We hear Jesus say “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35), and it sounds simple. Yet, to fulfill His call to be with “the least of them” in prison is a little more complicated and a whole lot more heart breaking. A year ago, Festival of Sharing was offered the opportunity to share in a Christmas worship with the women of the Vandalia Correctional Facility when we bring our yearly gift of hygiene packs.
Chaplain Barnhart graciously guided us through the process. A month before entering the facility you must go through a background check, have all items you will bring into the facility approved and have your movements timed to the minute. When you drive through Vandalia, you see from a distance the sprawling orange complex of building which currently houses 1,842 women. The number is staggering. Upon entering the facility, you show identification, receive a visitor’s card, have your items searched, go through a metal detector and finally through multiple guard stations.
When we entered the chapel space, it struck us how very beige everything is in the building. Even the white board is not white but beige. As the women began to join us, their assigned uniforms were beige/tan from head to toe. Some entered with hesitation but most with smiles. The prison had handed out Christmas gifts of food and sweets along with the Festival hygiene packs earlier in the afternoon. Woman after woman thanked us and told us how much these packs mean to them.
Remember, these packs are simple, shampoo, lotion, toothpaste, deodorant and a nail file. Many told us how challenging it is to buy these items, especially for those who have no outside support. They also gushed about how wonderful the shampoo smells. Have you just inhaled the fragrance of shampoo lately and been thankful? Another woman traded all her candy and chocolate for extra tubes of lotion. This was the first year we included them in the packs because the prison is so drying in the winter. We received hugs and pass them on to you for your donations.
Our group let them know people in churches all around Missouri were thinking of them and praying for them. We shared that when the plea went out to churches for at least 1,800 prison packs to give as Christmas gifts, the response was incredible - 4,006 at last count. This means we brought extra to Vandalia and can also support the nearly 1,600 women at the Chillicothe Correctional Facility. To give this perspective, we collected a total of 912 packs in 2015. These packs serve as a concrete reminder that they are not forgotten.
We also celebrated the remarkable efforts of women in the prison who raised $2,000 and donated it to Festival of Sharing. Three groups - Long-timers, NAACP and Outreach - spent their time selling treats such as candy and chips to other prisoners to raise money. These generous gifts brought tears of blessing to our eyes and hope to our hearts.
There are moments and images during our visit at the prison which will stay in our minds and hearts forever. Retired Rev. Jim Bryan, through tears, said, “I don’t have any magic words for you tonight. The most important words I have are, ‘You are precious, beloved children of the most high God.'” When he repeated these words, tears began to flow. There was joy and laughter during the singing of hymns. There were “amens” when we shared our Christmas theme and the gospel reading “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). During our interactive worship the women shared with loud voices what darkness is for them; But with even more strength they shared what brings light. Singing of an infant Savior born to a young girl was made all the more poignant when at least a half dozen women in worship were pregnant.
As we closed the service, we dimmed the lights and lifted one candle while we sang, “Silent night, holy night! Son of God love's pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Lord, at Thy birth.” The room was no longer beige, and the darkness was overcome by the light of Jesus Christ. We praise God for the opportunity to share in prison how Jesus Christ brought glorious light into the world, His redeeming grace shines on all of us and how these precious women are now light to each other!