I routinely attend church. And it’s a very nice church. Our house of worship is about 190 years old with soaring ceilings, gorgeous stained glass, hand-finished wooden pews, an enormous organ, brass fixtures, and a marble topped altar. Our worship services can be incredibly inspirational and our rector is a gifted speaker, able to deliver a stirring message of redemption and resurrection in twelve minutes flat. My church has completed a host of humanitarian projects in this town, this state, and in Haiti. These projects are significant in size and scope. My church does. We don’t talk about the plight of the less fortunate, we get out there and do something about it. We study the bible, participate in outreach, and we make it our mission to create positive change in our community, here in town and across our state’s borders.
Yet for all the time I’ve spent in that breathtakingly beautiful building, the most “church” I’ve ever experienced has been in the gymnasium of a 40 year-old prison in the southern part of our county.
“Brother Malik, I’ll pray that you and your family accept the grace of God into your heart and have a Merry Christmas.”
I belong to a group of men that occasionally visits a prison run by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Recently I made my seventh foray into this particular prison. It’s brightly lit at all hours and ringed by layers of fifteen foot high fences and concertina wire. When we visit, it takes about forty five minutes for our group to get through the layers of security before we can make our way to a rough-hewn, barely heated gymnasium. And it’s in this gym, amongst repentant murderers, bank robbers, and drug dealers, that I’ve come closest to God.
“It’s through the Grace of Jesus Christ that I am free, truly free.”
These men have shown me the meaning of Christianity, the true meaning of forgiveness. One gentleman serving a life sentence told me that it is only through the gift of God’s grace that he knows true freedom. He lifted his eyes and took in his surroundings and said that there is no limit to God’s grace. “These walls, all this wire, these guards, this lousy food, none of this is strong enough to keep out God. It’s here waiting on us and all we have to do is open our hearts and accept it.”
The men I’ve met in prison don’t spend their time complaining about their lot in life, cellphone coverage, the car that’s seven years old or the grass that needs to be cut. They’re quick to smile, to shake hands, to hug, and to praise God. They long to hold their loved ones, to watch the sun set, to sleep in their own beds, and to spread butter and jam on a homemade biscuit. They desire nothing more than to visit a neighbor, to cut their own grass, enjoy a hot shower or a home cooked meal. And they’re incredibly grateful for a visit from a friend, or a stranger.
“There is no limit to what God can do and I’m living proof.”
What does Christmas mean to you? At its most basic, what does it really mean? We can give presents to each other, to people that we love at any time. There’s nothing stopping us from mailing cards, sharing cookies, having the family over for dinner or wishing the happiest of wishes on our friends and family. We needn’t wait until a specific day in December for this. On the 25th of December, Christianity remembers and celebrates the birth of Christ. The Son of God. He came to this earth to live and die as a man, to live a Godly life, to offer us forgiveness and Grace only to die a violent death as a prisoner. He was condemned to die by a military ruler, nailed to a cross and in his final hours, he pardoned another prisoner also sentenced to death. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of this man.
Just because I visit a prison or go to church, I am not a better person than you. I am not holier, I am not more worthy, and I will not have an easier time of getting into Heaven. But for a few hours on a Saturday morning in December, in the gray gymnasium of a South Carolina prison, I was shown the true meaning of Christmas.