Christmas reflections from a former prison chaplain

Lindsay Steele
Father Greg Steckel, a chaplain at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, tells a fictional account of an offender’s Christmas gift to his fellow offenders in a state penitentiary. The story is based on Fr. Steckel’s previous experience as a prison chaplain.

(Editor’s note: The main character in this reflection, Joe, is fictional, but based on Fr. Greg Steckel’s previous prison ministry.)

By Fr. Greg Steckel
For The Catholic Messenger

“Just another day.” That’s what everyone says on Dec. 25 inside a penitentiary. Translated, that means, “I’m depressed. No one remembers me on Christ­mas. I didn’t get anything and I have nothing to give.”

A huge artificial Christmas tree stood in the main corridor the first year I served as chaplain at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. But it wasn’t to be seen ever again after someone felt it had some exclusive religious connotation that did not allow others to express their own faith or lack of religion.

Fr. Steckel

Even very dedicated Christians amid the inmate population felt left out and more alone on Christmas than on any other day of the year. Unless they got a visit, they might even be heard saying, “Just another day,” as a means of encouraging others to not get their hopes up that their release might be just around the corner.

The week before Thanksgiving one year, I felt I had to wish old Joe (as he would put it) “a blessed and holy Gratitude Attitude Day.” Joe had been locked up in the penitentiary for some of the most reprehensible crimes. He had worked hard to change his outlook on life while being locked up for the rest of his life. Through a painful self-examination, and a totally new outlook on life as a newborn Christian, he resolved to live in the moment and somehow received a divine miracle; to live as someone who had been forgiven.

No one in the penitentiary called Joe “Friend” or “Bro” or “Homey.” No one wanted much to do with him. To them, he was some kind of a religious nut who spouted off biblical quotes. They called him, derisively, “The Preacher” and then made some obscene gesture to make sure he did not take the epithet as a compliment.

There was something about Joe, maybe it was his attitude or the way he carried himself or the light that shone from inside his eyes whenever I, as a prison chaplain, approached him. It made me think that there was something actually authentic about what God was up to with loving this man who no one (to be truthful, not even myself) could possibly stand.

Joe was one of the few who lived out giving thanks every day of his life for being alive and then reborn as child of the heavenly Father. He was especially exuberant that day, so I knew he was up to something and, knowing him, there would be work for me involved in his crazy plan. He began: “Hey Chap — listen to this; I got a way to get everyone a gift for Christmas, kind of get them to look beyond their negativity and hatred and anger for just one day of the year!”

I asked, “How are YOU going to do that?” He replied, “You know how they give out all those bags just before Christmas to anyone who wants one?” “Yes,” I responded. In about every U.S. prison, the one gift you can depend on is that at the “holidays” the staff gives out a large pre-packaged plastic bag containing cookies and crackers, candy canes and chocolate-covered marshmallow snowmen, salty snacks of some kind, maybe even a toothbrush and some toothpaste, and a tiny bottle of shampoo or something like that.

“Look,” Joe said. “I’ve got a bunch of things me and the boys can write, kind of like a Christmas card to each and every guy in here. Nothing fancy, just maybe some scrap pieces of paper and some white envelopes they can give out with the packages.”

“Oh no,” I found myself saying. “Not some quotes from the Bible that might be found offensive to convicts who don’t want anything to do with the message of Christmas.” No Bible quotes, Joe assured me. “Just a little note, like it was from God, saying things like, ‘I rejoiced when you were born! Thanks for celebrating my birth.’ Or maybe — ‘Can, you just let go of the past as the best holiday gift I can give you or you can give me.’ Or what about something like, ‘Letting go of the past lets you be the one who is reborn and starting out all over again with no regrets, no guilt, no retaliation and no more ‘out guessing yourself.”’

I could imagine giving them out randomly and when shared they might point to a path of understanding, that even in the penitentiary you could have the best Christmas possible, if you were willing to look at things a little differently.

Joe talked me out of the extra envelopes that should have been with the donated Christmas cards I had been giving out. There was enough scrap paper around for a message to everyone every day of the year. The hardest part for me was convincing the senior chaplain that it was a project that would be worth doing and that no one’s First Amendment rights would be violated. We had to get a legal opinion that simply said that by taking a “Christmas Bag each inmate was freely choosing to receive along with it a Christmas message.”

The bags of goodies were given out and the notes were surreptitiously given out as if they were from one of the dedicated volunteers who had been well intentioned though maybe a bit overzealous or even misguided (that would be me, doing the misguiding).

The guys from the chapel had carefully used their best penmanship and each card had an illustration of a winter scene done simply in silhouette. No one knew who was behind the project, yet they dedicated hours to hand printing notes so that these messages of hope in the midst of one of the most negative places on earth would challenge and inspire.

When the day came to pass out the bags of treats, dutifully the staff cooperated and gave out a white envelope that simply said, “A Message for you.” Many were tossed on the floor unopened; most were read out of curiosity, many were compared to other notes and pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle into a message of hope and encouragement to overcome the usual atmosphere of negativity and hostility.

A few made it to a place of honor, set up in the corner of the metal mirror over the combination sink/toilet in the cell as a note of continual inspiration. There were quite a few discussions over the source of the messages. There was even the formation of little ad hoc groups who for the first time in their lives felt a sense of camaraderie and support in discussing the subjects brought to mind by the “messages from God.”
It was after Christmas when I first caught up with Joe on my rounds. I saw that his usual smile was way beyond his normal grin. He was ecstatic that he had not been found out. All he said was, “I think most of the men got it. For some of the new guys this just may have been their first Christmas without getting drunk or hearing fighting going on in their homes. Lots of the men here grew up in homes either with a single mother when they were young or were raised by their aunts or grandmothers. Some of those guys got a little choked up and found an excuse to write home saying something like: “Guess who sent me a special message this Christmas?”

(Fr. Greg Steckel is chaplain at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.)

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