Hours riding in vans, loading and unloading equipment at nine different locations, going through prison security nine times, set-up and waiting, greeting hundreds of inmates, preparing and facilitating communion at each location. That has been my experience of the week after Thanksgiving for the past several years. Being part of Timothy’s Gift Christmas Tour to multiple correctional institutions during that week has become an anticipated and cherished part of the holiday season. It’s a holiday outreach that touches those who visit as well as those visited in profound ways.
The purpose of the tour is to deliver a message of hope and affirmation that each person is loved and not forgotten. Those who experience the program of music, words, personal greetings and affirmation have expressed the power of it. Letters from inmates we receive indicate impacts well beyond the ninety minute program at each location.
Enter the Pandemic
But not this year. The pandemic has, of course, halted such programs into prisons. The absence of this tour has created an emptiness for me and others who regularly participate. Seeing photos and remembering experiences in institutions in different states over the years – Arkansas, Ohio, Florida – accent the vacancy this has left. As I look at the faces in the photos, I think about what life must be like for the inmates now.
It’s difficult to even imagine the impact of the pandemic isolation of the past months in a correctional institution. We have certainly felt the impacts of stay-at-home orders over the months. In prisons, during the worst days, they have been confined to a single location with almost no time outdoors to get exercise. Food was brought to cells and barracks, no educational programs were available, no work assignments that normally helped pass the time, no church or group meetings for inspiration and comfort, no visiting allowed by loved ones.
The normal activities have opened up as much as has been possible in the past months, depending on the location and the virus statistics there. As on the outside, restrictions may have been lifted and then re-imposed. Precautions are still necessary and very limited visitation of family is generally allowed now. It’s impossible, however, to know how long it will be before outside programs will be allowed and when people will be comfortable going in.
Plan B for Holiday Outreach
Thanks to the genius of Timothy’s Gift founder Ron Miller and people he engaged in the project, a different kind of holiday outreach has been created for this unusual year. Since we can’t go in person, a DVD of a Christmas program including music, spoken word, and humor has been professionally produced. It has been sent to 62 prisons in Florida and Arkansas for them to show to groups and to be available for individual viewing!
We look forward to getting feedback from inmates, administrators and staff of the institutions about this holiday outreach. The DVD will reach many more people than a program in rooms with limited capacity could reach, and in so many more locations than can be visited in any one tour. Although this approach lacks the impact of “when I was in prison you visited me,” it is a way of touching hearts and minds with a message of care. Hearing that they are not forgotten – even in the midst of a pandemic – is important, in whatever way it is possible to get the message.
If you are interested in learning more about Timothy’s Gift, go here: https://www.facebook.com/timothysgift/community/ for photos, comments from inmates and more. To support Timothy’s Gift, go to http://timothysgift.com/give