Four years ago, James Trewby, formerly of BOVA and now the Columban Missionaries’ Justice and Peace Education Worker, in collaboration with charities involved with London prisons, began organising opportunities for service and learning in prisons at Christmas. Volunteers participate in Christmas family visit days in prison. These are THE Christmas visit for families with young children, so our number one aim is always to help create a festive atmosphere! We do this by providing background music and music for a sing-a-long. At the same time we take the opportunity to reflect on faith, society and our own attitudes, through times of prayer and sharing. Through this we provide a reflective learning experience for our volunteers in the hope that they may be inspired to take action. We begin the day reflecting on a passage from Matthew’s gospel, being guided to notice our own expectations and challenge ourselves to think beyond them.
The latest group included volunteers associated with the Columban Missionaries, Salesians (BOVA) and the Austin Forum (Augustinians). Here are some of their reflections.
Anita Murtha, BOVA
Christmas is often a time where it is very easy to become self-indulgent and focused on, perhaps, the wrong type of things of presents and eating, so to have the chance to experience this day in the prison was immensely moving, inspiring and eye-opening for me and has really had a big impact during Advent and my approach to Christmas. Throughout the year of mercy, I have frequently been struck by Jesus’ call to ‘visit the imprisoned’ – in our society, it is very easy to perceive prisoners as outcasts as if we are better than them or that they are to be feared – but this experience certainly disproved those conceptions with the feel of such normality. I found it a privilege to be able to witness (and share) in the families’ Christmas experience; to witness the joy found in the little time spent with loved ones. This coupled with the evident sadness as the families said their goodbyes offered a striking message of the importance of our relationships with our loved ones that we can so often take for granted. I was also very touched by the genuine gratitude and appreciation personally offered by the men which to me speaks of the importance to follow Christ’s example to offer love and compassion to all our neighbours; the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the poor and indeed, the imprisoned.
(Diocesan youth worker, Crawley)
I was slightly apprehensive about the potential atmosphere in a prison, given recent coverage in the news. However, I was surprised that there was more attention to maintenance of the facilities and resources for visiting families than I had expected. I wasn't expecting to see so much art, and I thought it being there made a massive difference - it humanised an otherwise potentially dehumanising institution. It was lovely to see the sense of community between some of the prisoners, and their familial pride. There was also a sense that our presence added to the joy of this day for them, and it felt really good to make that difference. It really helped me to put some of my own worries and anxieties into perspective, as seeing the prisoners just enjoying time with their families, just as I will over the festive period, highlighted our similarities and made me reflect upon institutional inequalities and struggles that I have been lucky enough to have never faced.
It made it me think about how events and media portrayals can make it very easy to forget to prioritise every person's common humanity, that basic need to be loved, and the potential dangers that holds. I also enjoyed the opportunity for a good sing song! I came along to the visit because I have been trying to actively make time for things that are positive for my own health and for the health of my community, and I feel like visit delivered on both of those fronts.
(Junior doctor, London)
This was my first visit to a prison ever, even though I've always wanted to visit prisons, purely because Jesus said to do so. I didn't really think prison ministry was my 'thing' & didn't know what to expect. Maybe I expected to see big iron gates and iron bars, and expected inmates to be really angry and rude.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the it was nothing like that. There obviously was security we had to go through, but nothing threatening or scary! All the prisoners seemed to be just ordinary, normal kind of people that you meet on the street every day, friendly and smiling. I was really amazed to see how all the dads(prisoners) were so loving towards their kids, and enjoyed being with them, and it really touched my heart when they had to say goodbye to their kids at the end of the visit.
The whole visit was a huge learning experience for me. It was also a great start to Christmas for me, by spending time with people who couldn't have a normal family Christmas and reflecting on the less fortunate. I would love to be able to go back to prisons in some kind of ministry capacity in the future if possible.
(Retired civil servant, London)
I had such a wonderful experience singing Christmas Carols with the charity who helped organise this special event. It was a complete change to my Christmas routine, I wasn't sure what I was in for (as it was my first time). I spoke to friends about this event and some were intrigued and some were sceptical (but I felt that comes with the territory). My initial feelings were no to say No (I was half way down writing my traditional no response) to my colleague who recommended it to me, but I always say no, so I deleted my half-written message and something inside me just said "just do it" and it was one of the best decisions I have made.
Looking at the beautiful paintings (which the talented prisoners drew) on the wall highlights that we all are human and we all mistakes in life - we are all made out of the same beautiful material. At first I was scared but then just seeing smiles - gave me an added impetus to sing more and to provide more joy to all the families.
Also I was Santa Claus for the day and just looking at children's eyes smile and proud parents (prisoners) with their children coming up to receive their gifts made the whole day worthwhile. This was the first time ever I gave myself for Christmas to anyone except family and it has given me a great meaning for Christmas - to GIVE GIVE GIVE - Before receiving I would love to this AGAIN
(Undergraduate student, London)