Tag Archive | jail ministry

Remember Me?

Eight months ago I stopped publishing my blog every week. Now I post an entry sporadically, averaging about one a month. The one thing I’ve been consistent about is always publishing on Tuesday morning. Today that tradition ends, too. It’s Friday. Specifically, it’s Good Friday, and there’s something on my mind that I want to share with you.

SKM_C22717041309390For the past several years, our church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, has published a daily devotional booklet to be used during Lent. In January, members of the congregation are invited to volunteer to write a one-page reflection on a Bible verse that will be assigned to them. Every year volunteer writers range in age from elementary school children to very senior citizens. The resulting booklet is a wonderful devotional aid for all of us to read throughout lent. Here’s a link to this year’s booklet on the church website: http://www.messiahchurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2017-Lenten-Booklet-MASTER.pdf

I’ve volunteered to be one of the writers every year. But the verse assigned to me in 2014 just didn’t speak to me. I had no idea what to write about, and I discussed that concern with my partner Mim. The verse was:

Jesus crying with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46

Mim said, “Oh, I can write about that.” And even though Mim hates to write, she did it. She started her reflection with, “Having been a nurse for 40-plus years, I have been with many people as they have breathed their last…” It was the perfect verse for Mim to write about.

This year my verse is also from the book of Luke, and again it’s the one scheduled for Good Friday.

One of the criminals said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:42

I decided to give my reflection double duty by posting it on this blog as well as having it appear in our church’s devotional booklet.

fullsizeoutput_204dWhy in the world did one of the criminals hanging on the cross next to Jesus ask Jesus to remember him? Why was it important to this criminal to be remembered by Jesus?  Why was the question important enough to Luke that he included it in his Gospel?

We all want to think that we matter as a person. At the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail (where I volunteer as pianist), we take time to pray for each other.  The inmates, the chaplain, and I sit in chairs arranged in a circle. Each person shares what’s going on in her life as we go around the circle sharing our thoughts and feelings. Then we pray for each other by name. The person on my left prays out loud for me. Then I pray for the person sitting on my right. Then she prays for the person on her right, and so on. Each person is remembered. Each person is important in God’s eyes. And each person needs to know that.

I think that’s why the criminal on the cross asked Jesus to remember him. He needed to know that he mattered, that Jesus would remember him. Jesus reassured him that he would. In the very next verse Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of my favorite prayers in our hymnal is “Jesus, Remember Me.” It’s a simple Taize chant that repeats the words of this verse over and over again. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.…”

Yesterday I played the piano for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail again. I don’t play there twice a month any more like I used to. I just play occasionally for special services. Yesterday was a special service to observe all of Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. That’s a lot to cover in a little more than an hour. But with all of that, we took time to sing four hymns. One of them was “Jesus, Remember Me.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that Luke had a very good reason for including the criminal’s request in his Gospel. That’s my request, too.

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Do Something!

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Pastor Jeff Vanden Heuvel

“You’re not dead yet. Do something!”

That’s what Pastor Jeff preached about at Messiah last Sunday. He talked about how difficult the past week had been – with two black men being shot in our country, just a day apart, and then five police officers being killed and more injured in Dallas just days later. When you think about all the violence in our country, and the continuing racial injustice and unrest, it’s easy to conclude that the situation is hopeless. Then, when you look globally at the inequity, hatred, and wars worldwide – the big picture only confirms that we might as well give up. Hatred is the victor. Our experience proves that love and justice will never win in this world. Why bother to fight for what’s right? We won’t win.

The Scripture Pastor Jeff turned to was the familiar story of The Good Samaritan. A lawyer had asked Jesus what he needed to do to have eternal life, and Jesus told him to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer then asked Jesus to define who his neighbor was – to put limits on who he had to love. Jesus then told the story of The Good Samaritan, which essentially said there are no limits. Jesus told the lawyer to go and show mercy. Period. No limits.

