Tonight there was no jail ministry, though we didn't know that until we got there. Programs being canceled is not unusual; this is actually the third week in the row where for a variety of reasons the prison either goes on lock down, something is being fixed or cleaned, an inmate is being taken elsewhere, there is a staff shortage, etc. and we are not allowed up. Typically when this happens, we arrive at the front desk and they simply tell us we can't go upstairs (sometimes telling us why, sometimes not). Tonight was unique, however, in that we didn't know things were off until making it through the first two deputy/security check points, signing in, gathering our cart o' Catholic stuff (hymn books, a few images for the room, the table cloth and candles - never lit) and walking to the multipurpose room when we realized something was up and, indeed, our program was canceled.
I stood outside the hallway looking through the glass windows at a room that normally would be empty. It is bland; light gray cinder block walls, dark plastic chairs, fluorescent lights, a few tables and a white board. Tonight, though, there was an entirely new scene: young mothers, all inmates, surrounded by their children. The tables were covered in gingerbread houses, tubes of cake frosting, bowls of candy, green and red table cloths and Christmas decorations. The little room was alive, lively, with the activity of these little broken families celebrating Christmas together as best they could. As I walked by, separated only by a pane of glass running along the hallway, none of them looked up, so caught up in the moment were they and their children.
I can't stress enough how odd a scene this is to see. For one thing, I rarely see female inmates. This detention center has only one floor for women, and they don't often make it to our meeting, for whatever reason. And of course, one does not see children in jail, either. Aside from those surface issues, though, is the bizarre disparity between the physical circumstances in which this was happening, and the bigger picture of these women drawing their children to them at Christmas time. I couldn't help but wonder how these women, in their matching blue jumpsuit uniforms, felt. Were they embarrassed? Did they feel they had failed their kids? Or simply happy to have them there, accepting that time as better than nothing? How would they cope when it was time for the children to leave? And for those kids, sucking on peppermints in their mothers' laps, making gingerbread houses in a county facility - were they scared? Used to it? Just happy to be there?
And yet the biggest thing was the joy. Everyone was smiling. There was laughter, hugging and kissing, and that is really what suffused the bland little room and made it different. It was a little hard for me to understand how that kind of love can show itself in a physical way beyond the gestures of everyone involved, to the actual aura of the room, but there it was.
I stayed for just a moment to double check with the deputy that there would be no program. She was apologetic that we were not notified earlier, and as I left I glanced one more time at the little scene in front of me. In that moment, things were happening too quickly and I was distracted by the thought that by the time I see our regular inmates next it will have been five weeks total. Just a self-serving moment of "Ah, poor me." Then one more fleeting thought came and went as I buzzed out: although I was too distracted in that moment to show any real emotion, I think one day there will come a time, maybe after I have had children of my own and celebrated Christmas with them, that I will remember that scene and cry in hopelessness. That is all I feel I can offer them aside from prayers, but sometimes I think you just have to see the reality of human suffering and accept it, and in that way, share in it. What else is there to do?
But then, there was real joy in that room, and that is probably more important. It is the same love and joy that exists everywhere in the world, but somehow it managed to exist under these circumstances. This is God at work. And perhaps this is why, although our plans did not come to fruition, He called us to the jail all the same tonight, to see what He was doing.