Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
In 1989, when we began clearing the weeds and snakes from the foundation of this old farmhouse, there were 673,565 people incarcerated in the United States.
This Advent there are 1.57 million people in our country’s prisons. About another 12 million inmates move through the county jails each year, and countless more are locked up in immigration detention facilities, adding up to an estimated total of 2.4 million people incarcerated within our borders. That’s three and a half times more inmates behind bars.
25 years ago when we hosted our first guests at Mary House, one in 125 children in the United States had a parent in jail or prison. This year, 2.7 million children — one in every 28 of our own brightest treasures — will celebrate the coming holidays with a parent behind bars. Two-thirds of these incarcerated parents are locked up for non-violent offenses.
Our nation’s prison population is both greater in numbers, and represents a larger percent of our citizens, than that of any other country. And it is not possible to talk about our prison system without talking about race: Today one in every three black men can expect to go to prison, compared with one in every 17 white men. There are more black men in prison than in college in the United States.
At Mary House, we’ve been doing our best to offer shelter and respect to the families that travel to visit prisoners doing time in the federal correctional facility at Oxford, Wisconsin, for just over 25 years.. Oxford houses 1121 inmates — a small portion of that 2.4 million. And the children Mary House serves are a tiny percentage of the 2.7 million children who will start the coming new year missing a parent who lives behind bars.
But the children who stay with us are unique, special, one- of-a-kind, and as they clamber out of cars in our driveway this Advent, I’m in awe of their steadfast love and good humor.
If you and a child dear to you could pick a holiday destination to visit, it would probably not be a crowded noisy room made of concrete, down a long chilly hallway through many heavy steel doors, behind an electrified razor wire fence in a small frozen town in Wisconsin.
And if you are lucky enough to be a parent, or a grandparent, and if you were to imagine how to spend a handful of hours with a child or grandchild that you saw rarely — perhaps only once every year — this is probably not the setting of which you would dream.
But here is where these children will be for a portion of their holidays.
In recent days I’ve talked with some of the moms and grandmothers who are getting ready to make the trip here. This year these particular families are waiting in Ohio, and Indiana, and Michigan to travel here in the coming weeks to visit fathers and grandfathers who await their visits. They’re waiting quietly, and with a lot of patience.
My daytime job takes me into lumber yards a lot – Home Depot, and Menards and Lowes – big echoing stores where patience is in short supply, and it is harder and harder to find screws or saw blades because they have been taken over by a shocking profusion of plastic evergreens, plug-in angels, and endless, endless gifts. These are the days of shopping. But when I get back to Mary House I’m reminded that while we may be spending our days buying trees, and lights, and plastic santas and reindeer that glow in the dark, and racking our brains for the perfect, unforgettable present, these children are ticking off the days, patiently or impatiently, packing and repacking backpacks, stuffing sleeping bags and pillows and toothbrushes into cars and cramped bus seats. The perfect gifts of brightness and light and joy that they’re bringing across the states don’t require wrapping or packing, but it’s still no easy thing to bring them all this way.
Some of the families planning Advent visits this year have made the trip before, and will be familiar faces. Some of this season’s young guests will be new to me, and for some separated families this will be the first visit together in many many months, or even years. This isn’t an easy place to get to in the winter. Wisconsin’s roads are snowy and dark in December, and the journey here often starts late, after a long day of work and school. Many of our guests have jobs without flexibility, or paid vacation time, so they’re squeezing in this trip by driving through the night. And so many of our guests have been hit hard by the rough economy in recent years – and have yet to experience the recovery. Women have lost jobs, had their hours cut, survived foreclosures and moved their families. And still they are managing to get here.
Greeting these children and families when they arrive here is the biggest and brightest privilege and delight that anyone could ask for. They are tired and hungry, bright-eyed and curious, cranky and opinionated and determined. They are amazingly trusting – willing to fall asleep in a strange bed and eat breakfast at a strange table. Things that could unsettle even a seasoned traveler. But thanks to all of you, these children also find some familiar and comforting things in this house. Poptarts, and fuzzy blankets, and the entire cast of Toy Story sitting on a shelf just waiting to be noticed in the morning.
It is your generosity that makes this welcome possible, during Advent, during the coming holidays, and throughout the seasons.
Mary House has counted on the generosity of our small but generous extended family of caring donors for all of our years here. You’ve helped us to open our doors and keep them open, and you’ve warmed the space within with quilts and crackling fires, well-loved books and blocks and toys. You’ve put cups on the table, mirrors in the bathrooms, and salt on the icy driveway. Your generosity and the knowledge of your care for them has eased the travels and warmed the hearts of these dedicated families.
As 2014 comes to an end our national commitment to imprisonment continues unabated, and sadly it seems there will be children greeting the holidays with a parent behind bars for many years to come. And although studies show that maintaining family ties is more effective in preventing inmates from committing another crime after release than anything else, the burden of these visits continues to fall on children who have never been tried or sentenced or committed any crime themselves.
So we are grateful for your help. We’re grateful for your awareness of these children, and for your appreciation of their generosity and kindness. We’re grateful for your faith in them, and your insistence that they have the right to see and know their whole family. We’re grateful for your prayers and your encouragement. And we’re grateful to you for supporting Mary House financially during the busy and challenging holiday season. Without you, we would never have been able to open the doors here and without your support now, they would close.
For many of us, travel to see family and loved ones is an expected part of the Christmas season. But for some of our guests it is nearly impossible, and it is your help that tips the balance. Rising gas prices, increased bus and train fares, and precarious employment combine to make travel harder and harder for our guests, and for some of them the trip would not be possible without your generous help in sustaining the services that Mary House provides.
It is your support that makes Mary House a home away from home. That provides pancakes with syrup, movies with popcorn, and ready-to- assemble ornaments with glitter. For 25 years you’ve eased the burden on these families spending Christmas far from home.
So I am writing now to ask you, once again, to help us keep Mary House open during Advent and the new year.
Mary House receives no state or federal funding. It is not a project of a large and healthy church, or the United Way. It is staffed entirely by volunteers. We rely upon your financial contributions to continue providing warmth and safety to the families who stay with us — during the holidays and throughout the year.
Please know that your tax-deductible donation, in any amount, will be received with the deepest gratitude, and used with great care to provide for our guests.
Thanks to your help, the families who spend the holidays with us this year will be warm and treasured. Thanks to you there be someone here to greet them who thinks they have accomplished an amazing thing in just getting here. Thanks to your kindness there will be construction paper, and stars, and felt and glue and scissors for small hands.
It is thanks to your faith and confidence in the work of prison hospitality, we are able to welcome travelers to our door this Christmas, and it is you’re your generosity we rely on to carry this house through the winter months.
I know that we have asked you before. We have asked you for years and years and years to help us keep responding to the needs of these families. And each new year has brought new and different children to our door. Will you help us once again to keep this old farmhouse warm, and make sure the doors are open as the New Year arrives?
Our heartfelt thanks to you for all of your support. May your own holidays be filled with warmth, with hope for peace, and with the joys of family and loved ones gathered together.
With deepest gratitude,Cassandra Dixon, for Mary House