God made a way for his Son to come into this world to save us and that message still rings true today, even for those living in prison – both real and emotional. Recently, Gerry and I reminisced about our first Christmas together with me “behind bars.” On December 24th and 25th of 2009, God orchestrated one of our most memorable Christmas’s. I have had many wonderful holidays, but this one will be engraved in my heart forever. It all took place in the visiting room at Pekin Illinois Federal Prison for Women. Gerry, my loyal husband, drove 1,000 miles round trip, in a snow storm, from Duluth, Minnesota to Pekin Illinois to be with me on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. In addition, my sister-in-law Elizabeth (Gerry’s sister) and her husband Vinnie flew in from New York City in a blizzard, to be part of this family gathering. We had a wonderful time visiting, telling jokes, laughing and eating more than anyone can imagine out of vending machines! We chatted with many friends, loved ones and family members of my fellow inmates who also made it for a Christmas visit with their incarcerated loved one. I can recall one moment when I glanced around the visiting room, seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, watching the hugs, seeing children and grandchildren of inmates playing together and becoming so overwhelmed by the intense love overshadowing what can be a dark place. I thought to myself, “Wow God, this is beautiful, only you can arrange this scenario. Thank you for showing me that love really knows no bounds, even in prison.” That was only part of what I experienced during my first Christmas in prison.
After visiting was over and we said our goodbyes to our loved ones; my fellow inmates and I headed back to our respective living units. There were various groups of women having their own prison style Christmas gatherings while others were struggling to just make it the through the day. My roommate Iveth, a beautiful sister in Christ, had a special way of making this day brighter for many inmates who had no visitors, received no mail, and often times did not have anyone putting money into their commissary account to buy the very basics like soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Weeks before Christmas, Iveth would organize and seek help from those of us fortunate enough to be able to share what we had with those who had absolutely nothing. She sought the help of others to make Christmas meaningful for those who were searching for hope in a cold meaningless place. Many ladies would give even when they did not have enough for themselves. We would decorate in unique and creative ways; the various pods of our sisters and load the unsuspecting recipient’s bunk with an array of gifts purchased from commissary. This would be done in a discrete manner and was always a blessing for both the beneficiary and the anonymous giver. “Secret Santa in the slammer”…who would have thought!
For those who probably are curious, a pod is a ten by eight foot room with six foot high beige block walls, no door, shared by three women, privacy does not exist. Crammed into this small space are a desk and metal chair, one single bed, a bunk bed and three small lockers to store what little possessions one has in prison.
There are two living units on the Pekin camp compound, each unit is named after a state and has four wings or “alleys.” Each alley has a long hallway going down the center with eight pods on each side, a total of sixteen pods per alley, forty-eight ladies per alley or two-hundred ladies per living unit. I lived on the “400” alley in the “Nebraska” living Unit. My internal prison address was #401, Upper Bunk; that was home. My “pod mates” and I got along fairly well despite the close living quarters and differences in age, culture, education and life experiences. We really were “Three Peas in a Pod.”
Getting back to Christmas behind bars, I was fortunate to worship with many sisters in Christ and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Imagine if you will a chapel “packed out” on Christmas with inmates. It was incredibly beautiful to listen to the female inmates who made up our Pekin Prison Church Choir; using no instruments, just the sound of their gifted voices singing and praising God for the gift of His Son. There were tears, heartache, and pain but there was also love and support shared by one another during a time of sorrow for many. Yet, in the midst of this pain, we still had joy knowing we have been redeemed because of our sins Jesus took on Himself, for all of us to have freedom in Christ.
Maybe you are living in a personal prison; held captive by some form of pain and the holidays just seem to intensify it. I know the feeling, I have been there. However, you have a choice to make; you can choose joy or you can choose pain. I decided to choose joy, despite my circumstances, and in the end it was the better path to take. Remember Jesus said in His word; “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
It has been more than two years since my release from prison; yet as Christmas draws near I find myself missing my sisters who are still “behind bars.” I pray for them and their families often and as strange as it may sound to others, I will always treasure the beautiful memories God gave me in the midst of my life’s darkest season – prison.
May the love of Christ penetrate you; bringing you hope and freedom to the dark places in your life. God bless you and Merry Christmas!