Alternative Title: Party in the Prison
Christmas came with a two week break…which was both awesome and a little unnecessary seeing how I haven’t technically started working yet. (Yes, yes, I know. My work is relational right now. This productivity-driven American has to keep reminding herself of that.) Still it’s given me some time to get to know more of the expat community as well as a longer stretch of the Atlantic coastline.
The break started with two consecutive days of parties put on by the UM prison ministry in two separate prisons. First we went to the women’s prison. I’d never been before and I’m quite sure that the special program didn’t give me an accurate picture of daily life there. But what it did give was an pretty outstanding musical presentation from the inmate choir. Except for the choir, all the inmates wore matching blue, red, or green gingham dresses. There were some with children…ranging from new borns to probably age 3 or 4. Children stay with their incarcerated mothers here, I’m assuming, up to a certain age. There was even a toddler with his mother in the juvenile detention center.
The choir was wearing matching polo shirts with a printed logo. The program was essentially a worship service followed by a meal that the prison ministry brought in. It was actually pretty reminiscent of a Kairos gathering back home. The women led us in all the singing, including special gathering music, singspiration, and a dance/drama presentation (which required a wardrobe change!). During the singspiritation they sang a song that I recognized from hearing it at church here. “My tomorrow must be greater than today.”
Mama don't cry, you gonna sing in your tomorrow.
Papa, my brother, sister don't cry, you gonna dance in your tomorrow.
Wipe away your tears my brother, you gonna testify in your tomorrow.
Weeping endures for the night joy comes in the morning.
You gonna dance in your tomorrow.
Because tomorrow must be greater than today.
I liked the song before…even if I felt it was a little unrealistic. I mean, every day can’t be better than today. This idea of constant progress is a little naive, if you ask me. But I thought it was a fine song when I first heard it.
It meant something different hearing the inmates sing it. There was a yearning and a stumbling vulnerable hope about they way they sang it. A prayer that God would please let it be true that tomorrow will be better. Maybe I was just putting that on them because of where we were…but I don’t think so. They sang it stronger and deeper than I’d heard it sung before.
There was an interlude where they sang over and over the words “Check me out tomorrow.” I like that line. It's cheeky. A little over-confident. But don’t we all need that sometimes? A bold, over-confident hope that things can be better even when we’re faced with all evidence to the contrary? I went from a cynic to a believer in their singing of that song.
My favorite part of the whole thing was watching the prison guards get up and dance as they sang. A joyful participation in their dreams.
My driver Navo really got a kick out the fact that my Christmas calendar was taken up by prison parties. He’d said, “You have another party today?” And I said, “Yes, another party.” “In the prison?”, he’d say with a smile. “Yes. A party in the prison…cause that’s how we roll.” He’d heard me preach a sermon about how part of the mark of Christianity is it’s peculiarity. Who voluntarily goes to prison for a Christmas party? Well, Christians do.
And it got me thinking. Of course we do. Because that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like—a party in a Sierra Leonean women's prison where even the prison guards join in the dancing.
In the week and a half that has followed those parties I’ve gotten a chance to spend hours and days with other expats on break from doing various work here like me. I’ve heard of the struggles involved in education, in healthcare, in leadership, in poverty and hunger.
The other day I asked my driver how many meals people eat here in a day. It was an innocent question about cultural norms. I had noticed that people tend to just blow right by lunch, so I thought well maybe they eat later or just having two meals is the norm. Without missing a beat, he said, “It depends on how much money you have.” If you can afford to eat three meals, then you eat three meals. If you can afford to eat two, then you eat two. That’s if you’re lucky. If you can afford to eat one, then you eat one. And if you can’t afford that, you wake up with a hungry belly. If you’re a child, you go to school with a hungry belly. They don’t have free and reduced lunch here. So you just stay hungry and hope that there’s a meal waiting for you when you get home.
There are about ten more stories I could share about the inadequacies of life here. And I’ll say that I’ve heard those stories shared by both expats and locals, some with a jaded edge, some with realism, and some with grief. I find that in just six weeks here I vacillate between those three as well (along with a big dollop of delight too). My prayer is often to have a soft heart and thick skin rather than the other way around.
So today, on New Year’s Day 2018, I start the year in my new home in a new country with eyes a little clearer about what faces the people here. And my prayer too is that tomorrow will be greater than today. It may be naive. An over-confident hope. But I believe it. By the grace of God, it will be.