December 27, 2015
Sunday, 9:00 a.m.
Letter #415: Black Tie Christmas Party
For the past couple of months, I have anxiously planned and prepared for a special Christmas celebration. Much like last year, where we gathered a group of 30 guys to enjoy an evening focused on the true meaning of Christmas while singing and eating dessert, I wanted this to be really special for each of the attendees. Being new to the pod last year, I let some established Christian brothers choose who to invite, and they invited exclusively church-guys. That was still a great evening, but I’m always challenged to do even better; I think God expects me to never settle for the way things are or always have been.
This year, I split the invitations amongst four of us: two close Christian friends, my cellie, Richie, and me. I tasked each of us to invite seven guys who we felt God wanted us to reach out to, whether or not they attend church regularly or if we are close friends with any of them. With 120 guys in our pod and two pods adjacent to ours full of guys, the choice was tough, but we did it. I designed and printed invitations and gave them to the guys a couple of weeks in advance, but we kept the details of that day top-secret.
I moved the celebration from an evening time-slot (1½ hours) to afternoon, where we’d have 2½ hours together, then got permission from upper management for the event. But the real score was when our music volunteer, Sister Peggy, agreed to join us for the day. That meant we could have a concert and possibly include her in other planned activities as well.
Though I’ve thrown several parties in prison (my birthdays and Christmas), I had a feeling this one would be special. My parents sent me a package full of unique dessert items, and I reached out to a good friend of mine here who bought a package of dinner items enough for thirty-two guys. I also saved up my paycheck for a couple of months and bought additional food items from the canteen.
After practicing with some musicians and determining a format and schedule for the event, I created beautiful brochures that doubled as an event program and keepsake for each of the guests, plus it included all the words to our Christmas carol sing-along. Sister Peggy had them printed in color, too, a rare treat which made the event seem all the more special.
As the men arrived that day, just two days before Christmas, they were greeted by the sounds of live Christmas music, while ushered to their place card reserving their spot at one of two long tables. My cellie, Richie, gave an introduction and welcomed everyone before turning it over to me to pray.
Richie was my one invitee at last years’ Christmas party, because I knew the church guys would’ve never invited him. He’s a bit rough around the edges and almost never goes to church. (To be clear, I am not at all rough, not even on the edges, and I practically grew up in a church.) Though my polar opposite, we became fast friends a year ago, and now that he’s my cellie, Richie played a major role in preparing the food and getting everything ready for our big day. He kept telling me how excited he was to be on the inside this year, contributing to the big gift we were about to give thirty of our fellow inmates.
Well, the day couldn’t have gone better, honestly. The music was so well received, and because Sister Peggy led the Sing-Along portion of the event, everyone sang along. She strolled around the room singing next to each guy in turn, taking my guitarist, Daniel, with her while I played piano.
During the concert, Richie and a couple of helpers served burritos to everyone, individually prepared to taste, and then I got everyone involved in a crazy game of group Pictionary. I could see so many of the guys visibly change throughout the time together, becoming more relaxed and truly enjoying themselves. Most had never played an organized parlor-style game before, much less a game like Pictionary, so it was fun to watch their excitement and competitiveness build.
Just after we finished the game, we served everyone an insane amount of sweets and snacks, a whole assortment of items they wouldn’t normally get to eat, and especially not in this variety or quantity. They were overwhelmed, most of them choosing to take some home with them to avoid a sugar rush.
For drinks throughout the event, I had two huge coolers full of ice water, and for those who preferred flavor, I’d put mixed Kool-Aid into empty Pepsi bottles and put a hole in the caps to squirt the liquid out of. We had Grape Lemon Zest and Mango Orange Surprise as just two of our options.
For the final half hour, I’d planned to talk about Christmases past or something of the sort, and I hoped to get Sister Peggy involved. She’d prayed about the possibility of sharing her own family’s story with the guys, and told me just before we were to speak that she was ready to share. As she stood to address those of us gathered, she began to tear up, her voice cracking. You could have heard a pin drop, as every eye was riveted on her.
For thirty minutes, she stunned the men with the incredibly moving testimony of her own son’s incarceration after a tragic car accident. For the past seven years he has been in prison, and she shared how his renewed relationship with God sparked her own fervor for Christ. He became involved in the music ministry and leading Bible Studies, which encouraged her to make her first trip into prison to serve, where I first met her some five years ago. Recently returned home, this will be his first Christmas back home, she told us through happy tears. Not a dry eye in the place, I gratefully noted, as many said it was their best Christmas ever.