Poetry from Prison: Advent Waiting

By Liz Milner

Over the four weeks of Advent, we are featuring writing by the inmates of the Santa Clara County jail. Chaplain Liz Milner, who has previously written for Journey with Jesus, works with both men and women inmates there. Over the past month, she and other volunteers have worked with the inmates in writing workshops, to reflect on themes of hope, waiting, and freedom. These are all issues that the inmates have a lot to say about, and a lot to teach us about. As Mary sings in the Magnificat, “he has lifted up the lowly.” This Advent we lift their words up to you, to illuminate and reflect on this beautiful season. Liz works for the non-profit www.cicministries.org that provides chaplaincy services in Santa Clara County, and can be reached at staffchaplain@cicministries.org.

From this week’s lectionary:

2 Peter 3:13–14: “But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”

Mark 1:3: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

From Liz: Advent is a time of waiting. Children wait with anticipation for the gifts around the tree, parents wait for their grown children to, hopefully, come home, hardworking teachers wait eagerly for the winter break, and so on. And inmates in the county jail wait… for what? When the trimmings are stripped away from Christmas and the holiday season, what do we find worth waiting for? Is there more than gifts, candy, big dinners, and time off work?

The readings this week imply that we are waiting for something, someone, profound and holy. They urge us to anticipate with excitement, with hope, and while we wait, to prepare, not our homes, but our hearts. Working in the jail is a gift, because it places in front of me each day men and women who are waiting for deeply sacred gifts: healing, freedom, restoration, transformation, love, and on and on. These children of God challenge my all too often frivolous, though fun, anticipations, and show me that this season of Advent holds a deeper gift, if I can pause to look more closely.

The inmates I work with have an abundance of something that we outside the jail often lack: time. Too much time… with nothing to do, no holiday busyness to distract, and few resources at their disposal. For many, this leads to anxiety and depression. For some, it forces a self-reflection and God-search that can be profound. I encourage you, impossible though it may seem, to learn from them and carve out spaces of nothingness in this busy month, and see, as you sit with yourself and nothing else, what arises in your waiting.

The writings that follow are by the men and women in the jail, reflecting on what they are waiting for as they serve time.

By D

I am waiting for freedom

I am waiting for a really Big Slurpy

I am waiting for my Self to see

I am waiting for love ever after

I am waiting for a better time

I am waiting for the day I Meet God

I am waiting on waiting!

By E

I am waiting for hope to shed some light

I am waiting for God to stop saying not yet

I am waiting for the light to get a little brighter

I am waiting for the new me to be fully out

I am waiting for my wife to say we will fulfill our vows

I am waiting for my chance to show God I’m ready.

Image for post
Image for post

By A

I am waiting for when I get back to friends and family.

I am waiting for getting back to being productive, and beneficial accomplishments.

I am waiting for getting back to my trade, and applying my skills for myself and others.

I am waiting for yet another nightmare to end….

By S

I am waiting for life to begin.

I am waiting for a new plan.

I am waiting for you to teach me.

I am waiting for the rain to pass.

I am waiting for my first kiss.

I am waiting for my first friend.

I am waiting for you to free me.

I am waiting for my own words.

I am waiting for my own tears.

I am waiting for my laughter.

I am waiting for you to love me.

By E

Waiting for your release date is like waiting for the day you were born, except this time it’s back into freedom.

From Liz: What are you waiting for in life? How are you waiting? With hope?

These men and women are waiting, literally, for freedom and life to begin again. Their honesty and hope shines through, and, in my experience, allows the waiting to become an inherently transformative experience rather than just a holding pattern. May their words be a comfort and inspiration to you in your own waiting.

IMAGE: The picture this week was drawn by M, a woman in her 50s, incarcerated at the county jail. She has been through much suffering and hardship. She has been waiting for a long time, for many things. She described this image to me as one of her most “abstract” images. She describes a man waiting, kneeling at the cross, head down, waiting for a new day. The shadow of the cross lies on the landscape.

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