Mary House Newsletter December, 2016


Dear Friends,

For the last 27 years I’ve sat down this time of year to write to you about the work of prison hospitality at Mary House, and to ask you for your help in providing hospitality to the visiting children and families of federal prisoners here in rural Wisconsin. We are so grateful to every one of you for helping Mary House to remain open to guests, year after year, season after season.

In all these years, as I write this holiday letter, I have never had a hard time being positive.

The resilience and generosity of our guests, the steadfastness of the love of children, and the promise of this time of waiting have always brought into my mind a stream of joyful images to share from the year just past, and I’ve needed only to do my best to pass them on to you. The children who rode in a van all night and were amazed to see cows, and these empty fields, and snow when they awoke. The kindness and exhaustion of their mothers and grandmothers and aunties and grandfathers, spiriting them across them miles to visit the fathers and uncles and grandfathers in prison here in Oxford. The excited, waking, bubbling young voices at the door, “We’re here!!!!…. I just KNEW we would come back again!…. I’m HUNGRY, Can we play pool NOW?…. I want the toy story dolls where ARE they? …. Mom said we’re going to see my dad TOMORROW!!!!”

This year is different.

This year as I fill in the blocks of the calendar with Advent and Christmas guests it’s with the unbearable knowledge that these children, who will so generously grace this house with their love and energy during the coming holiday season, will suffer in the coming years from the choice our country has just made. The enemies of love are awake and among us now and showing their faces. Hatred and greed and fear.


Fritz Eichenberg

So at a time of year when usually I have the happy task of describing our young guests to you, and trying to share the bright faces of hope and anticipation, of affection and forgiveness and endurance that so mark these traveling children – this year I’m overwhelmed at how cavalierly we have, as a country, heaped more grief and anxiety into the lives of families who were already struggling. I expect I am not alone in wishing that I’d done more to work against this rising tide of selfishness and hatred that threatens us now. As surely as winter follows fall, the families who visit Mary House will suffer losses in the years to come and among those losses will be the chance to visit the family members they love in prison, because the little that’s there to make this trip is going to be shaved and squeezed and diminished by the coming changes in public policy. While we rage and mourn and question how our country could have turned such a corner, the families that visit at Mary House are among those who will be hurt first, and these children are among the innocents who will be hurt the most.

This year as I talk and plan with families arriving at the door or making travel plans for the weeks of Advent and Christmas I’ve heard too many times the questions that should shake us all awake: “…Will we be welcome there? Will we be safe?… We don’t feel safe. What if my mother comes with us, she wears Hijab and we are worried. Will there be someone there for sure when we arrive? …We saw so many of those yard signs for Trump. We wish we could arrive in daylight. We’re sorry we’re so late but we were lost and the cellphone reception is bad and we were afraid to stop and ask and so we drove and drove and drove….”

Seriously ?? But this is Mary House, I think. This is my home. Of course you should be safe here. Of course you should be sure of a welcome. This is the road on which I’ve lived for 27 years. My children grew up here. I leave from here for work and return home every night. And my own road has become a place of fear for the guests in this home? At Christmas time??

So yes, here is the work of Christmas. We will have to work harder, and love stronger, and challenge more, and risk more to make a way for human decency to flourish. It is our job in the coming years to prove that love wins, and we have got to stand up and meet that challenge.

And here at Mary House, with your help, we have to be ready to offer more. We need to be extra sure that the cheerios are crunchy and the milk is cold and sweet. That the pillows are fluffy and the toys are clean and welcoming. We need to keep the house a little warmer if that’s what it takes to fight the chill. We need to offer more transportation, because some of our guests are going to loose their cars and the trip here will get harder. We need to be sure to offer snacks for the trip home, because the twenty dollars that would have bought a family dinner on the way home is going to be erased by rising health care costs and the falling worth of minimum wage. We need to be sure to have someone here to welcome our guests on EVERY dark evening so that no-one ever has to wait in the driveway afraid. We need to cherish these visiting children and their families, and be grateful for the small miracle of hospitality – the presence in our lives of the unexpected joy and struggle of strangers.

