Lessons from 33rd STREET jail
Eye Contact Awkwardness
Eye contact: a situation in which two people are looking directly into each other’s eyes.
I just looked up synonyms for awkward:
uncomfortable, unpleasant, delicate, tricky, troublesome, problematic, sticky, dicey and hairy.
That pretty well sums up my inner turmoil when anticipating large doses of heavy-duty eye contact.
Kill. me. now.
The good news is: my comfort level with this intense sort of eye contact is growing. The reason: I’m getting practice.
I have the privilege of joining a group of incarcerated women in Orange County’s 33rd St. Jail for a worship service every Sunday afternoon. We are currently in a series studying the first eight books of Romans. It’s all about sin, struggle, and surrender - the path to freedom. The plan was to end these studies with time for reflection followed by Communion. Now…how to get bread and wine (or at least juice!) into the jail?
One thing you should know about jail, it has a way of stripping away pretenses, peeling back the skin and pretty much revealing everything. My friend, Lindsey, describes the jail environment in "Blue is the New Orange" ,
“There is no privacy. No doors on the bathroom stalls. No walls to hide behind. No closets to go in. The women I visit eat, sleep, shower, and relieve themselves in one large, open room with an officer watching their every move.”
So In other words, it’s not the kind of environment that permits non-essentials. Never mind that bread & wine/juice seems pretty essential to “doing” Communion but in 33rd it just wasn’t happening! No Way! Nada!
So our first response was, “Ok, no big deal.” True confessions: I’ve never felt particularly moved by Communion. A nice symbolic gesture but a piece of bread and a swig of juice has never equaled spiritual ecstasy for me. I admit it - it just hasn’t been a meaningful part of my Christian experience. But… something seemed unkind about giving up on it - maybe because it was Jesus’ idea?
What was behind Jesus modeling the practice of sharing the bread and the wine? He said, “Do this in remembrance of me. Remembering what? Remembering that his body would be broken, his blood would be spilled ….for us… His broken and spilled out life is to be individually remembered that it might be individually received.
So if the essence of Communion is remembering and receiving this sacrifice, couldn’t we do that in jail? How? By remembering the essence - the words - person-to-person - eyeball-to-eyeball. One by one - as if they were in church outside jail, coming forward to receive bread and juice - they could come to receive the words. Awkward?
Lindsey was the pioneer. She’s my hero! She stood before the women, explained the plan, turned on some music and expectantly stood there! The women came forward to “receive” Communion! It was amazing. I had a first row seat. I wished for a camera to capture the glow of Lindsey’s smile as she hugged each woman. It was truly meaningful. And I thought, “Wow! I’m almost jealous. But I’m glad it’s Lindsey and not me!”
And then …yes, once upon a Sunday it became my turn to lead. I had to summon every shred of emotional and spiritual maturity to step out of my comfort zone and stand there because some serious eye contact was in my immediate future! Like Lindsey, I explained the plan, turned on the music and waited there expectantly.
A line of women dressed in navy blue scrubs and plastic scuffs assembled before me. As the first woman looked at me expectantly, my heart showed up! I reached for her hands, looked deep into her eyes and confidently spoke the words, “The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.” There was a moment, a sliver of an instant, when I literally saw Communion received! Like a ball gently landing in the outstretched hands of a hopeful child. She got it!
As the words were digested, I could almost see truth move from the head to the heart, from understanding to knowing. Tears would spill out as deep wounds were touched, followed by a huge smile and warm hug!
I will never look at the act of Communion the same way again. I held the hands of women - emotionally and spiritually scarred and broken – women whose “normal” is prostitution, drugs, and garbage I don’t want to mention - and was overwhelmed with emotion. I tasted the deliciousness of God’s love for them and the intensity of his desire to bring wholeness and healing to their lives.
The body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for you. He is no stranger to brokenness. He was broken for them, for me, and for you.