Christmas in Prison

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!

Editor’s note: Hans is co-leading a workshop at the 2018 National Gathering called, “A Prison in Bloom.” It will take place on Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register to participate!

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.

After delivering my prepared message, I realized there were no candles in the room, so I said, “Let us, in closing, light a candle to remember the light of Christ being born into the world tonight.”

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…
-Hebrews 13:3

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.

Blest Be the Tie that Binds

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rachel Helgeson

The request came from the most unlikely of places. Judy was always quiet and loving but rarely spoke out against others or things in fear of making waves. It wasn’t that Judy didn’t have an opinion about things – it was that she valued the relationships that drew her into the fellowship of our congregation more than the conflict. Judy lived and still breathes the words drafted by the hymnist John Fawcett, “blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love and fellowship with kindred minds is like to that above.”

Even so, it was a surprise when she softly raised her voice in the middle of a Presbyterian meeting and said… “Would it be ok if I hung a tie out in our back shelter with socks, scarves, and hats? Because I know…” (she hesitated to say) “we know that there are folks who are living in the 3 acres of woods behind our church in tents or less than that.”

The room stood still, for it was a rare occasion that Judy made a request that had the potential of being controversial – or get push back for not being the way that we do things here – but it was her voice that helped get others to say yes, yes of course, we should do that.

So where do we go from here? In our small corner of the world in pseudo rural Southern Illinois, the problem of homelessness is growing. The state of Illinois has cut resources for folks suffering from mental illness and addiction. A large state prison is located only 20-30 minutes away from our “big town” amongst the smaller farming villages and communities. And while our little corner of the world has a homeless shelter that was endorsed at its inception by the community with the strong influence of my congregation, it came with a price. That price has been lower residency of guests because it is a family shelter functioning in the midst of ordinances that prevent people without homes from residing there if they test positive for drugs or alcohol or, in certain cases, have a felony.

And while I felt a strong pull to learn and grow around this sort of mission work, the work of the people, I felt unprepared to understand how to address the tie that binds us to those who have faced conviction, were recently released, and now have no place to go except the back “forty” of First Presbyterian Church of Mt Vernon.

It was that simple request from Judy that started with a rope tied from one pole to another with socks, hats, gloves, and scarves that helped me rethink: what are we doing here? This is the tie that binds the people living in the woods to the people worshipping in the sanctuary immediately in front of them. It was at the NEXT Church National Gathering, with the help of the creative spirit of the ad hoc, crowd-sourced worship band and the workshop led by Hans Hallundbaek about the rehabilitation through arts program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, that I learned the Holy Spirit breathes life in the ties that bind us in new and interesting ways as the Body of Christ.

I learned that for many it is uncomfortable to deal with the overpopulation of the prison system. Many are afraid of those who are released back into society. And even more disturbing is that it is very common for former inmates to return to prison because they have not learned any soft skills to transfer to the outside world, leaving them in the cold returning to old habits.

The tie that holds our socks, gloves, and scarves is a visual reminder to my congregation of all of these folks and has had us start to ask the question: what can we do better? How can we equip people to live fully into the lives that God has called them to live without pressuring them to be something different and helping them learn basic soft skills to be able to function in the outside world? What began with a tie that binds in our shelter has now grown into a conversation with our local homeless shelter, community leaders, and the community at large asking how we can serve those experiencing homelessness better. Does it mean housing them in our current, more established family homeless shelter, or does it mean thinking outside of the box and doing something different?

I can’t say that we have answers at this point. But I would say that the time I spent at the NEXT Church National Gathering opened a door for me to remain non-anxious in the midst of the questions. Others have been there before, improving their way to an answer through the melody line of a production held on the inside of a maximum security correctional facility. To hear with an open ear each person’s concern while still acknowledging that there is a problem. To be available to speak between various organizations and help them listen to one another while still attempting to come up with a new solution to strengthen the tie that binds us together.

It started with an unlikely voice acknowledging the thing we, my community of faith, all knew but many tried to ignore and disregard. It helped us see the people in the margins who were and still are quite literally living in our backyard. And we hope to continue to seek out how the tie that binds us in Christian love builds up the holy fellowship of kindred minds beyond the walls of the National Gathering and into our little corner of the world in Southern Illinois.

Rachel Helgeson is the solo pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, IL, and is still learning and growing into God’s unimaginable call. She never imagined that her gifts in music and passion for mission would be synthesized right in her congregation’s backyard but is grateful for the formative places that led her to this place (including her studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas’ Lilly Residency Program, and her prior musical training & work in Pennsylvania and New York.)