It was Christmas. I was invited to deliver the Christmas message for the inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary, once the largest prison in the US, and a good hundred years older than the famed Alcatraz Prison. I get invitations to speak at many different events and venues, but this was the first time I was entering a prison behind bars and with my adventurous spirit, I was intrigued about what I might find within.
Levi accompanied me. He was a tall and stately golden retriever, and as my certified Hearing Dog, was also was my constant companion. Neither one of us was prepared for what we would encounter that day in our lives.
The reception area was not the usual “reception” we so often see at speaking engagements. There were no welcoming smiles. First we had to hand over our documents to the stern faced guard, and then we were patted down. Levi loved that part! Then it was being wanded with a squeaky metal detector, which Levi didn’t like.
The instructions were very direct and specific. As we entered maximum security and walked the long block corridors, we were not to stop walking, no talking, make no eye contact with any prisoners, and we were to stay between the guards at all time. It left me with a sense of urgency and suspense as we came to the first set of barred gates that opened for our entry. The sound of metal on metal must have been horrendous as Levi trembled and shook each time we passed though and entered into a new corridor. Through gate after gate, I watched my stately dog cower and tremble at the sound.
Although I could not hear any of the sounds of prison life, my other senses were sharpened to my strange surroundings. It was the smell that was most overwhelming. My nostrils burned with the pungent stench of old urine and other body odors. Although I was to walk looking at the floors my eyes would occasionally dart quickly around me and it was a sight that cannot be described accurately.
As we left the last corridor and enter the main room where the meeting was being held, the realization hit me that I was the only woman and with a dog in the middle of a maximum security state penitentiary. The room was large and gray with scattered tables in the middle; and a group of rough looking men in numbered prison uniforms were lounging around the stone walls. Suddenly, one of the prisoners began to approach me all the while staring at my dog. As he came nearer he stopped, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Lady, I haven’t seen a dog in nine years”.
In that singular moment my heart swelled with compassion for this man. I looked at the stony faced Corrections Officer who was beside me, then turned back to the prisoner and said, “This is Levi. Would you like to take him for a moment over by the wall and have a little private time with him?”
With a look of mixed awe and confusion on his face, the prisoner grasped the leash I was holding out for him. Then he tentatively led Levi back over to the wall and just stood and looked down at my dog as if in a dream. Slowly he reached his hand out to rub Levi’s head and the next thing I knew he was on the floor holding my dog on his lap hugging him and crying. My own eyes began to fill with tears. Surely God was using the life of this golden retriever to reach into this man’s heart in a way that no human being could have reached him. As I watched, I made a split-second decision and approaching them I said, “Sir, I am speaking here in Chapel tonight for the Christmas Eve service and I need someone to watch Levi while I speak. If you stay, Levi can sit with you in the front row.” The eyes of that man glowed as he received that special gift of love from God through the life of a dog.
When it was time for the Chapel service to start, my new friend was sitting right there in the front row with Levi beside him. I shared my own story, “Silent Night,” about how God released me from the bondage of sin and set me free. But when I came to the part about working for the FBI, my panic button went off and sheer fear overtook my entire body. How could I stand in the middle of a maxium security prison and tell the prisoners that I once worked undercover with the FBI? I lifted a quick prayer and God gave me the peace to share it all. To my relief there was laughter at the thought of this profoundly deaf woman catching the bad guys by reading their lips! God once again found a unique way of getting the attention of those He wanted to hear His message.
I concluded my story that night by singing my signature song, Silent Night. As you know, I have never told the story without singing the song, but that night something different happened~ something very different. I began singing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm” then a black prisoner near the back of the room stood up and started singing with me, then another, and another, and another until the entire penitentiary was on its feet singing with me. Singing through my tears, I faced the stark realization that I was standing among the murders, rapists and thieves, and in that one moment of time we all stood together as sinners at the foot of the Cross, loved by a Savior who came as a child on a dark, silent night to save the world from darkness and set the prisoners free. It is a memory that I carry forever.
Friends, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done you can be pardoned for the worst foulest things you’ve ever done or been. Our Heavenly Father sent His only Son to die, to take your judgement, that you can live free of any guilt or shame. No greater gift has ever been given to mankind and it can be yours with His love on this day. Take it and receive it freely! Believe me, you can’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. It is simply a gift given, not because it is Christmas, but because He sent His Son to be the Light.
That prison was the darkest and foulest place, but on that night the Light of Christ shone upon all of us who stood together at the foot of the Cross as sinners. Dear friends, celebrating the birth of Christ should not be just one day a year. It is not meant to be a festival to buy big gifts or to party all hours of the night. The Light of Christ shining in our lives should be an every day experience, and through Him we can overcome the world and it’s temptations and snares.
“In Him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” 1 John 1.4,5