For most of us, the Christmas season is a hectic time and seems to start earlier each year. Black Friday has spilled into Thanksgiving Day, and the store hours are getting longer and longer. Many stores will stay open into Christmas Day itself in an effort to catch that last consumer dollar.
In the meantime, church choirs and pastors prepare for Christmas pageants and candlelight services to commemorate the Christ child’s birth.
For Janet Wolf, however, Christmas will always be “a story that belongs in the streets among the oppressed.”
Wolf is the director of the Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farm near Knoxville, Tennessee. The 157-acre farm provides training and inspiration for those committed to improving the quality of a child’s life. Wolf is passionate about stopping the school-to-prison pipeline and works with others to create systemic change and steer young people, particularly African American boys, from becoming a part of the prison industry. But it took a cold Christmas Eve to open her eyes.
The year was 1976, and suddenly, after her husband left, Wolf was a single parent, raising two kids and holding down three part-time jobs. Church had been the center of her life, and she had been active as a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, and member of her church’s council. Now, divorced, Wolf found herself on the outside looking in after the pastor told her that she would always be welcome in the church, but could no longer hold leadership positions because she was not “an acceptable role model.”
“It hurt. It crushed me, because I had depended on church for comfort, and the church said in essence what I was already thinking, that I would never measure up and even God doesn’t think I’m OK,” she says. “As a result of that, I took my kids to a tiny house church where I had taken children from the local juvenile detention center.”
This inner-city, multiracial church offered a drastically different worship experience than what Wolf was used to. Instead of dressing their best and attending a comfortable suburban church, Wolf and her family were packed in a small building with members dressed mostly in jeans and T-shirts. But the small congregation, Wolf says, loved them unconditionally, and they quickly became involved.
One of the major turning points for Wolf was the church’s announcement that Christmas Eve services would take place at a maximum-security prison. “The pastor urged us to attend, emphasizing . . . this baby born to an unwed teenage mama among an oppressed, colonized, impoverished people,” she says.
“I was not overly enthused. I had belonged to a suburban church where Christmas Eve meant colorful pageants, a children’s choir, and special music,” Wolf said. “But this church loved us when no one else was around, so we went to the prison.”
As the church group approached the entrance of the prison near Nashville, guards told them there had been an incident inside and the facility was on lockdown.
“This handful of church members hovered in the parking lot as the snow and sleet fell. I took a Bible and read from the book of Isaiah. I still had a bad attitude because I kept remembering the nice Christmas Eve services at my old church with candles, trumpets, and children dressed like angels. We even had a live donkey. Now here we were, standing in a prison parking lot and would likely get sick in the snow and cold.”
Huddling together, the group tried to light the Christ candle, the wind blowing out the match every time. As Wolf read from Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, . . . on them, light has shined,” the candle finally caught fire. “And then one of my boys tugged on my coat, ‘Mama, look!’ ” Wolf says. “I turned to look where he was pointing and saw, in cell after cell, the glow of matches and lighters being held up to the windows, spilling through the bars.”
They began to sing “Silent Night.”
“This was where I realized that I had missed what the gospel was about and what it meant to be a church and perhaps I would discover it in some radically different places,” says Wolf.
Wolf determined that God was calling her to serve in prison ministry and thus began her commitment and passion for working with individuals behind bars.
“We are caught in our narrow understanding of what God is doing and what God is calling us to be,” she says. “It is only through deliberate dislocation that we will understand the urgency and a different way of practicing theology. Jesus, who was a prisoner, was taken into custody on trumped-up charges and was a victim of state-sanctioned murder.”
Wolf has listened to hundreds of stories over the years from young people who struggled on the outside only to find themselves behind prison bars. She’s listened as they shared their hopes and dreams and a desire to keep others out of a prison system that is criminalizing black, brown, and impoverished bodies.
She may never know the full impact of her work, but Wolf says it would not have happened had she not stepped out of her comfort zone and let God lead her where she needed to be.
Rick Jones is a mission communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.