“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the Outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I think the last place I would want to spend Jesus’s birthday is the lockdown unit of the now-abandoned old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
Housing Unit 5C was home to some of the most dangerous, as well as some of the most unfortunate people in Missouri. Prison residents were sent there temporarily for getting into fights or getting written up too many times, or longer-term if officials believed they were too dangerous to live in the 1,700-man prison’s general population.
Each of four security “pods” in the concrete building had rows of steel doors on two levels. Each door had a narrow window and a separate hinged opening with a lock, through which corrections personnel would give the residents their meals.
It was a sad place, a lonely place. The people in 5C spent an overwhelming portion of their week in the isolation of their cells.
Back in what now seems like part of another age, the prison’s superintendent would let a group of local parishioners into 5C and other isolated sections of the prison a few days before Christmas to sing carols, visit briefly with each resident through the cell window, hand each one a small bag of homemade cookies and a handmade card through the tray slot.
Leading the pack was a Spirit-filled, kind-hearted, justice-driven Benedictine named Sister Ruth who knew everyone in the unit, as she had been visiting the prison for 28 years.
While one man played the guitar and led the singing, the others took turns going from door to door, greeting the residents and offering them Christmas snacks and wishes.
I took my cues from Sr. Ruth, watching her kneel down to talk with the men through the narrow tray slot, making eye contact and matching the outline of her hand against theirs in the window.
I wanted to let her visit most of the men, on account of her close friendship with each of them. I could simply hold the bags of cookies, listen and pray with them. But time was getting short, and the corrections officers asked us to spread out.
I wound up visiting the last cell on the second floor of the last pod in 5C. I knocked and waved through the tinted window, then knelt down to hand the resident his Christmas bundle and offer a few encouraging words through the tray slot. I said something like, “I will be praying for you and thinking about you on Christmas ... hoping and praying that next year will be better for you than this one.”
He asked me if I could pray with him right now. I said, “Sure. That’s a good idea. Why don’t we pray the way Jesus taught his friends?”
The man said, “I don’t know that prayer.”
So I told him I would pray a sentence, and then he could repeat it.
We began by making the Sign of the Cross. I then reached into the slot, and he surrendered both of his hands into mine.
We then entered the Lord’s Prayer, as slowly and simply as I knew how. “Our Father ... Who is in heaven. Even Your name is very holy. ... May Your Kingdom come ... may everything happen Your way ... here on earth, just like in heaven. ... Please give us today ... everything we need to survive ... and forgive us all our sins ... as we forgive everyone who hurts us. ... And please do not put us to the test ... but protect us from all evil. ... For the kingdom, the power and the glory are Yours, forever and ever. Amen.”
It was time to go. The latch on the tray slot shut with a clack. I waved to the man through the tinted glass and flashed him the peace sign. He smiled back as the singers continued the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace,” which simply repeats the phrase, “Praise God.”
That is how it came about that one sinful man, as desperate for God’s forgiveness as he had been unwilling to offer his own to other people, had occasion to pray, hear and process those words like never before — phrase by phrase, thought by thought, surrender by surrender.
You see, I didn’t teach the man in that concrete cell how to pray the “Our Father.”
He taught me.