Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!
by Hans Hallundbaek
Christmas in prison is not Christmas. There are no celebrations, no gifts, no holly leaves, no caroling, no festive meals. During Christmas everything is the daily tiring routine, as if Christmas was another boring Monday. For those incarcerated, it is just one of those endless days slowly counting away your sentence.
Indeed, for most of the more than two million people serving time in our almost 2,000 state and federal prisons, Christmas is a non-event. The only acknowledgement of the holiday is for those who join chapel services, where volunteers from the outside are allowed to join for a unique Christmas service deep behind tall walls and barbed wires.
The first time I joined such a Christmas Eve service of hymn singing and prayers at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, I was overwhelmed by the experience. When it came to my turn to address a chapel filled with incarcerated men waiting for a hopeful message, I was not quite sure what to do.
One of the men in the front pews jumped up, “Pastor, are you crazy? This is a maximum security prison. Candles are contraband here.”
“But wait,” I said, “My candle is different. It is a virtual candle…a candle you can see only in your mind’s eye.”
Reaching into my bag I pulled out, and held up, an imaginary large white pillar candle. I asked, “Can you all see this this beautiful candle?” While obviously a little bewildered, several of the men started nodding their heads.
I carefully placed the candle on the altar, and when I reached into my pocket and produced virtual matches, Tony agreed to come forward and light the candle.
This roomful of men, hardened by years and decades in prison, quickly embraced the moment. I could almost see the candle flame reflected in their eyes. It was totally still in the room as the audience recalled the experience of live candles that they had not seen for years.
After a brief reflection on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” I prepared to leave as the prison guard arrived to guide me out.
Then someone from the third row shouted, “What about the candle?”
“Just blow it out,” said another.
“No!” came a booming voice from the back of the room. It was Jerome, a big, strong man with a 45 year sentence.
“Please, please never blow out that candle,” he pleaded in a trembling voice, “I want it to stay lit, so that every time I enter this room I can see hope.”
Hope is my favorite Advent theme. And last I checked, that virtual candle is still shining brightly in the Sing Sing Chapel.
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners…
Hans Hallundbaek is the coordinator for the Hudson River Presbytery’s Prison Partnership Program. He has served as an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and as a volunteer chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He is the NGO representative to the United Nations for the International Prison Chaplains’ Association (IPCA) and Citizens United for the Return of Errants (CURE). Hans holds his D-Min. from New York Theological Seminary.