“I’m not in any pain – you are. That is why I worry about you.” These words echo through my heart almost daily. I think of her selfless disposition, especially later in life, in the midst of her heroic battle with cancer. She rarely put herself first, if ever, always thinking of the needs of others. And because of this, she enjoyed a completely happy life. The joy which she shared so effortlessly came from a life lived for the others – a natural outgrowth of her deep faith in God. And this beautiful life of hers is something I try to emulate every day of my life.
The bong of the prison doors sent a cold shudder down my aching spine. Despite weekly visits to the prison, I could not get used to the clanging sound of the heavy metal doors being locked behind me. My visit this time would be different and I was unsure about what to expect. Gathered in the large, dilapidated prison gym built decades ago, our small group of volunteers prepared to hand out approximately 300 Christmas bags to the inmates. Shampoo, socks and lotion made up the main items in the bag along with a few smaller toiletries. Nothing fancy to you and me, but coveted items to the women receiving them. As I greeted the first group of women who had passed through the guard checkpoint, I smiled with outstretched hand and said “Merry Christmas, nice to see you, my name is Jennifer.” Many responded by shaking my hand, sharing their name and thanking me for coming, while others simply nodded, misty eyes cast downward toward the floor. Regardless of her response, I wanted to connect with each woman, to let her know that she mattered and that someone was thinking about her this Christmas. I hope I did that…I don’t know…but I hope so.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
– 1 Peter 4:10
It’s a sad reality that a great number of incarcerated women have come from lives of poverty, trauma, violence, abuse and mental illness. Something many of us cannot imagine. Contrary to men, most women end up in prison due to a drug or property related crime. And a majority of women return to prison within five years without any positive intervention from volunteers or some type of “after-care program.” Many of us don’t have time to understand why people end up in prison, but in many cases, there is usually a good reason. It’s reasonable that we may jump to conclusions and assume that they are simply bad people if they are incarcerated. I may have been one of those ignorant folks in my younger days. Since becoming a prison volunteer, I have learned that we should never judge what we don’t understand. Since my only family experience is one of total love, acceptance and support – how could I ever know what my life would have been like had I not received these precious gifts from my parents? Being brought up in such a loving home makes me feel called to lend a hand to those most in need of a little love. Mom taught me that with just a bit of effort on our part, humanity is brought back into balance with people caring for each other. Both triumph – those on the receiving end and those on the giving end.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Mom also taught me that we can make a difference in this world; one person at a time. When I reflect upon the impact of her life, I am overwhelmed. Her incredible example of love and caring propels me forward each day in search of becoming a better human being. Mom gave without being asked, she loved unconditionally, judged no one and served the greatest to the smallest need – her shoes are impossible to fill. But perhaps her legacy is not one of trying to fill her shoes, perhaps it is one of trying to simply love and care for the other – wherever we may find them.
Taking her arm, we continue our walk down the beach. “Mom, please don’t worry about me. My pain is nothing compared to your illness and what you have been called to endure every day. You have handled the difficult treatments heroically, better than anyone I know.” We carry on in silence – thinking about the other and willing her healing and well being. After awhile, she turns to me with a smile, “I am so blessed, I have a beautiful family who loves and cares for me. Because of that, I can handle anything.” This Christmas season and New Year – let’s follow in the footsteps of my mom – let’s love and care for the others so that they can rise up to new and happier lives.