The first time I walked through the hulking chain link gates, I knew I was in a place set apart. The function of prisons is to cut people off from their communities, to remove perceived threats. And I felt it. All around me were God’s beloved exiles.
It was a new and strange experience to work as a pastor inside of a prison. I was always keenly aware of my freedom of movement and simultaneously aware of the gates around me and their purpose. I could not bring my phone inside the gates nor access my personal email or social media. Time moves differently, slows down. I was forced to be completely present and sensitized to my surroundings.
Everything is gray and khaki. There is a lack of color and textures. It is a kind of sensory deprivation, an absence of the embodied pleasures we take for granted on the outside. Everything runs on a schedule. Folks must stay in one place until “movements”—set times when people are able to go from unit to unit for programming.
I knew exactly when my congregants would show up at the door of the small metal annex building where Hagar’s Community Church held services when COVID-19 restrictions converted the prison’s actual chapel into a hospital. I greeted folks as they signed in, hoping their name was on the week’s callout: the list of names and numbers – every incarcerated person is assigned a number – that gives them permission to attend worship. Sometimes people would be left off the callout because someone made an administrative error or because they had been removed due to an infraction. Many times I had to turn people away from worship. Where else do we have to turn people away at the door of a church? To the prison, attending worship was considered a privilege, not a given freedom.
Hagar’s Community Church is an ecumenical congregation of the Olympia Presbytery planted inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women. At Hagar’s, more than anything else, we laugh. Those who attend church tell me it is the one place in the prison where they feel free to express their joy. In a 2018 interview with Literary Hub, Anne Lamott called laughter “carbonated holiness.” In that laughter, there at Hagar’s, is something sacred and true.
The subliminal messages of prison say: You are defined by your worst mistake. You deserve to be punished. You belong to us.
It is Hagar’s Community Church’s goal to communicate: You are so much more than your worst mistake. Joy is your birthright. You belong to God.
In this countercultural space, folks are allowed to embody a different reality, one that is truer, one that gives permission for folks to be who they are: holy and beloved.
As we sit in a circle together – lifting up our prayers, dividing our sorrows and multiplying our joys – we laugh in the midst of darkness. Clearly I am not bringing God to the prison. No, God is already there, existing in the very people we lock away and forget. They have something invaluable to offer: they know what it means to be exiled. They know what it’s like to have someone try to steal their joy. They also know there are some things no one can take away from them.