As a country we incarcerate more people per capita than any other on earth: more than 2 million people. The US accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, but we hold nearly 22% of the world’s prison population. One in 110 adults are incarcerated in a prison or local jail in the U.S., which marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history. And the racial disparities in incarceration rates are appalling, with African Americans comprising only 12% of the US population but 44% of its incarcerated population. Since 1980 our prison population has quadrupled, and now fully 1.6 million American children will face this holiday season with a parent behind bars. These children were never tried, or convicted, or sentenced. They have committed no crimes, but are nonetheless paying a terrible price.

Recently a friend asked me what lies ahead for Mary House? What does the future look like? At the time I laughed, and said things don’t seem to change much. But it made me think, and I realize the answer is that especially now, in a political climate that threatens to deepen the divides between us and promises a a harder and rockier road for anyone who is struggling in our country, we need to re-dedicate ourselves to the miracle of hospitality. We need to celebrate the willingness of these children to travel all this way, on snowy, dark roads, on trains and busses and planes – just to visit someone they love in prison. We need to recognize the cost to these families, and the economic hardship imposed by the need to travel just to maintain the family ties that are the greatest single factor in a released inmate’s chances of remaining free. We need to announce, loudly and often, that we are honored to have the company of ALL of these families.

This year more than ever before, we are so grateful to you for recognizing the struggles faced by these families, and for your generosity in helping Mary House continue to provide basic hospitality while they are far from home. 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 continued support they would close.
This year, more than ever before, I am in awe of the women and children and families who grace our door. For many of the families we serve, life has gotten harder and harder and harder. Two-wage families are getting by on one paycheck, and now the hope of that minimum wage ever matching the escalating costs of raising a family has dimmed. Families who finally had insurance are again facing an uncertain health future. Yet these families arrive here with the energy and good humor they’ve stuffed into backpacks and duffels and back seats and coolers, and brought along to an old white farmhouse in a snowy field in Wisconsin.

These children are full of anticipation – despite the fact that before they get through the door at FCI Oxford they’ll have to sit in a car on the side of the road until the exact minute their moms are allowed to drive in, then stand in a line until they can take off all their shoes and sweaters and hairclips and belts and hope to make it thru a single slow metal detector, then wait in another line, to walk down a long hallway, to wait again. Quietly. They are so generous with their energy and so willing to carry their love such a long long way, over and over and over again, that they easily put the rest of us to shame.

These children and their families are an example to us all of how we need to approach the work of Christmas and in the coming years. With enthusiasm, with determination, with creativity and humor and stubbornness, and above all with bountiful and enduring love. We are so grateful to all of you for helping us to welcome them.

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. Mary House receives no state or federal funding. We rely upon your financial contributions to continue providing warmth and safety and oranges and candy canes to the families who stay with us — during the holidays and throughout the year. Will you help us once again to keep this old farmhouse warm, and make sure the doors are open as the New Year arrives?

I know that we have asked you before. We have asked you over and over for years and years and years to help us keep responding to the needs of these families. Now, this year, I am asking again that you hold our guests in your hearts as all of us struggle to find a way to travel the new and frightening landscape that is our country.

Our heartfelt thanks to you for all of your support. May your own holidays be filled with love, with hope, with courage, and with the joys of family and loved ones gathered together.

With deepest gratitude,

Cassandra Dixon, for Mary House

Your contribution to Mary House, in any amount, is tax deductible. To donate online using paypal or a credit card, please click here   Or mail a check to Mary House at Mary House of Hospitality, 3579 County Road G, Wisconsin Dells, WI  53965

Download and print a mail-in donation form.

Holiday Greetings from Mary House

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.
-Wendell Berry

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.

eichenberg christmas

Fritz Eichenberg

Fritz Eichenberg

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


Helping Hands from Ebenezr Reformed Church!

ebenezer 1

Members of the Ebenezer Reformed Church traveled to Mary House from Oregon Illinois this summer to do an amazing amount of work in one week!  ebenezer 3 They were joined this year by members of the Presbyterian Church in Wisconsin Dells, and together they accomplished an awesome amount in a week. They removed some terrible old concrete, making the front yard easier to mow and clearing the way for a front deck. They repaired siding, helped clear up the debris left over from having a well drilled last year, moved and stacked firewood, installed a ceiling in the back porch, cleaned guest rooms, repaired screens, made beds, fixed playground equipment, cut down a huge dead tree – you name it, they did it!ebenezer 5

