Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Comes to A Prison

photo by sushieque / flickr

We sometimes forget that Christmas can come anywhere--especially in those unexpected places where God sometimes does His best work. This story was told to my Liz Smith years ago. It his about her experience in a woman's Prison in Columbia, South Carolina. Liz left us almost two years ago and I miss her much. She was a Mama. A wife. A Grandmother. South Caroolina Teachere of the year--in Art no less. And a whole lot more. 

Liz Smith lived in Columbia, South Carolina for a while.  It seems that her Sunday School class decided to do something for the prisoners at the Harbison Women's Prison outside Columbia. So Liz got her Sunday School Department to buy, wrap and label all the presents according the prison regulations. She decided to deposit them to the prison authorities and be on her way. But the Warden suggested that she stay a few minutes and meet the prisoners. The gifts would be given to those who received no mail or presents. She was searched and then the great iron doors admitted her and closed behind her.

Inside one of the first people she gave a gift to a black woman named Geneva. Geneva right off the bat asked Liz to be her invited guest at the annual Christmas pageant that would be held the next week. Liz didn't want to go. She was busy. And her shopping was not done. And she was having drop-in and it just wasn't a good time. But kept looking at Geneva knowing the woman had no one else. And she nodded that she would be there.

And so, on the Sunday before Christmas Liz found herself in a long line of cars that had turned into the prison gates. Showing her pass, she was led through several doors and corridors and then into a small auditorium . She looked around at the strangest assortment of people. Old, wrinkled family members. Middle age people. Some very young. There were little children, and of course, some crying babies. A few were dressed in fur coats and some in overalls. They were white and black. And Liz said the smells were what she remembered. Loud, cheap perfume, some expensive stuff and the odor of the human body. On the stage there was a makeshift cardboard stable decorated with pine boughs. In the center there was a manger made from an orange crate nailed to wooden legs. 

Suddenly, a large black lady, enveloped in a white choir robe and a red bow appeared from the side door and went to the old upright piano at stage left. She began to rustle through the music and the crowd began to quiet down. All talking stopped as the pianist began to play "Away in a Manger" with a real gospel beat. A host of black and white angels dressed in white sheets with coat-hanger wings came and took their places behind the manger. They began whispering and then suddenly gathered together around the manger.  One angel flew offstage and returned quickly. After circling the manger once, they returned to their original positions. Later Liz said she learned that somebody had forgotten to put the baby Jesus in the manger. An angel had been sent to get the baby doll.  The others were trying to act cool and cover it up.

Mary and Joseph came on stage and positioned themselves and Liz said she was in shock. The pretty little blonde teenager that looked so much like Liz' own daughter was playing Mary. Liz remembered Mary was serving time as an accessory to the murder of a highway patrolman in Myrtle Beach. Joseph, with a fake beard, was another one of the female prisoners.

The strains of "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" came loudly from the piano. And the white-sheeted shepherds with walking sticks as crooks came down the aisle to worship the Christ child. They knelt with great dignity in front of the manger.

There was a pause in the music and everybody could hear the sound of turning pages. Finally, the piano started again, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." They marched down the aisle bearing perfume bottles and a small jewelry box. In the very middle was Geneva--who found Liz and gave her a big smile and wave as she found her place. A child on the front row stood up as the wise men took their places and yelled: "There's mama."

After they had presented their gifts and the angels sang, lustily, "Joy to the World," the formal part of the pageant was over and the audience clapped loud and long. Then the program director came up to the stage and asked everybody to stand and sing "Silent Night." And they all began to sing. But by the middle stanza--there wasn't much singing. Everybody was crying. Holding back the tears. Wiping their eyes as the pianist played on and on.

Why were they crying? Why do you think they were crying? Prisoners and matrons, invited guests, family members and old people. Why were they crying?  I think I know. I think I know. 

And in the region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by      night
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people..."

I remember what Liz said as she finished her story: "And that's why we were all crying."

photo by Mary Constance / flickr

--RogerLovette /

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