In a way none of us imagined, it turns out that these weekly pages have been a lifeline of sorts, folded into a paper airplane and sent soaring over the fences.
We had our routine. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, twelve to twenty of us would pass through prison gates then walk across a prison yard to join the rest of the church. We would spend two hours together, first in small groups, then in worship. We would share stories; we would pray; we would sing; we would listen to Scripture; we would break open a prefabricated eucharistic feast. Above all, we would rejoice. Because it hardly mattered which side of the tall fences we lived on. We were church together.
We had our routine. And that routine, those few hours each week, made Celebration Fellowship a visible church. But everything changed in mid-March 2020. To keep COVID at bay, prison officials closed prisons to visitors and volunteers. It was a massive disruption for prisoners. It left them even more cut off than they usually were. But it did work. There were no COVID cases in “our” prisons for six months. Since then, COVID has rolled over the prisons in waves and the prisons have remained largely closed to the outside. (For a time, a small window opened for me to return to one of the prisons, but the omicron surge has closed that down.)
Back in March 2020, we knew the lockout would be coming. And when it did, we knew we had to do something to hold the church together, on both sides of the fences. So that first week, I wrote a liturgy—a couple brief prayers, a Bible reading, and a reflection—all of it fitting in two columns on one side of a standard sheet of paper. I sent the page by email to the prison chaplains, who said they would make sure to have it copied and distributed to Celebration Fellowship members in the prisons. I also sent it by email to the 70 or so Celebration Fellowship members who are not in prison. The idea was a simple one. Through this little liturgy, we would be together, all of us, in prayer, in the Word, and in contemplation.
We figured this would be a good way to keep the church bound together for a while, until COVID was no longer an issue and the way inside was opened again. So I sent a liturgy for Week #1 of our “COVID Captivity.” Then I sent a liturgy for Week #2, and for Week #3, and . . . A couple of days ago, I sent the liturgy for Week #99. It brings me to tears to see that number. For 99 weeks, and counting, we have not been able to see each other. For 99 weeks, we have not been able to share stories. For 99 weeks, we have not been able to worship together. For 99 weeks, we have been an invisible church.
But God is good. And some people are pretty good, too. So for these 99 weeks, I have been able to send liturgies. And members on both sides of the fences have been able to read them, pray them, ponder them. In a way none of us imagined, it turns out that these weekly pages have been a lifeline of sorts, folded into a paper airplane and sent soaring over the fences. Actually, each of the pages has been a love letter, reflecting the love we all have for each other as a church and, more than anything, reflecting the love that God has for us all. And until some form of the old routine is reestablished, it looks like this will be how we will continue to worship together.
There is more to the story, of course. Because God has been doing many good things for, with, and through the prison church. And that keeps us rejoicing, for 99 weeks and more.
Praise God for sustaining his people wherever they are found. Where have you seen God at work in the worship life of your congregation during COVID? We'd love to hear and share your testimonies. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or post your story on Reformed Worship's Facebook page. Let us encourage each other.