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For many Christian churches, Christmas Eve is the biggest service of the year, along with Easter. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Christ child. My church has three services to accommodate the crowds. The traditional Eucharist is also called Communion, the Lord's Supper and Mass. The holiday (holy-day) is named for the service, Christ-Mas(s). Years ago I had a button that read "Put the MASS back in Christmas."

There is one more Christ-mass we celebrate, just down the street at the Northwest Arkansas Community Corrections Center on College Avenue at East Meadow. Tonight we will bring a team into the prison to read the Christmas Scriptures, hear the Christmas sermon, sing Christmas carols and celebrate the Christ-Mass with the women who are incarcerated, away from their family and loved ones this season.

For over 10 years we have been bringing a full communion service not just on Christmas, but every Sunday evening. It is a beautiful service, with music and readings and a sermon just like in church on Sunday morning. It is amazing how the meaning of many Scriptures takes on new significance and depth when you hear it behind bars.

I am a fan of the Community Corrections Center. Unlike most prisons, it is a therapeutic facility. The center hires professional social workers, addiction counselors and support staff to help the women work on the issues that landed them in jail in the first place. They also welcome individuals and groups from the community who offer other enhancement programs for the women's growth and healing.

In addition to the weekly Eucharist that the Episcopal Church and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church offer, we have three other programs we take inside the facility.

"Prison Stories" brings a team of writers, poets, musicians and artists to work with a small group of women over a period of time to help them articulate their life's journey and their hopes for the future. The women create stories, timelines, songs, poems and art to give expression to their deepest selves. At the end of the sessions, a professional writer takes the women's words and weaves them into a script for a dramatic reading. A team of professional actors then perform that script inside the prison and again outside for the public. It is incredibly moving to hear the women's stories, particularly within the walls, and to feel the deep emotions and profound hope their words express. I am always struck by how much these women have suffered, so often beginning in childhood, and how strong and resilient they are. So many of them experienced sexual abuse and violence as children and found themselves as teens self-medicating the pain and traumatic memories with drugs and alcohol. For some, this prison is the most caring and benevolent environment they have ever lived in.

Several years ago we brought the Enneagram Prison Project to the facility. The Enneagram is a typology of personality types. It helps us understand our spiritual and psychological dynamics -- how we relate to ourselves, others and the world. The Enneagram is based on the ancient spirituality of the Christian desert fathers and mothers. The prison program helps the women discover the unconscious drives that contributed to the behavior that landed them in prison. It can be transformational.

Every year we also offer baptismal instruction and prepare a group of women to be baptized or to renew their baptismal identity as children of God. And each December, we help send Christmas presents from the moms to their children back home.

Our programs are but a few of the life-enhancing offerings that some 35 different groups and individuals bring to around 100 women at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center. The women come out of prison changed, usually for the better. Their recidivism rate is less than half that of other corrections facilities.

The facility used to be the Washington County jail. When the county built the new jail, it leased the College Avenue property to the state for $1 a year. The county can reclaim it with nine months' notice and reimbursement for improvements, estimated to be around $1 million.

Now with jail overcrowding, there is talk of reclaiming the facility. I think that's a bad idea. I believe we can find more creative ways to deal with rising incarceration rates. Too many people stay in jail awaiting trial because they are too poor to afford bail.

The Community Correction Center is improving lives, not just punishing. It would be tragic to lose this healing program.

In whatever way you celebrate, happy holidays to you.

Commentary on 12/24/2019

Print Headline: Gifts behind bars

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