I’ve been inside The Joint often enough not to ever expect an inviting welcome. But yesterday’s approach was something else.
While the staff were professional and accommodating, as they typically are, the general environment provided a stark contrast this day.
Gloom hovered menacingly over Menard: low gray clouds spitting an insistent drizzle…accompanied by the threat of a descending fog bank. (“Fog” is a big deal on the inside, you see: It means no inmates can move from their cells, in order to reduce the opportunity for mischief.) So my Kairos teammates and I were glad that the fog stayed at bay, giving us the chance to conduct the early Christmas celebration we’d planned for our brothers on the inside.
Heading down Front Street – between two cell blocks and the mess hall – our crew of volunteers soon enough encountered another unsettling sight. As we approached the chapel building, a pack of jet-black buzzards made their haunting presence known. There must’ve been a dozen of ‘em, maybe two dozen – most perched on the roofline, but some constantly in motion…swooping down, to grab a quick bite from the dumpsters lined up just across the way.
I didn’t feel threatened by them exactly. But I did find myself wondering how any living creature could find it enticing to eat prison food that’s been left to rot in a dumpster. Happy Holidays, indeed.
But what then could account for the hope that also hung in the air? There was little to suggest that mystical gifts might emerge from all this dreariness. Rather, it was tempting to become a spiritual cousin of the sullen John we meet in this week’s Gospel passage:
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
But hope has a way of penetrating even the thickest prison walls: I’ve learned that about this place, too. If I just keep my ears and heart open when visiting Menard, I’m likely to learn a thing or two. And so it was yesterday, during our “open mic” time – when we asked the residents to share some of their favorite Christmas memories.
One inmate decided to talk about Advent instead. In Mexico, he said, there’s a tradition in the village to prepare for Christ’s coming by re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. They start by going from door to door, with several different villagers turning the desperate couple away. The procession then ends with a welcome at church – but to avoid profaning the sacred space, the real burro upon which Mary had been riding is replaced by two men in a burro costume.
Our story-teller recounted how he drew the short straw one year. He ended up inside the burro costume – the back-end, no less. And at the time, he found it incredibly annoying to function as the burro’s butt. His pride, understandably, took quite a hit.
In recent years, however, he’s learned to see this episode in a whole new light. He’s blessed, he said, to realize now how it had been a grace moment to play the burro. He’d been given the chance to work humbly and anonymously, at the back end of the beast, to usher Christ into his little corner of the world.
No doubt, the buzzards were oblivious to the subtle wisdom our Kairos brother had just shared. But we volunteers all had a different take on our day. We’d discovered once again the reason for our hope, inside the walls. As St. James reminds us in this week’s second reading:
You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
They say good things come to those who wait. Good things arriving, perhaps, on burro-back. And as we wait, together we pray: “Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus.”
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.