by John Bethell
It’s Easter evening in a federal women’s prison in West Virginia. The liturgical color is sweatpants gray as the inmates don’t have to wear their khaki uniforms on Sunday. For the last hour, different groups have come up to offer songs for the holiday, each a variant on some well-loved gospel song. They’ve been practicing for weeks. A woman who goes by Honey Bear (not her real name) offered a long poem in rhyming couplet about the “devil getting his due // because Jesus will see you through.” She sells them through her brother at his church, always making sure ten percent goes back as an offering.
Into the middle of all the gray and the Nicotine yellow overhead fluorescent light walked an inmate wearing a Kelly green polyester robe. It was knee-length and the kind you got for graduating from junior high. I was seated in the back row among some of the ladies when I heard, “Oh, I better stand up — she’s about to praise dance.” And she was, as it turned out. A gospel song about how much God loves us and how we need to share that with everyone came on and this girl danced. I had seen her practicing whenever the chapel was free.
Towards the end, when the music was ramping up for some power chords, she reached into her pockets and threw fistfuls of glitter into the air. A burst for each song-ending beat. The ladies went nuts. All were on their feet as this woman slid through the congregation and out the back door of the chapel.
I had to unlock the closet to let her hang up her robe and asked her where she got glitter from. It’s not like they can run to a craft shop for some extra show time pizazz. “From my pocket,” she said. “Right,” I continued, “but where’d you get it from before then?”
“I’m embarrassed to say.”
“Potato chip bags.”
To offer a special dance on Easter, this woman collected empty potato chip bags, washed and dried them, and then tore them into dime-sized pieces. All this to hide in her pockets for a big Resurrection finish.
“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”
The Rev John Bethell is an Episcopal priest and the new chaplain at the federal prison in Bruceton Mills, WV