We’re very grateful for all their help hope they’ll return next year. This group of dedicated volunteers have traveled to work projects in Mexico and a half-dozen states, and we’re so lucky and grateful they chose to spend a week of summer in Wisconsin! ebenezer 2 ebenezer 4

How many people are locked up in the United States?

pie chart

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie
A Prison Policy Initiative Briefing By Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala March 12, 2014
This briefing presents the first graphic we’re aware of that aggregates the disparate systems of confinement in this country, which hold more than 2.4 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
While the numbers in each slice of this pie chart represent a snapshot cross section of our correctional system, the enormous churn in and out of our confinement facilities underscores how naive it is to conceive of prisons as separate from the rest of our society. In addition to the 688,000 people released from prisons each year, almost 12 million people cycle through local jails each year. Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment most of the 722,000 people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to make bail and are being held before trial, or because they’ve just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days. The remainder of the people in jail — almost 300,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.
Offense figures for categories such as “drugs” carry an important caveat here, however: all cases are reported only under the most serious offense. For example, a person who is serving prison time for both murder and a drug offense would be reported only in the murder portion of the chart. This methodology exposes some disturbing facts, particularly about our juvenile justice system. For example, there are almost 15,000 children behind bars whose “most serious offense” wasn’t anything that most people would consider a crime: almost 12,000 children are behind bars for “technical violations” of the requirements of their probation or parole, rather than for a new specific offense. More than 3,000 children are behind bars for “status” offenses, which are, as the U.S. Department of Justice explains: “behaviors that are not law violations for adults, such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.”
Turning finally to the people who are locked up because of immigration-related issues, more than 22,000 are in federal prison for criminal convictions of violating federal immigration laws. A separate 34,000 are technically not in the criminal justice system but rather are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), undergoing the process of deportation, and are physically confined in special immigration detention facilities or in one of hundreds of individual jails that contract with ICE .
Now that we can, for the first time, see the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities, we can see that something needs to change. Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.4 million people on any given day, giving us the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.


Celebrating 25 Years at Mary House!

Celebrating 25 years of work days
Friends form the Madison Mennonite Church have been coming to help out at Mary House for nearly all of our 25 years, and this summer was no exception.  Faith Bauman, inspecting the foundation above, has spent much of her life working in India and now lives in Madison Wisconsin.  She  has been part of the group on many of their summertime monthly visits wrote the following reflection on their last visit.

“Sometimes there is a certain amount of fun, even while working, with others in a group, even while we scrape and bruise our hands and end up with aching arms and shoulders!
That was our experience at Mary House as all seven of us along with Cassandra did volunteer jobs around the house on July 5th.  We volunteers are from the Madison Mennonite Church, which has sponsored monthly work days during the summer at Mary House for over 20 years!
Two of our volunteers were young women from Taiwan, who are boarding with Mark and Janice Bauman for a few months while taking studies in language.  Some of the volunteers lined up in a straight line digging a very deep trench next to the outside wall so they could place concrete there to prevent animals from making a home under the porch.  One volunteer cleared out numerous fern leaves and weeds that were leaning over the sidewalk to the front door.  After a good hearty lunch we all returned to Madison, happy to have met a need, and thanking God for this opportunity to serve.”  –Faith Bauman

Holiday Greetings from Mary House

We at Mary House wish all of you a peaceful and wonder-filled holiday season.  We’re looking forward to welcoming the families who will stay with us on the coming weekends — we’ll meet some new children and welcome a few familiar faces.

Thanks to the generous help of our small family of supporters, we made it through the installation of a new well this summer!  It left us with a small loan from a supporter to pay off, but we are immeasurably relieved and grateful to have wonderful, clear, good-tasting water and lots of it for our guests to use! Thank you to all of our friends who made donations to help us through this challenge.  The new well is 180 feet deep, and cost more than we had hoped, and the project so consumed the summer that other fundraising fell behind, so we are EXTREMELY grateful to all of you who helped us, both to start the project and to finish it!!  THANK You!