Pastor Jeff paraphrased that directive to us. “You’re not dead yet. Do something!” Then he offered some practical suggestions of things we can do, starting with becoming more educated on the issues, and discussing the issues with our families and our neighbors….

The day before, on Saturday, I was inspired by an email I received from Ellen Finn. I mentioned her a couple months ago in this blog. She’s the person who introduced me (via email) to Casita Copan in Honduras. Casita Copan is the organization that connected Mim and me with Dulce Maria and Leydi, the two little girls we provide monthly support for in Honduras. (Here’s a link to that post:
https://whisperingwindsblog.com/2016/04/26/another-piece-in-gods-puzzle/)

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Ellen delivering a Christmas “basket”

I have never met Ellen face to face. A friend of mine, the daughter of one of our assisted living residents, told me about Ellen 7 years ago, when she was trying to raise money to give Christmas baskets to poor families in Honduras. Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors) is the name of the organization Ellen created. Ellen explained how she got involved with projects in Honduras on the organization’s website, www.BuenosVecinos.org:

I originally went to Honduras to study Spanish and live with a wonderful homestay family for a week. I stayed two weeks. I fell in love with the family as well as the Honduran people and the children absolutely captivated me!

I came back to Seattle and after 3 months, sold most of my belongings and my car, gave up my music career and moved to Honduras to teach English.

Within 3 months I began to see how distressed the schools were in the neighboring villages and decided that I would commit my energies to raising money to building, supplying, and repairing village schools. Soon we found ourselves expanding into areas of health and emergency relief….

On Saturday I received the following email from Ellen:

IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!!!!

Well okay, soon it will be my birthday.

As many of you know I have been privileged and happy to be working in Central America for almost 10 years!

AND NOW, I am about to turn 70 years old and still going strong!!!

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Ellen getting school supplies for her friends.

In these years, together, you and I have built 15 schools, a library, a clinic, bridges, water projects, endless school repairs and furnishings, school supplies and teaching materials for more than 100 schools … and have provided all sorts of educational and health and nutrition programs for children. We have provided emergency services for pregnant mothers, communities in distress and much more!

Many folks have asked me what I want for my birthday and I keep coming up with the same thought.  Operating expenses for a year! 

It doesn’t require much to keep us going…. we can still provide great services on less than $15,000 per year and if we had this sum, we could concentrate more on providing much needed services and projects, and less on raising the funds. This would be such a great way to start my next decade… with time and energy and support to do even more needed projects.

If you’d like to help me celebrate … You can donate at our website www.BuenosVecinos.org

THANKS FOR HELPING ME MAKE THIS BIRTHDAY A SPECTACULAR ONE IN WHICH WE WILL BE ABLE TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO THOUSANDS MORE CHILDREN!

With love and gratitude,
Ellen

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Ellen opening boxes of school supplies.

That email was inspiring to me! One person can’t solve all the problems of the world, but one person can make a difference in the lives of their neighbors.

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Young Hondurans carrying benches from the storage shed to their outdoors classroom.

So, what can we do? Pastor Jeff kept reminding us, “You’re not dead yet. Do something!” So, who are my neighbors? I guess I have some neighbors in Honduras that need some help, and Ellen is willing to coordinate the logistics of getting help from me to these neighbors. I can simply go to her website and make a donation. That’s a start.

And I have other neighbors with needs…. Last week I received a phone call from someone who was trying to line up donations of winter coats for inmates who will be released from the Dane County Jail this winter. The caller asked me if I could enlist the help of our church in this project. The inmates are my neighbors, too. I guess I could follow up on that request. I could also clean out my own closet….

With the world being in such a sorry state, there are plenty of opportunities to be a good Samaritan. As Pastor Jeff suggested, I need to educate myself on the issues underlying the tragic problems in our neighborhood, our country, and our world. I need to look around to see and understand the needs of my neighbors.

Like Jesus said,

“Which of these three [the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan], do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” [Luke 10:36-37 NRSV]

Or, as Pastor Jeff said, “You’re not dead yet. Do something!”

coat-drive

Jail inmates released in the winter months will need warm coats. Maybe we can help….

