“They shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
For most of my childhood, my mother’s living room was transformed into a classroom. Every evening I lined up my stuffed animals in front of an easel and taught them the things that I had learned in school that day.
As I grew older, my passion for teaching and learning grew with me. I volunteered at my local elementary school and later interned at a preschool. No one was surprised when I announced my plan to study elementary education upon entering college. It was expected, and it made sense.
Their reactions were quite different two years later when I traded in my internship at a preschool for one in a high security correctional institution.
I had decided to pursue a path of prison ministry. And though I was afraid of what this new path would look like, and grieved the one I was parting ways with, I also felt peace.
I knew that the plans I had for myself would not lead me where God needed me at that point in my journey. God was calling me somewhere different, and though I didn’t know how it would work out, I knew I had to follow.
But the assurance I felt in this call to prison ministry didn’t immediately amount to assurance in the ministry itself. In reality, when I first started my work in prison, I often felt like I didn’t know what to do.
My prior role as a teacher felt so clear to me; I was there to teach. But now I was attempting to bring Jesus into a place characterized by so much pain and darkness, and I struggled to find a clear job description for such a task.
Today’s Gospel reading was foundational to my understanding of prison ministry. The angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary’s child, Jesus, is coming to save his people from sin. We are reminded of the prophecy, “They shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
To save us from sin, Jesus first came to be present with us. We cannot underestimate the healing power of a compassionate presence.
Prison ministry, at its core, is a ministry of presence. It is the act of sitting with someone and acknowledging our shared humanity — the same humanity that Christ came to be a part of.
Ministering to those who are incarcerated is, to me, the definition of meeting someone where they are — looking in their hands at the shattered pieces of themselves and saying, “I am not afraid of your brokenness.”
We are called to serve a God who is not scared off by our dishevelment. In fact, He longs to be invited into it.
Much like Joseph chose to follow God in a direction that didn’t make sense — A virgin? Pregnant? By the Holy Spirit?! — I had to let go of my own understanding of what was expected and be guided instead by faith.
In doing so, I gained a new appreciation for the incarnation of Christ and saw the power that exists in presence.
As I look forward to celebrating the arrival of our Lord on Christmas surrounded by my loved ones, I pray for those who have all too often been deprived of the gift of human presence. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, may we learn to trust like Joseph, and be present like Jesus.