Singing joyfully in prison surprised me almost as much as seeing a smile on this toe. The toe reminds me of a childhood game, “My grandfather’s big fat toe.” We’d sit in a row, usually on our front steps. The person who was “it” would ask the rest of us the silliest questions. Our answer had to be “My grandfather’s big fat toe” and, unless we wanted to be “it” we had to deliver the answer without smiling or laughing. The end result of the game was, of course, lots of laughing.
Since receiving my orientation this summer, I’ve been helping out with some Bible studies in the Women’s Correctional Centre just outside of the city. The women are quite young and usually have quite a few children. Many are indigenous. There’s lots of laughter there, too, as well as serious reflection, unpretentious sharing, and yes, joyful singing. I am getting more than I give. Gospel songs like “I’ll fly away,” “The old rugged cross, “and “This little light of mine” are real favourites.
Last week, after we’d sung three songs, I announced the next song would be our last only to hear, “Why would you do that? We’ve just started a churchin!” We laughed and agreed to sing two more favourites out of their song collection binder.
Once we got into the Bible study of the assigned lectionary lament psalm and a challenging Gospel text they were keenly interested in the storied setting of both. When they heard that the Psalms were Isreal’s song book, and that the week’s Psalm was best understood by reading it through tears, some of them connected deeply. Good questions were posed about the text. One woman connected the context of the Psalm (the return from Babylonian exile) to questions she had about the whore of Babylon in Revelation 18. That and the context of Halloween week definitely led to some interesting conversation!
When we asked for prayer requests, the petitions flowed freely. Perhaps there were areas they didn’t dare share about, but in contrast to the kinds of careful sharing done in my congregation, they appeared transparent, vulnerable, and full of reliance on God.
After we’d prayed, we sang away the remaining minutes until the guards would escort them back to their range and cells. However, the guards noticed what a great time they were having, and let the minutes tick by until we finally put an end to “the churchin” ourselves.
I drove home singing; grateful for the deep worship; grateful that God is indeed with them in their challenging and troubled lives; grateful for the rare glimpse these evenings are giving me into the realities of another slice of city life. However, their greatest gift to me may be in learning that God is with them in tangible ways. It is helping me believe more deeply that God is indeed at work in our world.
Guess what. Tonight, I get to go to prison again! May it bring more joy and laughter than “my grandfather’s big fat toe.”