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.
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