(You can hear Pastor Jeff’s homily on the church website. Pastor Jeff always begins his homilies with a song and a story. Even if you just watch the first few minutes, you’ll hear a great story about an old and very clever German Shepherd.
http://messiahchurch.com/media/video/2016-sermons/  
Note: You may have to click the refresh button of your browser and then click the arrow for the July 10 sermon.)

Let Me Introduce My Neighbors to You

Marian and kittenWhen I was a little girl growing up on a Wisconsin farm, I thought of four families as being our neighbors: the farmers across the road just west of us – the Henry Henderson family; the farmers who lived on the farm immediately south of us – The Mulcaheys; the farmers just east of us – the Scotts; and Ruth and Merrill Kenseth, a brother and sister who were double cousins of my mom (their moms were sisters and their dads were brothers) – and they lived on the farm across the road north of us. I didn’t really know any of the neighbors very well, except the cousins. Sometimes, on a nice summer evening, I would walk over to the Kenseth farm to play with their barn cats while Merrill was milking the cows, especially when there was a brand new litter of kittens to play with.

I think the main reason I didn’t know the other neighbors very well is that they didn’t go to the same church as we did, and we primarily socialized with the people within our own church. Occasionally, Danny and I would walk down to the Mulcaheys to play with Michael and Margaret, the two kids in their family who were about our ages, but they were Catholics, so we were discouraged from playing with them too much. We grew up thinking of Catholics almost like a different tribe. They didn’t really believe in God quite like we did. They believed in Mary and the pope and saints and who knows what all… We were Methodists and we knew Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Back then we were taught to avoid people who were different from us, even if they were neighbors.

When I went away to college, obviously I had new neighbors. Living in a dorm, I had roommates, who essentially became my on-campus family. My new neighbors were the young women who lived in the rooms adjacent to and across the hall from us. Since I went to a small Christian college, these neighbors were all members of the same “tribe” and we all became friends.

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My dorm at Wheaton College

After college I moved to a small town in Connecticut where I was an English teacher. I rented an apartment in a relatively new apartment complex of about 20 units. I had two kinds of neighbors in the apartment complex – relatively poor families who couldn’t afford to buy a house, and young teachers who were new to the community. Basically, we became two tribes. I had very little contact with the other tribe.

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Our Chicago two-flat. Sidewalks separate us from our neighbors.

After a couple years in Connecticut I moved back to the Midwest, met Mim, and the two of us lived in Chicago together for 20 years. While we lived in Chicago, at first our concept of neighbor was not very different from what my concept of neighbor had been when I was a little girl on the farm. The houses next to us on all four sides were our neighbors, and to varying degrees, we became friends. Further down the block in any direction we didn’t even know the people, with a few rare exceptions – like when we got our first puppy, we got to know the other families on the block who had dogs.

Gradually, after living in Chicago several years, we began to think of the term “neighbor” in a little broader sense. We thought of neighborhoods, and neighboring neighborhoods. For a few years we attended LaSalle Street Church, located between Sandburg Village – an upscale high-rise residential development and Cabrini Green – the most notorious, gang-infested housing project in Chicago. The pastors at LaSalle prompted us to re-think how we should love and care for our neighbors, and just who our neighbors really are.

Back in Cambridge, after 20 years in Chicago, my concept of neighbor continued to evolve. I still thought of my neighbors as the people whose homes (or farms) were adjacent to ours. But then we subdivided the farm. Most of the acreage became new housing – a small apartment complex (The Hamptons), a condominium development (Stone Meadows, where Mim and I now live), and a couple residential subdivisions (Winterberry and Summer Prairie). Would all these new housing units, over 100, shelter a whole new community of neighbors for us? Mim and I tried to start out being neighborly by bringing homemade cookies or bread as a welcome gift to each new neighbor as they moved into their home. We kept that up for about the first half-dozen or so neighbors, then we stopped. I guess I need to think a little harder about just who my neighbor is, and how I should treat them…

Stone Meadows

This is where we live now. Our condo is on the right.

