It was December of 1989. After several setbacks, the Christmas play I had written and directed for the young people at church had gone off without a hitch. I turned my mind to the next day. I was headed to court, along with a host of others, to be sentenced for rescuing unborn children a year earlier.
My call to take up the cry of the persecuted unborn had been a supernatural one. It had come as a visitation from God in the privacy of my own home some six years earlier. After stepping out in obedience to raise awareness and awaken the church to the plight of the least of these among us, He told me it was time to pay the ultimate price and put my faith into action.
I had grown up serving Christ. By that I mean that I had grown up in an unusual family. Dad was a pastor and mom a singer and my earliest memories are filled with the evidence of their love for the homeless, the drug addicts and the alcoholics in our city. I remember waking up to strangers on our couch more than once. They were people of action and ministry was their passion, but I was simply following their lead.
The supernatural call to follow His voice came at a time when my very concept of Christianity was under transformation. Though I had grown up in the church, I had finally encountered the One I had been worshipping for so long. I was no longer blindly following a denomination’s rules or a man’s eloquent interpretation of scripture.
Like the wise men of old, I was following the Star.
Though I lived in Houston, I joined some 200 individual’s I had never met in Austin, Texas and stood in the doorway of an abortion clinic while cold rain fell around us. From 7:30 in the morning until just after 4:00pm, I watched disgruntled officers carry the others off one by one. I was the next to the last person arrested and by the time we left our post, clinic hours were over. No babies were killed. Several women who had made lethal appointments for that day ended up following our counselors to a safe and warm place where, for the first time, they heard that there was an alternative to their dilemma. Some “chose” life.
Though our marriage had been filled with financial struggle, the year after my rescue was unprecedented. My husband lost the company he had passionately created from the visions in his entrepreneurial spirit. Our cars were repossessed. We were evicted from our apartment and wearily moved into my sister’s trailer. Day after day, Johnnie struggled to find work. It was the most difficult year. As Christmas approached, we knew we needed a miracle.
At least twice in our journey, we had experienced “dollar store” Christmas’s in which the only presents under the tree were a couple of dollar store packages for each child. I hated those seasons, but the kids cheerfully told me that these were their favorite. I still believe they were trying to soften the sadness in me, although there is no doubt that those days drew us closer together and taught us all about the true meaning of Love.
But this Christmas there would be no dollar store presents and no special food on the table. Our “tree” was the dying Schefflera plant my husband had rescued from his office. We draped a string of lights around the bare branches and called it our “Charlie Brown” tree. The worst of it, however, was the $495.00 deposit the Light Company wanted and the anticipation that our power would be cut off the day after Christmas.
Two days before the Christmas play, our 7-year-old daughter had slipped off a bench during one of our long rehearsals and had to have stitches sewn in the gash on her head. A friend couldn’t bear the thought that I would be leaving my family during such troubled times and she generously begged me to let her pay the fine. The courts had offered the large group of rescuers a 6-month probation for pleading “No Contest” to the charges. At the end of that time, they would strike the “crime” from our record and it would be as though we had never committed the trespass. The last thing that Travis County wanted was to see their system clogged with so many people, but they also wanted to make a statement that would discourage others from following in our footsteps.
Both my husband and I felt strongly that if God had called me to go, then my obedience wasn’t finished until I had faced the consequences. However, the mother in me was having a very hard time leaving my children in such circumstances. Johnnie promised that our daughter and her stitches were in good hands and I prayed diligently to know what decision to make. God had been good to us so many times, but as Christmas neared, I could see no way for this holiday season to turn out well.
Not only that, but my youngest son, Phillip, would have a birthday while I was in jail. That felt like the last straw. How could I be away from him on that day?! I felt myself caving in to the desire to accept the offer and make this problem go away.
That’s when Phillip approached me with a question. I called him our “Norman Rockwell” child. He was my freckle-faced little trouble maker dashing away from the swimming hole with the “No Swimming” sign behind him. This would be his 9th birthday. Looking up at me with his big, Irish-green eyes, he asked, “Mom, if you go to jail, do you think that anyone will get saved?” “I don’t know, Phil,” I answered, surprised by the depth of the question. “I only know that I will tell them about Jesus.” “Then I can’t think of a better Christmas or birthday present than knowing somebody accepted Jesus as their Savior,” he responded. “If you don’t go to jail, mom, then we won’t have any presents at all!”
