Unlikely Christmas Caring

Over the next few days, 52 police chiefs in 52 police departments around the nation will receive an envelope from Women at the Well, a church inside the Iowa women’s prison. The envelope contains Christmas cards and a letter from me, the pastor of this amazing church.

The Christmas cards are handmade. Some include hand-drawn trees and figures. Others have images and words cut out of a prior season’s cards and rearranged on a piece of construction paper, cardstock, or scrapbook paper. Most have a handwritten note. Words like “Thank you for your service,” or “My prayers are with you and your families.”

The cards were created during a Christmas Open House that we held on Friday afternoon a week ago at the Sacred Place, the chapel at the prison. This is the third year we’ve hosted such an event, with carols, crafts, warm conversation and card-making. In past years the cards have gone to homeless youth shelters and to domestic abuse/family violence shelters in Iowa. This year, though, Women at the Well’s leaders selected a different recipient. “We’ll need to include a letter that explains why they’re getting them, and where they’re from,” one leader said.

So each envelope contains a letter that begins with these words: “The enclosed Christmas card comes to you and the members of your department from a most unexpected group in a most unlikely place: The residents of the [Iowa women’s prison].” You are receiving this envelope, the letter goes on, because your department lost an officer to gun violence this year.

This experience was brought close to home for us in early November when two officers were shot ambush style in the Des Moines metro area. I awoke to the nightmare of this news, helpfully shared by an alert on my phone, too early that morning. Later that day I called my friend Cindy and could muster nothing more than “WTF?” Thus was Iowa ushered painfully onto the list of nearly 30 states that have suffered these tragedies. In far too many places, we know people who knew those officers, or their families, and their colleagues. Our hearts are broken.

As we got this mailing ready, it seemed clear to me that I needed to sign the letters individually. I pulled out my blue pen, sat down and almost immediately my sight was blurred by tears. The names and places of these losses  made them unbearably tangible, from Auburn, Massachusetts to Palm Springs, Calfornia and from Riverdale, Georgia to Fairbanks, Alaska. Some locales evoked stories I knew from the news: Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Americus, Georgia. Other letters were headed to places that connect with my own life: I’ve been through the very small town of Fairplay, Colorado. I took the bar exam (in my previous career) in Columbus, Ohio. I signed, and wept, and jotted notes of connection and care on those letters and worked my way through the pile, and the year.

We know, said our incarcerated women, through our volunteer Karen Tisinger, who invaluably facilitated this project. We know firsthand how the holidays intensify feelings of loss and separation. We know this season of Christmas will be particularly difficult for officers in these departments who are still mourning the loss of colleagues and friends. We know what it’s like to be stereotyped and be judged unfairly; we have seen that happening to you who wear the badge, and we know—for different reasons—how hard that is.

It’s an amazing witness, from women who could just as likely resent members of law enforcement. For nearly every one of my church members, a police officer is part of the story that brought her to prison. Yet our women said, again and again, please let these officers know of our respect for those who protect and serve.

A note from Michelle on one of the Christmas cards is representative of the sentiment shared by many of our sisters. She writes, knowing this will be sent to a police department somewhere: “Dear Loved Ones, Know that you are in my thoughts on these days and those to come. You are prayed for and loved so very much! You truly are my heroes! You saved my life! Thank you!”

Another woman writes: “Happy Holidays may you have peace. Whoever gets this card I love you and pray that you’re safe always when you walk out the door and back to your family. Merry Christmas from me, an African American young Woman. All lives Matter.”

It is our hope that police chiefs will share these cards, and this story, with the members of their departments. We hope those officers will in turn be encouraged and heartened by this unexpected expression of caring, born of our common humanity, heartfelt compassion and this season when love and hope are born again.