So why am I thinking so much about neighbors today?

Sheriff Mahoney

Sheriff Mahoney

A week and a half ago I went to the annual meeting of the Jail Ministry. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney was a special guest at this meeting, and he gave a short talk about the needs of inmates. Sheriff Mahoney said that his biggest hope is that the people of Dane County would stop thinking of jail inmates as violent criminals getting exactly what they deserve by being incarcerated, but rather think of jail inmates as their neighbors. He said that 80% of the inmates are in jail for crimes related to their addiction to drugs or alcohol. They need healing, not punishment. Mahoney said that in his 35 years of law enforcement experience, he has not known even one inmate that was rehabilitated just by being kept in a cage for a while. For all inmates who have been successfully rehabilitated, they succeeded because they were in an environment that provided the resources that enabled them to heal. The chaplains and volunteers of the Jail Ministry are an important part of those resources – people who care, who listen, and who try to help the healing process.

Mahoney closed his remarks by coming back to his biggest hope – that we all start thinking of inmates as our neighbors.

The dictionary defines neighbor in geographic terms – “a person living near another.” [www.merriam-webster.com] But the Bible broadens the definition of neighbor significantly, as this New Testament incident illustrates.

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Good Samaritan sketchJesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” [Luke 10:25-37 The Message]

Dulce Maria Family-cropped

Dulce Maria is the little girl on the left.

According to Jesus, it’s very important for me to love my neighbor, almost as important as it is for me to love God. In order for me to love my neighbor, I need to understand who my neighbor is, and Jesus makes it pretty clear that it’s not just the people living in the houses adjacent to my house. I think Jesus would agree with Sheriff Mahoney, that the inmates of the Dane County Jail are my neighbors. But that’s not all. Immigrants from Mexico and the Near East and actually all over the world are my neighbors, too. Dulce Maria, the little girl in Honduras that Mim and I sponsor, is our neighbor. Homeless people in Cambridge and Madison are our neighbors. Anyone who needs someone to listen and care and help. Anyone who needs to see God’s love in action in their life. These are my neighbors.

I guess I have more neighbors than I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks, Maria. That Gives me an idea.

A couple years ago, around the first of November, Chaplain Julia of the Jail Ministry invited the women inmates worshiping together in the jail chapel to tell each other about some of their family traditions related to Halloween and All Saints Day. She especially encouraged Maria to explain to us what her friends and family did in Mexico to celebrate the holiday, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

An altar set up in a Mexican home for celebrating Dia de los Muertos

An altar set up in a Mexican home for celebrating Dia de los Muertos

Although Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and All Saints Day are Christian celebrations, different cultures around the world have adapted these days in different ways to incorporate the history and legends of their own societies. In Mexico, ancient Aztec beliefs are incorporated into Dia de los Muertos – the day to honor family members and friends who have departed. An ancient belief is that the gates of heaven are opened on October 31, and all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to come to earth to spend 24 hours with their families. On November 2, spirits of adults can come down to earth from heaven to join their families for a day of celebration.

In preparation for these heavenly visits, many families set up a special altar in their home and decorate it with pictures of their departed loved ones, along with candles, flowers, fruits, and favorite foods of the departed to entice the spirits to come back home for the day. Some families take the food and decorations to the cemetery, to the graves of their loved ones. Then the extended family has a big picnic in the cemetery with all these special foods. The family spends much of the day reminiscing about their departed loved ones. In spirit, the departed souls join their earthly families for this day of remembrance and celebration.

Cemetery being decorated for Dia de los Muertos

Cemetery being decorated for Dia de los Muertos

With a little coaxing from the jail chaplain, Maria told us how her family in Mexico used to celebrate this special holiday. She talked mostly about preparing all the favorite foods of their departed loved ones, and getting together with their relatives at the cemetery for a big picnic and time of reminiscing. It was a very happy family celebration.

I’ve thought about Maria’s story often over the last couple years, especially around Halloween and All Saints Day. I wish we observed a tradition like that in our own culture. I think the closest thing we have to Dia de los Muertos in the U.S. is Memorial Day. Although I put flowers on my parents’ grave for Memorial Day, most of the emphasis of the day is on remembering veterans of U.S. wars. I think of the day as a patriotic holiday more than a family remembrance day.

Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church

Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church

For All Saints Day this year, I played the organ at the Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church. Besides playing the usual “For All the Saints,” I incorporated some old hymns that might prompt us to remember some of the saints who have touched our lives directly, such as our parents and grandparents. When the pastor read the names of the church members who had died in the past year, I played softly on the piano, hymns like “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” and “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”

When I got home from church, I thought more about how Maria’s family used to spend the time from October 31 through November 2 in Mexico, a time for remembering the saints of the church, especially the saints who have directly affected them, like parents, grandparents, siblings, and close friends. I decided to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in my mind this year. Maybe we can carry it out in reality next year. I hope so.

I thought about my mom, my dad, and my sister – the three members of my family of origin who are no longer with us on earth.

Family portrait, about 1960

Family portrait, about 1960

My mom’s favorite meal (actually, it was the whole family’s favorite meal) was pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet corn (the kind Mom had frozen herself), a fruit salad held together with a sweet fluffy dressing, home-made clover leaf rolls – re-warmed in the oven so butter would melt on them, coffee, and schaum torte with ice cream and strawberries for dessert. That’s the dinner Mom usually made when we had company for Sunday dinner.

Just thinking about all that food makes me hungry for it, and prompts me to remember the wonderful times we had squeezing a dozen or more people around the dining room table to share the meal. I remember mumbling along with everyone as we recited the Norwegian table prayer together – in Norwegian. I never did learn it beyond the first phrase, Jesu Navn gar vi til bords…  

I’d love to establish a new tradition for my family for All Saints Day based on the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos. I’m not ready to abandon the tradition of welcoming trick-or-treaters to our house on Halloween, but I’d like to add time on All Saints Day to remember the saints who have personally touched my life, family and friends who are now departed. I’d like to set up a little altar, maybe on the buffet, with some flowers, pictures of the special saints in my life and in Mim’s life. And then, we will have a special dinner with the favorite foods of our saints as we reminisce about them. I can already taste that pan-fried chicken dinner. (Maybe on alternate years, we’ll have to have lutefisk – Mim’s mom’s favorite!)

Thanks, Maria, for giving me the idea…

A family dinner about 30 years ago

A family dinner about 30 years ago

Remembering my “times” in Jail

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

The last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on a new booklet, “Stories from JAIL Ministry: Personal Reflections of a Volunteer.” I recently agreed to speak about the Jail Ministry at a potluck luncheon of the senior citizen club of our church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Since I like to write more than I like to speak, I thought having a little booklet to hand out to everyone would be a nice supplement to the things I talk about during the lunch presentation.

Stories from JAIL MinistryI knew that putting together a booklet would be easy and fun for me to do. Most of the chapters were already written. I would simply take the jail-related blog posts I’ve written over the past four years, compile them into a booklet, cut out the ones that seem repetitious, and edit the remainder of the posts to fit into a manageable booklet size. I’m almost finished, and I was right. It was fun!

The part of the process that was the most fun was remembering all the posts I’ve written about worshiping God together with the inmates and the chaplain. It was fun to remember many of the inmates and their life stories. It was fun to remember taking communion together and talking about what that meant to us. It was fun to remember sharing how God was speaking to each one of us at that moment and then praying for each other. It was fun to remember singing together, especially the times I accompanied the ad hoc choir that occasionally formed after the worship service while we waited for an officer to come to escort the women back to their cell blocks.

Yesterday morning, before I started working on the final draft of this booklet, I read the following in Henri Nouwen’s daily devotional book, Bread for the Journey:

The Church is that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us.