And so, it was that I spent my 39th birthday in a holding tank in Travis County Correctional Complex. It was one of the longest days of my life. The women around me were coming down from variously induced highs. For hours, I was the only one awake. The girls would sleep and occasionally one would rouse and let out a string of expletives. The room reeked of sweat, urine and alcohol all mixed together. I fought the deepest emotional depression I had ever experienced. I thought they had locked us in and forgotten us. We weren’t served anything to eat or drink the entire day. I was thirsty, hungry, missing my family and wondering why God had abandoned me.
Late that evening, we were transferred to a tank in the general population. This was a large dormitory like room surrounded by individual cells and containing a sizeable dayroom in the center complete with couches and television. Showers and toilets were at the end of the long room, but there was no real privacy, even there. There were two people to a cell and our tank held somewhere around 30 women in all. Every night the doors to both the cells and the tank were locked. Around 6:00 the next morning, the doors were unlocked and the women would meander around the dayroom with loud, raucous language creating an ambiance that charged the atmosphere with the electricity of impending hostility.
There were 4 other rescuers inside when I arrived. I was so thankful to see them. Some of the 200 had taken the plea deal, but most had chosen to serve their time after the holiday season. I found the way the judicial system treated us to be ironical. Our case was not typical and the Travis County judges seemed to understand that, but in an unprecedented action, each person was given the opportunity to decide when they would serve their time. At least one individual chose the following summer and turned himself in months after the fact, but the great bulk of rescuers chose to come in January, after spending Christmas with their families.
My family and I had decided that I had nothing to lose and as Phil so eloquently put into words, we might just have the best Christmas ever if someone came to know the Lord.
The first few days inside were an adjustment and I was blessed to have another rescuer as my cell mate, but three days into my sentence, she was released. I enjoyed being alone in my cell for a couple of days before I was told that my new roommate was on the way. She was younger than me and physically strong. She already had a reputation in the system and the tank buzzed with talk. She had assaulted another woman with a knife, which put her in the hospital. We were never told the status of the other woman’s condition, but my new roommate had a serious injury on her knee with numerous stitches from the attack. The other prisoners looked at me with sympathy and I thought, “Really, God? I obey You and this is what You give me in return?”
Knowing that perfect Love casts out fear, I asked Him to give me a love for her before she arrived. I prayed over the bunk bed we would be sharing. I had already chosen the top bunk as I figured she would not want to climb into bed with a wounded knee. I walked around the small room praying God’s angels and His peace would abide in that space. I had always been careful about the atmosphere of my home. No matter where we lived, worship music set the mood of our house, but this was a different place altogether.
There were several other “tanks” in the complex and each day the tank with the fewest marks won the ability to watch a current movie in the evening. I dreaded these nights with a passion. The swearing and cursing that normally filled the air was only magnified by these shows. During my stay, most of the films were filled with macabre murders and gross violence. Though I lay in my bed and tried to close my ears to the sounds, there was no shutting it out.
I marveled at why we would assume anyone would be less troubled after a stay in prison.
My cellmate arrived and I could see that she was as surprised by my presence as I was by hers. It was clear that we had nothing in common, but I refused to see her through eyes of good and evil. I waited for an opportunity to be Christ to her.
There had already been many of those occasions. The 3 rescuers who remained inside with me, had begun to meet regularly in a corner of the dayroom. We would invite the other girls to join us where we would talk about the Lord and pray with one another. There were a couple of girls from my first day in the holding tank who sometimes joined us. One was a young Korean mother who had been arrested for prostitution. She told me that her two children were in a motel, alone, waiting for her to return. She was proud of being able to afford a motel because it was better than the car they had lived out of before she began to make money on the streets. She cried every day. One day, the authorities came to take her back to her own country. I never knew what happened to her or her children after that.
The other woman was probably in her late 20’s, but clearly had already lived a hard life. She had been with me from the beginning. The first night, when I turned myself in, she was already in the cell they took me to. She wasn’t very talkative and her troubled spirit filled the tiny room with bitterness. That was the longest night of my life, listening to the sound of demons shrieking; strange noises echoing through the corridors of the county jail. Some were screaming to be let out, but I was most taken by the lust-filled cat-calls and propositions of the spirits of perversion that coaxed and seduced souls they would never see through thick, black walls.
“Hell must sound something like this,” I thought.
My new cellmate never joined us for prayer, but one day I noticed her limping and rubbing the long incision that began several inches above her knee and plunged just as deeply below. She had a metal brace around her leg to keep her from opening the stitches that held the wound together. I recognized my moment. “May I pray for your knee?” I asked her. “God really does Love you and He cares that you are in pain.” To my amazement, she said, “Yes.” I laid my hands on her knee and asked Jesus to take her pain, just as He did at Calvary. It seems she said it felt better, but I don’t remember for sure. What I do remember was the softness that came over her countenance afterward.
She was just another hurting human that had no idea her life mattered to anyone, especially to God.
There is no way to share all the stories that unfolded over the two and a half weeks I was there, but I do want to reveal some highlights. The first one came on Phil’s birthday. Every day, I would call my friend who was watching him and Nathan, his older brother. Nathan was always waiting to talk to me, but Phil was out having a good time. I considered it a successful day if he at least stopped by the phone long enough to say, “Hi mom!” and then ran back out to play. On this day, however, things were different. “Thank God you called!” my friend exclaimed. “I’ve been so worried about Phil. We gave him your gift and planned a birthday party for him, but we can’t get him to cheer up! He’s been crying the whole day.”
She put him on the phone. There was an odd silence as he tried to speak; broken by the sound of sobs. “Mom?” he finally managed to get his words out, “Has anybody been saved, yet?” I felt as though someone had stabbed a sword right through my heart. It was all I could do to keep my voice from trembling. I told him about the Korean girl who had asked Jesus into her heart as we sat in the holding tank. She was the first one to sober up enough to talk to me. I saw her crying and asked if I could put my arms around her. She poured out her story and I told her of Jesus and how much He Loved her. I told her how He had come to die just for people like us. I told her we were all lost, all broken, and all stubborn, but He was willing to forgive everything we had ever done if only we would ask.
That seemed to comfort Phil. “Thanks mom,” he said. “I really miss you.” I turned away from the phone and tried to get back to my cell before the tears exploded down my cheeks. I lay my head on the small desk in the room as my own sobs released the torrent inside. Suddenly, I became aware of a presence and wiped my eyes. One of the most frequently enforced rules was that we could not enter any cell other than our own, but here she stood just inside the doorway. The hard, angry girl who had been with me from the beginning had followed me from the phone back to my room.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, and it was clear she was concerned. I told her the story of my son. How I hated leaving him on his birthday. How he had said that it would be worth it if only one person came to know Christ. Tears began to slide down her face as she said, “Please tell your son, ‘Thank you’ for me. From the moment I met you in the county jail, I knew that God had sent you. That’s why I’ve been so afraid to talk to you. When you started telling me about Jesus, I realized that no matter what I did or how far I ran, I could never get away from my grandmother’s prayers and when I get out, I’m going back to her and back to church. Please tell your son that you came here just for me.”
I learned so much in jail. Even today, I am changed because of it. As I have said, I found the language to be the most shocking and uncomfortable part of the atmosphere. If your eyes were closed, you could not tell the difference in whether a guard or an inmate was speaking. We are all lost… I had never been around such words and now I was assaulted by their toxins. It felt like fists hitting my spirit. Several days had passed when I awoke one morning to the sound of an inmate cursing loudly. Her voice echoed throughout the tank with the contaminating force of venom, but it was met by a voice from the other side of the room as another inmate yelled, “Shut your ____ ____ mouth! Don’t you have any respect? These women don’t belong here! They came because they care about us and the least you can do is watch your language!” It was only then that I realized how significantly the sound of swearing had diminished… and I marveled.
There were only 4 rescuers left in the tank, including me, and yet, salt had savored the atmosphere. Light had penetrated the darkness. My last day there was no different. I remember my very first meal, when I sat down to eat. I bowed my head to pray in the boisterous, raucous cafeteria. The girls at my table laughed nervously and made a few jokes. But on my final day, as I sat to eat for the last time, one of the girls asked if she could pray. “Of course,” I responded. It was then that I looked around the room and noted that, whether a rescuer was present or not, every girl at every table was bowing their head to pray for their meal.
One of the saddest testimonies to come out of this experience happened several weeks later. One of the inmates called another rescuer who lived in Austin and had given her number out so that the girls could stay in touch. “Mary?” she asked, “Why are these Christians so different from y’all?” “What do you mean?” Mary asked. “They aren’t like you guys,” she answered. “A big group of Christians came in together and we were excited! But they don’t talk to the rest of us like you did. They keep to themselves. They act like they’re too good for us.”
I thought about salt. If it stays in the shaker, it can’t savor anything and I grieved. Why is it so easy to follow our theology instead of following the Star? If the lives of unborn children were precious to God, then how much more the lives of these women?
