By Anna Hamilton
We know that every person has a story to share. Some stories are adventures, others a romance, some stories do not always have a happy ending but if you listen carefully, you find strength and meaning behind them.
On Sunday, May 13th, Mother’s Day, I joined Bishop Gerald Barnes and his emcees on a visit to the California Institution for Women (CIW) for a special Mother’s Day Liturgy for the incarcerated ladies in our Diocese.
This liturgy also fell on Ascension Sunday, a day of hope. It is the day our Lord ascended to heaven 40 days after He had risen from the dead. A day the Lord reminds us to live and to have hope of one day reuniting with Him in heaven. In everything, he teaches us love, a love Jesus learned from His own mother.
Jesus’ mother is a role model for all women. She taught her son to love, to pray, and to give of Himself so that others may find peace. In return, Jesus lived this example of self-giving by His death on the cross. He truly gave Himself for the sins of all people. What a beautiful example of a Mother’s Love and the gift given to her child.
This message of love continued in the theme offered at this Mother’s Day Liturgy, Amar es Entregarse, our Bishop’s motto and “aspiration of giving himself in total service for others.” Bishop Barnes reminded us in his homily that we are called to live life no matter our situation and to keep moving forward and to live our mission.
The women at CIW lived this theme at the Mother’s Day celebration. After communion, about five women took the microphone to share their selfless acts of love. One mother shared how her son needed to be free to grow up outside of her environment of fences and walls. He was a small child when she was sentenced and he would visit her regularly. However, she knew he needed to live his life and asked him to live with relatives in another state. Her love for her child gave her strength to let go and today her son is married, has children and works in a job that supports the incarcerated and their families. A vision of a mother’s sacrifice that gives hope.
Another woman shared how she had to leave behind her babies and let others raise them while she is living her sentence in prison. She shared the pain of having to write a letter to her children telling them how much she loves them and hates being away from them, but for now they need to live their lives and she needs to let them go to do so. So many tears of pain and healing displayed at one time, but also tears of joy, when she shared that one of her children would be confirmed this year. She is able to remind them of God’s grace even from a distance.
Another woman shared that her father had recently died and she knew that if she attended the funeral she would only be a distraction with an officer present and the family would not be able to grieve properly, so she forfeited her chance to leave the facility and is learning to grieve alone. It was said beautifully by another woman who was present, “we cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can learn to adjust our sails.”
These women not only displayed great love but also hope as they shared photos of their children, grown up and with their families. These photos are treasures on a day they realize where they are, as they dream of home and watch their loved ones grow. Bishop Barnes said of these women, “when you really pray, you find your joy.” I believe this is what we witnessed that day. Women of faith who have sinned, found peace, and now are finding their joy in their children and their God.
After the Liturgy, I spoke with some of the women as I was curious to know how they received their visit from Bishop Barnes. Here are some of their responses:
From Amy, “God’s work is not done, we must keep going.”
From Angelica, “My story doesn’t end here, there is more to tell.”
From Carina, “I learned about humility today.”
From Tina, “You could feel the love of God through the Bishop.”
The morning was overcast but the Spirit brought light, hope and joy to nearly 75 women who participated this day. There was a warmth that spread throughout the room and made us feel like a home parish. As we were leaving, the women were smiling so beautifully and I learned that some were about to receive visits from their children. It was impossible to not feel God’s embrace this day. I can only hope the mothers’ visits also included an embrace with their families. Regardless, for those of us who were present this day, our lives were filled with hope and we must continue to remember that every person, no matter their circumstance, is a child of God. If we look closely we will see Him even in our neighbor right by our side. No bars can keep Him out.
Learn from the women today. If they can find God in a small cell, imagine where you can find Him in your life. How can you share this love with others?
Anna Hamilton is the Associate Director of the Office of Restorative Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino.