In a maximum-security prison at that.
Thankfully I wasn't there serving time, but, unfortunately because of the inconsistencies of our American judicial system, I was there visiting a loved one who is and has been for several years.
Now this is not how I've spent most Christmases. I usually spend Christmas in the house of some relative eating lots of Guyanese holiday foods and watching my umpteen baby cousins open their mountain of gifts. Basically, I usually spend Christmas the usual way people spend Christmas with all the joys and comforts of commercialization. Usual stuff.
But this Christmas was very unusual because my mother, the Holy Spirit-led saint that she is, decided she wanted to "continue to remember those in prison as if [she was] together with them in prison," (Hebrews 13:3) and visit our loved one to bring Christmas to him. It had been a while since I visited my loved one so I decided I would go with her. So early Christmas morning, she, my step-father and myself loaded into my car to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to an Upstate New York Correctional Facility. Unusual stuff.
If you've never visited a prison, let me tell you: it's an ordeal. The facilities are far away and the officers make visits as unpleasant as possible because they are trained to deter family members from seeing their loved ones. Isolation helps with institutionalization after all. In prison, there are clanging metal doors, random drug searches, invasions of privacy for women once metal, underwire bras set off metal detectors; and there are swarms of gruff, power-drunk officers who remind you they’re in charge.
Once you’ve made a prison visit more than a few times, you begin to expect these circumstances and you’re immediately on the defensive. I usually have an awful attitude once I arrive at the prisons because I hate the environment, but God has been dealing with me about my attitude regardless of circumstances lately, so I decided on this prison visit, I would be pleasant. I wouldn’t let the outside environment affect my inside peace, and surprisingly when we arrived to the facility, I was happy.
My happiness started to wane, though, as we entered the visiting room and were met with a small, cold, drably colored room with a few minority families. The room looked so depressing. The prison-issued greens and greys were not the Christmas décor I was used to. The vending machines barely had any food. This was not the Christmas feast I was used to. A black, female officer kept yelling. This was not the Christmas caroling I was used to. I was not used to this and I started to want to grumble and complain in my heart. “Ew, why are we here?!”
And then my loved one came to join us in the visiting room, and my family started to laugh. We started to share memories. We started to build new memories. And suddenly, I looked around and the ugly circumstances we faced melted away into something strangely beautiful: contentment.
I’d stopped caring about where I was, and instead focused instead on who I was with.
I was with people I really love that I don’t get to see that often. I was surrounded by families reconnecting and making the best out of a bad situation. I was surrounded by people, stripped of every commercial convenience, living out the truth of Christmas. I was able to say with an imprisoned Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
And isn’t that what Christmas, with a family, who because of the rule of an unjust, power-drunk Roman judicial system which decided to remind its citizens it was in charge, was forced to experience quite the ordeal of a trip to deliver the baby Jesus who then had to lie wrapped in swaddling clothes in an ugly, dirty animal-feeding trough known as a manger, all about? The Christ-child in untenable circumstances coming to be with us in our untenable circumstances and bringing love, peace and goodwill towards men right there in the midst of it. Completely out of the ordinary, rather unusual stuff.
So, unusual as it may have been, I had a good Christmas, a true Christmas. I hope you did, too.