That’s it! As I put all these blog posts together, I realized, these incarcerated women are part of “that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us.” Through these women’s lives, God’s love and care can be seen. These women are part of the same Church as the people I worship God with on Sunday. And it is through this Church, God’s Church, that we experience and begin to understand God’s love. The apparent difference between the incarcerated part of the Church and the part of the Church that worships God in a beautiful building on Sunday morning is that the incarcerated members are currently in difficult circumstances and those circumstances are obvious to everyone. But we’re all members of the same Church, God’s Church.

GOV065In the past four years that I have been going into the jail regularly to worship God with these incarcerated members of the Church, I have learned to take the words of Jesus more seriously when he said:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
[Matthew 25:35, 36, 40 NRSV]

If you would like to receive one of these booklets, send me an email at MarianKorth@gmail.com. Be sure to include your mailing address, and I’ll drop one in the mail for you when the booklet is finished – within the next week or so.

Observing Holy Week – Jail Style

City-County Bldg 2Last Thursday I participated in the women’s worship service at the county jail. I’ll be doing the same thing again this Thursday, Maundy Thursday. Women inmates have the opportunity to go to worship once every other week. The women from half the cell blocks are given the opportunity one week, the other half the next week. Last week four inmates chose to come to the worship service. With the chaplain and me, six of us sat in chairs arranged in a close circle with a small table in the center that served as the altar.

We observed all of Holy Week in about an hour. We started with one woman reading the story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then we jumped ahead to Maundy Thursday. The chaplain explained the two key events that happened that evening – Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and Jesus sharing bread and wine with his disciples – the first Last Supper. That was a natural lead-in for us to share communion with each other.

potters crackersUsually in the past when we’ve shared communion, the chaplain has provided elements that are commonly available in jail – saltine crackers and a plastic cup of grape juice from the canteen. But this time, she brought something special – Cranberry Graham organic artisan crackers from Potter’s Crackers and organic grape juice. The chaplain had picked up the gourmet crackers and organic juice at the Willy Street Co-op.

The chaplain explained what communion represents in her faith tradition and asked each of us to explain what communion means to us. Then the chaplain held the basket of crackers and the cup of grape juice and offered “the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing” to the inmate sitting at her right. The woman picked up a cracker from the basket and dipped it in the grape juice. As she ate it, we all smiled as she crunched and ate the cracker. The crackers were really crunchy, but oh so tasty. Then the first inmate held the basket and cup, and offered the crackers and grape juice to the woman sitting at her right. We kept smiling while we waited for her to finish eating her crunchy cracker.  Then she offered the holy meal to the next person, and so on until all of us had been served.  I’m glad there were just six of us sitting in the circle so we could truly savor this moment of holy crunching and sharing.

When all had been served, we ended the meal by singing a hymn, just like the original disciples at the first Last Supper. The hymn we sang was “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” I wonder what hymn Jesus and the disciples sang.

Hands playing pianoSince we were trying to observe all of Holy Week in that one worship service, we read more Scripture and talked briefly about the crucifixion and resurrection. Then, as usual, we went around the circle with each of us talking about what was on our minds related to the readings or other thoughts. All four of the women were thinking about being released from jail. One woman was going to be released the next day, and she was really anxious to see her little boy again, and her boyfriend. The three others were going to be released within a couple weeks. All four women were concerned about being able to turn their life around so that they would never have to return to jail, and so that they could live a good, meaningful life. Then we prayed for each other out loud. We went around the circle again, praying for the person on our right, by name. After praying, we sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” We ended the service by reading a blessing as a benediction.

A prison cell doorWhile we were waiting for a deputy to come to escort the inmates back to their cell block, one of the women asked if I knew how to play the song “This Little Light of Mine.” I started to play the tune and she sang along. Then we all sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Both songs seemed quite meaningful for young women about to be released from jail, and about to go back to the rest of their lives.

