that I had been accompanying Tina at the jail in Houma, Louisiana, Tina had been the one leading the lessons, praying for the ladies, and generally taking charge of everything. I went along mainly to learn and give support to Tina.

What good could I do alone? And, would anybody truly expect me to come on Christmas Eve? I sat down on the couch next to the telephone. Maybe I should call the jail and tell them I wasn’t coming. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and I had family gathering that night. With a sigh, I decided to go to the jail even though I didn’t have a lesson or a plan. I would undoubtedly just be there for emotional support for the lonely women in jail.

After entering the jail’s doors a few minutes late, I walked into the commons area of the women’s jail. I expected to see a few stragglers with notebooks and Bibles at the tables. Instead, I was greeted loudly by a group of eager women.

“You’re here!” someone shouted.

“Sit down!” another lady said.

Most of the women were talking excitedly among themselves. Others were pulling bedsheets off the bunks. The ladies started wrapping themselves in bedsheets.

What was going on? None of this made any sense until Jenny,* a tall, commanding dark woman, stepped forward to tell me the plan. They didn’t want a Bible study. They planned to put on a Christmas play they had produced among themselves. The one thing they lacked for the drama was an audience. With my arrival, the one hindrance was eliminated. Now, the show could go on.

Mary and Joseph were wrapped in white sheets. A pillow subbed for the baby Jesus. Women standing in for shepherds and wisemen draped sheets over their orange jumpsuits, too.

One lady stood to the side, Bible in her hand. As she read from portions of the Christmas story from the gospels, different actors did their parts. First, Mary and Joseph, along with pillow-turned-Jesus, made their way to the front of the room. They put Jesus on a chair as they gazed adoringly at him. Then, the shepherds came, guided by angels robed in more white sheets. Next, the Three Kings came and presented their gifts of ramen noodles and bottles of toiletries, which I understood to be stand-ins for the more traditional gifts of the Magi.

Interspersed throughout the presentation, the ladies sang Away in A Manger, Silent Night and We Three Kings. At the end of the presentation, the narrator invited everyone in the dorm to kneel before the baby Jesus. The participants of the play readily kneeled on cue. Other women were cajoled, and some were threatened with harm if they didn’t kneel before pillow-turned-Jesus. One way or another, all the women in the jail that night knelt before the solitary pillow representing Jesus.

After a short but blissful moment of silence, I applauded. It was a fabulous, heart-felt performance. After the drama, the ladies were eager to hear my reaction.

“Did you like the play?” one lady asked.

“How were the songs? Did we get the tune right?” another said.

They had spent the entire day rehearsing, and then, waiting for an audience for their re-enactment. No one wanted prayer or counsel that night. No one talked about loneliness,  sadness, or bitterness about missing Christmas with family and friends. That night, they were singular in their purpose to celebrate the birth of Jesus in their own way.

As I left the jail, I thought about how happy the women had been. I expected sadness and loneliness to be the theme of the evening. Instead, the night was defined by a sense of purpose. The ladies seemed content and happy.

What happened that night? I went with the idea that the women needed me to bring inspiration and hope. Instead, they inspired me, and most of all, themselves, in their re-enactment of the first Christmas. The power of the good news of the birth of Jesus was on display that night as the ancient story was retold.

I’ll always remember that Christmas play performed in shades of orange and white on Christmas Eve twenty-five year ago. I’m glad I decided to go to jail on Christmas Eve. Jesus’ birth may have occurred over 2,000 years ago, but in places great and small,  whether it be in palaces or small town jails, his birth and life still influences our world today

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. 

Isaiah 9:6

* The name has been changed.