On Tuesday, as has become my practice on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of each month for the past few months, I made my way to Dorchester Penitentiary where I’ve been supporting a group of inmates who created an LGBTQ2+ support group.
I’d received permission in advance to bring in some treats for the guys along with the treats that I usually carried in my pocket for Rasta, so on my way I picked up a bag of Turtles and Ghirardelli Salted Caramel Squares… and then, as I drove toward Dorchester, preparing to enter that big imposing Gothic building on the hill, mulled how to share the treats in a way that might contribute to the building of community.
The Officer at the Principal Entrance was noticeably warm and accommodating, and even allowed me to make my way to the Community Centre unescorted. The Social Program Officer welcomed me into the space, and we quickly set up the room. She brought out the coveted coffee creamer and I moved the Pride Flag into the corner and quickly the room filled with the scent of overcooked coffee and the warmth of greetings as the participants arrived.
After some housekeeping items I introduced the activity for the evening – Delayed Christmas Gratification… and before I could finish the sentence, one of the long-time participants quipped, ‘Well, we know all about delayed gratification here!’ This was met with a round of loud laughter and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, no, I’ve lost them.’ But as I explained the activity, I saw head begin to nod and I could almost sense a softening of hearts.
I’d planned two rounds of sharing, the first was an opportunity to share a memory of a Christmas meal or food and the feeling that came with that memory. The second round of sharing was an opportunity to share a memory or story of a Christmas gift that you’d given or received. It was a holy time.
After each memory was shared, the one sharing received a treat and there was a reverent pause as the group appreciated the sacredness of the story shared. And sacred they were – stories of families and individuals with little in the way of material possessions, making simple things holy: a loaf of round bread, roast squirrel, a first taste of duck, and jiggs dinners with the tiniest of scraps of salt meat that somehow still satisfied the many around the table. And I will never forget the story shared, by a now elderly man, incarcerated for far too many years, who still held onto the memory of receiving a blue pinstripe suit from his parents before the memories of abuse at reform school tried to erase all that was good and beautiful of his being. Nor will I forget the story of one whose fondest Christmas memory was of receiving a loaf of bread, round bread (baked in a coffee or tobacco tin) and how they were filled with gratitude at the abundance of soft crust.
After two rounds of sharing and 18 or so candies later, there were four chocolates still left on the table in front of me – and here I took a risk, “Sing a bar or two of your favourite Christmas song and you can have one of the candies!” Two individuals quickly piped up with Silver Bells followed by Frosty the Snowman and then, one of the quieter guys offered, I can do Silent Night in my language… and so he began to sing into the hushed space of our hearts, singing in Inuit, a song that touched the longing of each heart in the room.
When the applause died down after the second verse, it was agreed that he would get the last two chocolates.
I know it was a risk to open the door to the memories of Christmas in such a setting, but I have come to believe that as pain-filled and painful some of those memories might be, there is also love and life-filled memories too, and that those are the ones that can sustain us when we most need it.
Tonight, December 21st, we will gather at Sackville United Church for our annual Winter Solstice, Longest Night, Blue Christmas Gathering. This is an opportunity to be in the company of others who know the struggle of grief, illness, depression, and loss at Christmas, and to support one another, in the promise that after this night, the nights will get shorter and the days longer – and that Love is with us through it all.
Looking (Back) and Ahead
I was off on Monday for a medical appointment. I had my eyes dilated and was not much good for anything that involved reading for the rest of the day. Tuesday morning was spent in the office in the morning before a Christmas lunch with a group of folk at Patterson’s and two pastoral visits before heading to Dorchester in the evening. Wednesday morning was spent on the phone making Christmas calls to members of the congregation followed by coffee with Open Sky and two pastoral visits and a meeting in the afternoon.
Today, in addition to writing this reflection, finalizing the liturgy for this evening and the reflection for Christmas Eve, Jenn and I will be getting things ready for the arrival of our children and their partners over the holiday.
This evening (December 21st), I am looking forward to gathering with others at 7PM for A Winter Solstice, Gathering for the Weary. You are welcome to participate in-person or via Facebook Live.
On Friday I will be at the Drew and Sackville Hospital in the morning and in the afternoon, I will be visiting two inmates at Dorchester Minimum that I have maintained contact with for over 20 years now. Hopefully Rasta and I can be a hopeful presence to these two and others we may meet while we are there.
Saturday will be a day off and like many of you I expect there’ll be a few last minute things to do today before the stores all shut down and we all settle into some time away from regular routines.
On Sunday, the morning of Christmas Eve, I look forward to gathering with all those who show up at the Drew at 11AM to make our way through the building singing Christmas Carols. Remember there is no Sunday Gathering at Sackville United Church at 11AM. Instead, we will gather at the Drew for Caroling and then, we’ll gather again at 7PM for our Candlelight Christmas Eve Service.
Between December 25th and December 30th I will be available as needed. Regular activities and programs are paused for this week. Jennie and I will be in the office on the afternoon of December 28th and we will gather again in community on Sunday December 31st to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another. Happy Near Year!