I left jail that day thinking about lots of things –

  • What kind of bread did Jesus share with his disciples in the first Last Supper? Was it really crunchy and flavorful? Do church worship committees think seriously about the kind of bread they serve for communion – and what that could symbolize on multiple levels?
  • What hymn did the disciples sing before leaving the meal? I can’t believe that I never noticed before that it says in Mark 14:26 that they sang a hymn! That gives me a new perspective to keep in mind when I select music to play as background music during communion in the churches where I play organ.
  • How will God take care of each of these women as they return to their lives outside of jail? After all, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
  • Why do I feel so thankful and invigorated by the prayer the inmate sitting on my left had prayed for me and my family? And, do all the inmates and the chaplain feel the same way when someone prays for them by name? I bet all people (or almost all) are inspired when they know that someone is specifically praying for them…

I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to get together with these women to read scripture, share communion, express thoughts and feelings, sing hymns, and pray together. I need to write up a note about this to drop in my Gratitude Jar.

Gratitude Jar w note 4

 

 

 

Joy in Unexpected Places

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

One location of the Dane County Jail is on the top floors of the City-County Building in Madison, WI.

The highlight of my day last Thursday came at the end of the women’s worship service in the county jail.  As usual, I had gone to the Dane County Jail in Madison to play the piano for the women’s worship service. But this service was a little different. Instead of a more typical opening hymn, we sang the refrain of the contemporary hymn by Bob Dufford, “Be Not Afraid.” The words are:

Be not afraid
I go before you always.
Come, follow me,
and I will give you rest.

We sang the words quietly, meditatively, three times.

Then we continued with the rest of the service. The chaplain read from the Bible. Each of us shared with the group how the Bible story spoke to us personally. Everyone wrote down prayer requests to give to the chaplain to pray throughout the week.

Hands playing pianoDuring this quiet time I played softly on the piano. I repeated “Be Not Afraid, and then switched to “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Some of the women hummed along. Then we went around the circle and prayed out loud for the person seated on our right. We ended the service by singing “Be Not Afraid” again, but with slightly different words. We sang the refrain three times, but we sang it as a response to God with the words changed to  – I’m not afraid. For the final blessing, we went around the circle in the opposite direction we had prayed, and we each asked for God’s blessing on the person standing to our left.

Then the highlight of the day for me happened. While the chaplain rapped on the window to try to attract the attention of a deputy to unlock the chapel door and escort the women back to their cell blocks, the women stood around talking to each other, and I played the piano again as a free-form postlude. I started with “Be Not Afraid” and then repeated “Jesus Loves Me.” One of the inmates, Linda, sang along from the opposite side of the room. Then I played “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Linda came over to a chair next to the piano, sat down, and sang several verses of the spiritual – I kept playing as long as she could think up verses. Then I asked her what she wanted to sing next. She responded immediately with, “Do you know ‘We’re Marching to Zion?’”

I started to play a few measures of the verse to be sure we were thinking of the same song, and she started to sing the refrain. I jumped ahead to the refrain and she sang it with a strong, beautiful alto voice as I played. After the refrain, she went right ahead with the verses and I followed her lead. We had a joyful time singing and playing together. I was sorry the deputies came so quickly to take the women back to their cells.

Here are the words of the song. We only had time to sing two verses, but I was amazed she knew all the words of the verses she had time to sing.

MARCHING TO ZION

Refrain:
We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord
and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God;
but children of the heavenly King, but children of the heavenly King
may speak their joys abroad, may speak their joys abroad.

The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets
before we reach the heavenly fields, before we reach the heavenly fields,
or walk the golden streets, or walk the golden streets.

Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
to fairer worlds on high, to fairer worlds on high.

I’m sorry I can’t let you hear what Linda and I sounded like in the jail chapel. But if you want to hear the hymn “We’re Marching to Zion,” you can go to www.youtube.com  and enter the title in the search box. Or, here’s a direct link to a pretty a cappella rendition that I like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgjEaF5O6RI

Whether it’s through music, or in other ways, I hope you have many unexpected joyful moments today – and every day.

 

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