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Advent in Prison

by: John Winslow, Washington, D.C. 15, Outreach Coordinator, Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Gonzaga University 15.

Originally posted on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Jesuit Volunteer Reflects blog.

They were already waiting for us, organized into four columns between two waist-high walls. There were maybe fifty men of various ages, races, and, to my surprise, clothing choices, sitting in blue plastic chairs. I had assumed that all the men I would meet in prison would be wearing orange jumpsuits, but most were wearing Levis and t-shirts. In any other context, I wouldn’t have looked at them twice.

To be fair, this certainly wasn’t a context I was familiar with. For the first time in my life, I was inside a prison. So far, my placement as a Jesuit Volunteer with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth had only included long distance communication with these men, primarily through letters and a few phone calls. After two months with the campaign, it was time to make my first visit to a correctional facility.

A man I’ll call “Joe,” one of the more than fifty men we met, serving a life sentence for a crime committed as a child, organized the visit. He was ecstatic for us to present a group of juvenile “lifers” with some updates about Maryland’s upcoming legislation. One of my colleagues spoke about the legislation for a few minutes, but spent most of her time answering nuanced, incredibly educated questions about complex legal details.

After we finished speaking, almost all of them stayed to offer handshakes and heartfelt thanks for our work. They waited patiently and easily, taking turns. After speaking to us, each of them waited to be let out of the locked visitor room.

As I watched one of them leave the room, I had a realization: these men are constantly waiting. Prison-Life

I couldn’t help but think of the timing: as the Church prepares for Advent and the coming of Christmas, it seems every homily I hear urges us to become, in effect, better “waiters.” And maybe, for those of us on “the outside,” that’s good advice. But I must confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am impatient. This Advent, I am tired of waiting.

I am tired of waiting on our country to give these men the justice they deserve. Every single one of the men I met is serving time for a crime they committed as a child–some of them as young as thirteen. One of the men I chatted with was incarcerated at sixteen. He is now 64.

He has been waiting for 48 years.

Who are we to tell these men to “wait”? To wait for justice, for deliverance, for liberation?

If waiting for the Kingdom of God means doing nothing, then I want no part of it. If waiting for the Kingdom of God means complacency and a naïve optimism that the world will inevitably become a better place, call me apostate and anathema. These men know that nothing about justice is inevitable.

Perhaps Advent invites us into a different kind of waiting–an active waiting, a waiting that lives in constant and full anticipation of the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is not a distant possibility. Emmanuel is truly with us, here and now, capable of being touched. Waiting for the coming of Christ is not passive; indeed, it demands an active living-in of the knowledge that the Kingdom of God dwells within us. This Advent, I pray we do not passively continue to simply wait for justice. Let us wait for the Kingdom of God by meeting its coming, singing like John in the desert.