Maryknoll Lay Missioner, Heidi Cerneka, spent nearly 20 years missioned in Brazil, focusing primarily on women’s prison ministry.  While reading through her newsletters I found an entry from December 2004 where she talks about what Christmas is like for the women in prison with whom she worked:

 Christmas in the Big City

Christmas is truly an amazing and paradoxical time. People who seem to have nothing – in fact even folks in prison, find this season a mixture of joy and profound sadness.  Everyone finds themselves giving and receiving – even when the gifts are the tiniest of things.  Churches are decorated; families come together; meals are prepared.

The liturgies in the prisons are usually very moving – often with a dramatic interpretation of the nativity story, complete with a baby supplied by one of the nursing mothers.  And the women decorate the space beautifully for Christmas mass as well as for their family visit.

At the same time, it is clear that for many people in our world, Christmas is the time when people estranged from family members, people far from family members, and many other folks, feel even more intensely their loneliness or their distance.

This time of year is tough in the prisons – there is a higher risk for prison riots, and the inmates often feel a profound sadness.

I have been accompanying a South African named Sanet for over a year now.  Her situation is more difficult and more desperate than imaginable, and we talk a lot.  She often tells me how she prays all the time, but God just doesn’t seem to hear her.  Would that God would answer our prayers by changing our situations!

I am humbled by this woman and the tiny spark inside of her that just refuses to give up on life – even though she keeps telling me that she has given up.  And, I came across a quote by Sr. Joan Chittister that I will share with Sanet this week.  She says, ‘God is not an idea; God is what grips our souls and simply will not let go, even when we ourselves have little will to go on.’

Isn’t that what Christmas and Advent are about?  In the darkness of winter (okay – here South of the border, we are at the height of summer!) – in the darkest of times, that we believe in the promise of life?  And that God keeps that promise?

Heidi is currently missioned at the US-Mexico border, serving as an immigration attorney with community agencies.  To learn more about Heidi’s work please click here.

Christmas Crib, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil