Listening Post #20: A Child Is Born: Prison Babies

Listening Post #20: A Child Is Born: Prison Babies

I heard my friend Laura Ford tell a story recently that has entwined itself around my heart this holiday season, so I share it here.

Thirteen years ago, Laura took a job working with women in Philadelphia’s prisons. She quickly noticed that there were no pre-natal classes for the many pregnant women incarcerated there, and so in typically great-hearted Laura fashion, she started one. As visual aids, Laura provided each mom-to-be with small replicas of a fully formed baby in utero.

Within weeks, women were stopping her on the cell blocks, asking if she was the lady with the babies, and could she please give them one? Woman after woman, not at all pregnant, asking for the babies, which Laura kindly supplied. Curious about this interest in the teeny ones, she began asking why there was so much enthusiasm for these plastic models. She discovered that the women were making beds for the ‘babies’  out of tissue boxes in their cells, crafting little blankets out of scraps of cloth, tucking their ‘children’ in at night. Separated from their living and breathing children but still deeply connected to their motherhood, they re-created the loving rituals of nurturance for these tiny plastic infants.

I find these events almost unbearably poignant, both heartbreaking and hopeful. There is an unmistakable echo of another mother in a distant time:  “She... wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” There in PICC, the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, is the expression of the Mother God, the eternal nurturer and care-giver, gestating love wherever the maternal heart beats. Somehow this simple, gentle gesture births a little love into the world. Right there in the darkness of a prison cell, the seeds of love are incubated and nurtured, awaiting the day of freedom when they can be birthed.

As I write this, mothers in Philadelphia’s jails and others all over this nation are dreaming of the children they cannot care for and who lie in their own beds, dreaming of the mothers they cannot touch, deprived of this primal bond…..a stark contrast to our idyllic nativity scenes. And yet, there is great power and beauty in what these women did. Perhaps we can hear it as an invitation to all of us this season to pay attention, wake up, and notice someone who needs some tucking in, a tear wiped away, a loving touch, a meal, some simple act of nurture and grace.....a summons to birth love into our little corner of the universe.

I thank the women of PICC this Christmas for reminding us that we all carry The Child, all of us hold Light and Love within us, and on some deep, utterly human and utterly divine level, all of us ache to birth that love into the dark corners of our world. This is how The Child is born. Peace to All on Earth.

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