It’s that time of year again. The lights are twinkling over London streets, the smell of cinnamon, orange and mulled wine fills the markets and there is a bustle of people attending their annual carol service or nativity play. We prepare to see our family and loved ones again and our thoughts are full of snow, turkeys, tinsel and presents. People assume roles of merriness or ‘bah humbug’ and all of this is accepted as part and parcel of the season we call Christmas.
Now, Christmas is one of my absolute favourite things ever, and yet I have been feeling a little bit empty.
Last year I was challenged on how I could view this season while unwell. 2014 has been challenging me to view what Christmas should mean in terms of loving the people who some might find it hardest to even tolerate.
From the tone of a recent article in The Daily Mail, crying out about how unfair it is that prisoners in a Scottish prison are receiving a Christmas lunch valued at £2.47 per head (they forget to mention that this also includes dinner…), you’d be forgiven for thinking that prisoners were living the high life on all your hard paid tax. However as we reach a shortage of over 1,700 prison staff across the UK, life in prison is getting rougher and uglier for the inmates. Now you may be relieved by this, but what I would like to point out is that, while it may seem like retribution and punishment are the way to go about treating felons, there is more and more evidence that holistic care of prisoners is the answer. The Samaritans’ Listener Scheme was active in 141 prisons across the UK in 2011, offering emotional support to fellow prisoners in crisis and the Listeners were contacted almost 90,000 times through the year.’
Over the last month or so I’ve been coming to the conclusion that the-powers-that-be know prison is not working, especially for women, but very little is being done about it. Prison is a place of huge disempowerment, seclusion, loneliness and depression: as shown in a report from the Prison Reform Trust ‘49% of women prisoners were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression…compared with 19% of the total female UK population.’ It also states that ‘46% of women in prison have been identified as having suffered a history of domestic abuse’ and ‘53% of women in prison reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.’
Take that in for a second. Over half of the female prison population admit to having been abused as a child and almost half within a relationship – how many didn’t disclose this information?
Now this is just a lot of stats to you but I promise you there is a point behind my number crunching.
And the point is love.
For me when I read these statistics, they tug at my heart and make it impossible for sit back and do nothing.
I believe that when Jesus said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ he meant it. He expected us to put others first and love them no matter what else may have happened.
I believe that when Jesus said ‘visit those in prisons’ it wasn’t a throw away remark. He said it because He knows how much we truly need solidarity and companionship – no matter what our personality, history or situation.
We, as humans, were made to need each other, in fact, a report from the prison reform trust in summer 2013 declared that, ‘the likelihood of reoffending was 39% higher for prisoners who had not received visits whilst in prison compared to those who had.’ Now that’s a lot of crime considering that 47% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 58% and 73% of under 18 year olds are reconvicted within a year of release.
We need to love in the way that Jesus teaches. And in prison?
To love means that I need to empower convicted, vulnerable women and help them to realise their potential.
To love means that I need to help them understand that to be loved doesn’t mean to be abused or manipulated.
To love means that I don’t only see the crime, I see the beautiful woman as an individual with a story, and a history that I couldn’t even imagine.
To love means I need to show them that even though their past is controlling the present – it doesn’t need to navigate their future as well.
To love, above all, means that I need to show them how precious and valuable and unique they are.
‘We love because He first loved us.’ 1 John 4:19
For me, this is the meaning of Christmas, my life and my job, summed up in one short sentence.
God loves us so explicitly, so personally, so entirely that He sent us His son to be God on earth. He sent Jesus as a vulnerable baby, born to die, so that we could learn how to love in the fullest sense of the word. Not a fairytale – true, unconditional love.
So if you find a second alone, or together, this Christmas I challenge you this: whether you’re a merry maker or a Christmas Scrooge; whether you love or hate this holiday season – remind yourself what love might mean. Consider those who may never have experienced love in the way that you might be surrounded with this year. Remember those who are not around family at Christmas for whatever reason. Those who need to prepare to be locked back up within an hour – who may not share laughter, presents or even a hug with a loved one this Christmas. Be thankful for the incredible richness of your life and, please, be brave and kind in your love – only good can come from it.
for more information please go to http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Prisonthefacts.pdf