I wish I had time to tell you about the guard who worked a Christmas miracle to get me out in half the time. My sentence was for 60 days, but when she saw my husband and children visit me on the weekend, she determined that I would be home for Christmas. I wish I could tell you about the guards that huddled in a small, drafty, one-room building, freezing from the frigid temperatures outside, while I pulled a picture of Baby Choice out of my sock and showed them what abortion really was. No one disciplined me for the contraband. Those weeks were possibly the fullest I have ever lived. I had nothing to lose.
But I realize this blog is long, so I will not tell you everything. I felt the Lord wanted me to share some highlights because, when we follow the Star, we will always find Christmas.
The day I was set to leave, the other girls went to bed and I sat in the dayroom alone. It was the policy of the system that an inmate could leave at midnight if they so desired, on the day of their release. Johnnie was waiting and I was anxious to get home. Somehow, they had allowed me to take my Bible and my devotional book in with me and as I sat, I read my devotion for the day I was to be released. It said, “To him will I give the land that he hath trodden upon, and to his children, because he hath wholly followed the Lord,” Deuteronomy 1:36.
I knew my Daddy’s voice when I heard it. He was telling me that He was well-pleased.
We drove the three hours back to Houston on icy roads just ahead of an arctic front. Somewhere around 5:00 in the morning, we fell asleep in our bed in our warm trailer that was only a few days away from losing electricity. When we got up the next morning, the city was blanketed in snow. Unusual for Houston. It was my first gift from my Father.
We picked up our 4 children, who had been divided up to be watched over by dear friends and stopped by to see others who had asked us to pay them a visit. When we arrived back home, our van was loaded with Christmas packages and food.
Christmas morning, I watched as my 4 children tore open 11 presents each. Exactly. And I marveled that these gifts had come from different sources. Some were for the girls. Some for the boys. But every child had the exact same number to open. There were even gifts for Johnnie and me. As I sat amid ripped paper and empty boxes, the smell of Christmas turkey baking in the oven, a spiral cut smoked ham freshly thawed in the fridge and numerous pies and cookies on the table, I could only wonder at the goodness of God. Had I stayed home; had I taken the plea bargain, how differently this day would have turned out…
It was Christmas Day and the Giver was unwrapping the Gift of His Love.
It was in the middle of these very thoughts, that we heard a strange noise in the trailer park. The children ran out to see what it was and came bursting back inside. “Mom!” one of them said breathlessly, “There’s some people in an RV that said they’re looking for a woman named Cathey!” I went to the door. The older couple refused to come inside, but handed me a card. “We have to hurry,” they said. “We are on our way to see our daughter in the Travis County Correctional Complex in Austin, but she has told us all about you. We just wanted to thank you for what you did.”
Inside the card was a check for $500.00 and a note scribbled across the bottom that read, “My God shall supply all my needs according to His riches in glory.” The next morning, Johnnie paid our outstanding deposit, with $5.00 left over.
When you follow the Star, you will always find Christmas.
The thought that inspired the telling of this story this morning, was the wise men who brought gifts to Jesus at His birth. They were elaborate. Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Priceless offerings laid before a stranger. I thought about what price, not only in the gifts they brought, but in the cost to their own lives. I thought about how they defied Herod’s command to report back when they found what they were searching for.
Though it meant disobeying a king and brought certain danger to their lives, the wise men followed the Star of Bethlehem and it led them to Christmas.
And I realized that sometimes, encountering the Christ of Christmas requires disobeying a king.
I was once a blind follower of religion. I didn’t know that I was created to hear my Father’s voice. Truth is, like the wise men, we are all called to follow the Star, but it’s easier to follow a king. There are many kings. Our spouse can be a king, or even our children. Our king can be political ideology, opinions, or even our creed. Sometimes our king is our favorite theology or our job and sometimes it is a man: beautiful, charismatic and precious to God, but flawed and earthy in origin.
Unless we follow the One, the Only, Star of Bethlehem, we will never truly find Christmas.
Amid the sweet aroma of freshly baked pies and homemade candy, amongst the ripped holiday paper and empty boxes that litter our floor and under the bright lights and shining ornaments that adorn our tree this year, if we are not careful, we will miss the most important Gift of the season.
The Child we celebrate, the Babe who was born in a manger, came to show us the way back to our Creator, our Father, who Loves us so much that He gave His One and only Son so that whoever believes in Him would not perish.
Though multitudes were alive when Christ was born, only a small handful of believers witnessed the miracle that took place on that auspicious day because they followed the Star.
And the same is true still today…
Only those who follow Him will find the Gift of Christmas.