This year, as an Advent offering, I had the opportunity to do something completely different. I was invited to bring my guitar and join a small volunteer choir in singing Christmas carols with inmates.
So on a chilly morning a few days before Christmas, I met up with the other volunteers at the Edmonton Remand Centre. After a few brief instructions we tuned our guitars and followed the chaplains into the prison. I must admit that I really had no idea what to expect.
At the first unit we were met by smiling guards who welcomed us and teased the chaplains. One of the chaplains went into the guardroom and, over a microphone, explained to the inmates that we would be singing Christmas carols and distributing gift bags which had been decorated by elementary school children and packed by high school students.
As soon as the door to the unit opened we launched into a song. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Silent Night were very popular. The two levels in the unit were filled with men who looked like "just your average guys," except that I've never seen that many tattoos in one place before.
The chaplains encouraged the men to sing along with us and, by the third unit, Jingle Bells was the requisite sing-along song. The men came forward and received their gift bags and a handshake from the chaplains.
The chaplains were obviously well-known and listened patiently to those of the inmates who had a question or voiced a request. Many wished us "Merry Christmas" and thanked us for coming.
Some looked us in the eye, others simply looked bewildered by the arrival of a Christmassy minstrel group in their midst. We visited all the units, men and women, young men and old, separate units for rival gangs and segregated units where all we saw of the inmates was a face in a cell window or a tattooed arm hanging out the mail slot door.
Our singing and gift-giving time was necessarily brief in each unit, as there were many to visit in one day.
Also, moving throughout the Remand Centre is a slow process. Locked doors, slow elevators and "situations which required our group to stay where we were and wait for the "all-clear" signal were a regular part of the day.
I felt safe as we went about our musical journey but I did feel an odd undercurrent. Maybe it was the culture of violence or just the lingering aroma of pepper spray in the air.
I can't say for sure, but the Remand Centre definitely is a strange place. This was brought home to me in a profound way by one of the inmates. Polite, clean-cut and so very young, he tightly grasped the gift bag that one of the chaplains handed to him.
Then he looked up at us and said, "I know that they do things like this for people in other countries, but I never thought that anyone would do this for us here."
One chaplain replied, "This (the Remand Centre) is another country. You just have to figure out how to leave and never come back." I will never forget the look on that young man's face as he turned those words over in his mind.
Advent is a time of preparing our hearts for Jesus. What I witnessed at the Remand Centre was the work of some very special people who help others to prepare their hearts for Jesus every day.
Listening with patience and compassion to the broken and hurting children of God in prison is the ministry of the chaplains at the Edmonton Remand Centre. In the midst of this very strange "country," they are voices of hope.
(For information regarding a variety of volunteer opportunities, contact the Edmonton Remand Centre, 780-427-1600.)