Henry will be joining millions of people across the world today as we celebrate Christmas. But, his will be a different kind of celebration. He will unwrap a gift swaddled in both pain and joy. His pain comes from the location of his celebration — a local prison. That’s where his son is an inmate.
Our prison system gives the warden absolute power over what goes on in the prison. There are no formal rules, just the whims of the jailer. He decides who comes and goes. And even when visitation is assured, it might still be hard to achieve. Inmates often get sick from the horrid jail conditions, or they may be moved to different facilities without prior notice. Some inmates die due to unattended medical conditions, or get severely injured in fights. The system is a dangerous mess.
Henry is one of our leaders who pastors a church in a slum community in Nairobi. The guards know him as the visitation pastor who reaches out to the convicts. They don’t realize he’s related to one of the felons. If they knew his son was a prisoner, he would be limited to ten minute visits, if even that.
To maintain his status, Henry must continue to show up as a stranger, a counselor to all prisoners, a priest fulfilling his calling. His layer of joy comes from the fact that he will be celebrating Christmas with his son, unlike in the past when his son would not show up to any family function, let alone Christmas.
You see, Henry’s son joined the wrong crowd in his neighborhood. And eventually, he was rounded up with other minors and sent to one of the maximum-security prisons in the outskirts of Nairobi. He was alleged to have committed several crimes.
In some ways you might say he is lucky to be in jail, since many of his friends have since been killed in crime-related activity. Henry’s son has never been formally charged, and this is his second year behind bars. It may take many more for his case to be concluded.
When Henry visits the jail, he speaks to all the incarcerated juveniles. They gather around him to listen to news from the outside world and to receive his ministry. His son is always among the outlaw audience, beaten down, with sunken eyes, sitting quietly like his peers. His son waits for his turn at the end of the gathering to speak to the “priest.” Like the other men, he hopes Henry will relay his messages to his mother back on the outside.
The son must go to his father as someone being counseled and communicate only through coded language. He must not cry like a child who longs for his father’s embrace. Likewise, Henry must hide his tears from the unsympathetic jailers. He prays that he never has to witness his son being whipped…but, if he must, that he be able to withstand the sight and remain calm without revealing his identity.
The jailer seems to be so powerful, reducing the father to a beggar, unable to rescue his own child. Such must have been the feeling of God as the world ushered in the newborn King. It had to be from below, through human flesh, the same path every person travels. It had to be in a manger, the lowest place for a royal to be born.
Our jails, back alleys and slums are the “low” places that Jesus would have been born in today, away from the lights and festivities that mark the opulence our society strives for. Henry’s community would be the backstreet that plays host to the newborn king, a place of brokenness where strangers share from the abundance of glimpses of pain and joy born out of shared suffering.
Several leaders that I have come to love and respect, a band of Christian brothers and sisters, are leading hundreds in celebrating the birth of our King today in marginalized communities. In their communities, they have discovered the palace awaiting the birth of our King as they continue to work for the transformation of these spaces.
Henry’s son remains behind bars, and Henry will continue to minister to him as a stranger, his fate remaining unknown. But, a light shines in the darkness; there is hope that one day many sons and daughters will be freed.
Jesus’ birth from below is an invitation for all of us. Go to the hidden, dark and low palaces in the hearts of your suffering neighbors. It’s not too late. Go, celebrate the light as it brings renewed hope in the darkest corners of the earth and our lives!