Voices in the Wilderness
It happened following the exchange of peace during the worship service on Sunday. The location was the 9000 floor of Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. But the real location of this moment was the inner, sacred space of the human heart.
Jail is a hard place to be anytime, but when the holidays roll around, the sense of separation from family and friends can be especially challenging for those who spend Christmas locked up. The longing for loved ones during this time makes it harder to feel a connection to the delight and wonder of the season. Some inmates feel forgotten while the world outside seems to go about the joy of Christmas without them.
And so it was on the Second Sunday of Advent in the jails. Worship in the jails is different—and beautiful. There is no chapel on the 9000 floor, which houses our gay brothers and trans sisters, so we meet in a small classroom off the main corridor. With 25 of us gathered there is not too much space left, so we huddle close around the altar set on one of the classroom tables. I always have a few volunteers who are willing to help lead the service by reading Scripture, leading the prayers, and serving Communion. It is sometimes loud in the corridor outside our space, but we welcome it all as part of the experience.
Some inmates feel forgotten while the world outside seems to go about the joy of Christmas without them.
On this day, we heard the Gospel story of John the Baptist—the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling for us to prepare the way of the Lord. We also recited the Benedictus, from the moment in Luke’s Gospel when Zachariah first praises God and then turns to his infant son, telling of his future as the prophet of the Most High.
Blessed are, Lord God of Israel,
You have come to your people and set them free.
You have raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of your servant David.
Through your holy prophets, you promised of old
to save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember your holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship you without fear,
holy and righteous before you,
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
to give God’s people the knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
After reading, we reflected on what it means to “prepare the way” in the context of the jail setting, how we are all called to be John the Baptist in our own way, and what it means to be voices crying out in the wilderness of prison. We took Zachariah’s words personally, as if he were speaking directly to us, telling us we are called to prepare the way and that the tender compassion of God would break upon us. We considered the question: Are we not all called to be prophets in our own time? The text became personal. And then it happened: God’s grace came crashing through the cold concrete and steel box we call the county jail.
In the tender compassion of our God/the dawn from on high shall break upon us,/to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,/and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
After we exchanged the peace with one another I started distributing Christmas cards for inmates to mail to their family and friends, a common practice this time of year. But in addition to the usual handful of blank cards, this time there was an additional card for each person—a personal note with a message just for them. The cards had been written by people, some of whom were young children, who wanted our friends in that room to know that they are not forgotten. They contained messages of encouragement, hope, and love. The men read their cards with looks of astonishment. Their eyes big, their hearts beating, it seemed like they couldn’t quite believe what they were holding in their hands: messages of love just for them.
Are we not all called to be prophets in our own time?
James is a soft spoken, gentle African American bother who seems out of place in this sometimes harsh and chaotic environment. I have come to know him as a deeply spiritual man who prefers silence to chaos. James seemed undeterred by the deputies shouting orders to inmates outside our classroom. He sat staring at his card. I looked in his direction just as he looked up at me. Our eyes met, tears streaming from his, which inspired my own.
He asked if he could read his note aloud to the group. The writer of the card talked about how although they may not know each other, the card James held connected them in a wonderful and mysterious way. The writer said that they would be praying together through this card and that they hoped their connection would bring peace and joy to both of their hearts.
Soon others began reading their own cards. Many men were weeping. I was weeping. God was weeping with us, tears of compassion and love. Some rested their hand on others’ shoulders as they read. One person said that the Christmas card they held was the only piece of mail they had received in all their months in jail.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: a room full of men no longer forgotten, sharing love through hand-written Christmas cards. Scripture came alive that day through those tender voices of love crying out from the wilderness. The path within our hearts was prepared for the indwelling of God through love from people no longer called strangers. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high broke upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness and setting our feet into the way of peace.
Brother Dennis Gibbs is a monk and founding member of Community of Divine Love, an Episcopal religious order of men and women in San Gabriel, California. He is a jail chaplain and founder/director of Prism Restorative Justice, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles at work in the L.A. County Jails engaged in spiritual care with the incarcerated and advocating for criminal justice reform. He is a spiritual director, retreat leader, writer and public speaker. “Oblivion: Grace in Exile with a Monk Behind Bars” is his first book.