communion through prison doors
“Y tomando la copa, y habiendo dado gracias, les dio, diciendo:
Bebed de ella todos.” – Mateo 26:27
“And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying,
‘Drink from it, all of you.'” – Matthew 26:27
When I think of Communion, memories arise of drinking Welch’s grape juice once a quarter out of tiny plastic cups, trying to eat small pieces of stale crackers that simply refuse to be swallowed, and listening to old men say a few (and sometimes many) solemn words. This week, however, provided me with a renewed appreciation for the tradition.
A group from City on a Hill United Methodist Church in Georgia served with El Ayudante this past week by providing an eye clinic to several hundred people around León as well as by building much-needed shelf space in the EA office area. On Thursday morning, however, the team took a break from the clinic and the table saw to pay a visit to the local prison.
The conditions in the prison are depressingly inadequate—more from lack of resources than lack of concern. In one of the cells, thirty or so men live in a room that should hold no more than ten. Both the men and women live in comparably sized rooms, but with one difference. While the men at least enjoy a roof over their head, a solid roof only covers one half of the women’s tiny cell. Only a metal grating serves as a ceiling for the remaining half. Thus, the ladies are exposed to the elements year-round.
Prisoners are interned for a variety of reasons. Certainly, the brick walls contain those who committed murder or robbery. Some of the individuals are in prison after selling drugs in Nicaragua or in the United States. Others simply had the misfortune of being locked up after a car wreck. (Yes, in Nicaragua, if a person is driving and collides with another car, both drivers must go to prison for two days while the police investigate.) A few of the ladies were imprisoned because they took the blame for their husbands’ crimes.
The team from City on a Hill brought food, drink, and hygiene packs to the inmates. We carried in two coolers filled with juice boxes as well as several trays of freshly baked bread. As the group from EA and the States began passing bread and juice to the men and women, hands extended from behind the metal bars to shake our own hands, to thank us, to bless us, and simply to make contact with someone on the other side. After the group from City on a Hill sang a song to the women prisoners, those women responded from their cell by singing their own hymns back to us. No scripture was read about the Bread and the Wine, but as hand took hand and eye met eye, we all communed in a holy moment.
And is this not—at least in part—the meaning of Communion? It is a time for each of us to extend our hands and hearts beyond the spiritual, emotional, and physical prisons that every human experiences in order to remember what it is to feel something genuinely good and true and beautiful. The touch reminds us of the pain that is very real, but it also guides us towards a love that is patient and kind, a love that does not fail. As we pass around the cup and break apart the bread, together we share with Christ in life and all that life entails—the failures and the victories, the suffering and the celebration, and the questions and the certainties.
Communion is not simply for an individual and God. The practice is for community. And as we remember the suffering together, our shared mourning gives way to a more perfect hope.
Mary Ellen Poe