We invite you to share your holiday messages of experience, strength, love, hope and faith. Please email them to me at jgrant@prisonist.org and I will post them on our blog at prisonist.org/prisonist-the-blog and email them to our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellows. Please feel free to forward them to anyone who is in need this holiday season. Below are a few holiday messages to get us started. Wishing you and your loved ones a happy & healthy holiday season. – Jeff Grant

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THE GIFT OF NOTHING.

At Christmastime, my twenty year old daughter Skylar likes to read one of her favorite holiday books from childhood “The Gift of Nothing”. It is the story of little Mooch trying to find a Christmas present for his best friend Earl, but Earl has EVERYTHING. Mooch racks his brain and searches high and low and cannot find the perfect gift. Finally, he realizes, the very, very best present of all can’t be wrapped and put in a box, it’s NOTHING. Nothing…but time together, a hug, laughter, friendship, empathy, love.

For those of us whose lives have been impacted by indictments, incarceration and the attending complications, it can feel as though we’ve lost EVERYTHING, it can feel as though we have NOTHING to give at Christmastime or anytime. But it’s a funny thing about kindness, friendship, love and compassion, the more we give, the more it seems there is to give, and from what had seemed to be an existence of scarcity, a life of true abundance begins to emerge. It’s a feeling, and it’s real.

When I have the blessing of spending time with Babz, Joe, Iyabo, Scott, Joshua, Lynwood, Jacquie, Doug and Jeffrey, just to name a few, the room is filled to overflowing with NOTHING and my heart is so full, full of truth, companionship, warmth, encouragement. I feel as if I have EVERYTHING.

As I sit writing this blessed Christmas Eve morning, there is a dusting of snow across the paddock outside my window, my kitten is purring on the chair beside me, my husband wished me a good morning with a big, warm hug. I know that God loves me and that I love him. Everything. Nothing.

Wishing you each the gift of nothing, today and everyday through out the new year. With love. – Lynn Springer

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Tomorrow, most of the world will pause and pay homage to the Christ child. As a priest in the Old Catholic Church I recognize the power and beauty of this season, sacred event and holy time of the year.  One that has endured the test of time; a narrative that has lived on for over 2000 years. A celebration that proclaims the “good news” and offers hope and strength to countless people.

I wonder how many of us stop and think that we are celebrating someone, Jesus, who was a convicted criminal and one who was sentenced to death.  That “passion” story that we read during Easter doesn’t really talk about the failure of the justice system or even society when they make a mistake.   When they fail to see the good in people or the possibility of radical change and love. The story, like the man Jesus, is about transformation.  The theory is that second chances are supposed to happen and that forgiveness, hope and resurrection was the point of that truly terrible event.

However, tomorrow it all about the birth of Christ. A new beginning and a fresh and wonderful start.  Some of us, if not all of us, know a little about failure, loss, and even being a criminal.  You see, most of us, if not all of us, have made mistakes.  Some of us have learned a great deal from those and have endured great pain and suffering. Very much like Christ after only 33 years from that magical birth in Bethlehem. 

Imagine that birth! A mother who was so scared because she was pregnant without being married. Disenfranchised by family and friends and no place to go or stay.  A birth that was so common that few at the time even paid attention.  I wonder if today that some of us are still too busy and are not paying attention.  I am honored to be part of a wonderful ministry of Returning Citizens.  People who once had great power and wealth, a force to be reckoned with. Some of us, myself included, probably didn’t pay much attention to this “birthday” idea. But now every Monday night we talk, pray, share our stories and tell a narrative of hope, change, and redemption.  Most of us have started anew and are doing important things again, but for very different reasons. Even though we are making the world a better place again, most of us haven’t learned the simple idea of forgiveness, especially for ourselves. I am hoping for a miracle…..that we can change this during our Christmas season. 

When I celebrate Mass I am reminded each time of this great gift and season.  When we pour the water into the Chalice, every Priest recites an ancient prayer; “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”  The God we celebrate tomorrow became human so that all of us can become divine.  With our broken and fragile lives, even amidst the sorrows and losses, we can be the message of hope, joy and love.  Indeed, that is a message of humanity and our divinity. The message, and the greatest gift, is that we can all be a divine Christmas miracle.  May God love you all! – the Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Ciccone, St. Joseph’s Mission Church, Progressive Catholic Church

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To my fellow pilgrims,
 
During my time in prison I was struck by the contrast in lifestyles. This wasn’t a comparison of opulence versus scarcity. For me it was never about the absence of material possession. Rather, it was about embracing the gift I had been given: moral bankruptcy. I came to realize that all that I had thought was real, important, and meaningful was empty. I was able to think critically for perhaps the first time in my life, and I became open to a new truth: wealth lies in a foundation of relations predicated on common purpose and understanding and a true love for my fellows. 
 
 
I saw a movie during my “correctional vacation” called The Way. It was a film about a man who alone begins a spiritual journey over a European trail called the Camino Santiago de Compostela, and completes his journey connected to others in a way he’d never previously known. I came to know the phrase “Buen Camino”, loosely translated meaning, “Good way”.  It’s a greeting that each traveler offers a fellow pilgrim on the Camino. And in my new life I came to understand that each of us are on our own path – our own Way, if you will. 
 
A few years ago I had the opportunity to make my own pilgrimage on the Camino and I met hundreds of people from all walks of life, from around the world, and we shared our common purpose and understanding. We understood intuitively the love inherent in the simple greeting “Buen Camino”. That love was predicated on our individual and shared mission, born of our experiences and struggles. So to has it been getting to meet each of you. In you I have found our common understanding, common experience, and common purpose despite the eclectic nature of our backgrounds. 
 
The holidays are a time to celebrate the unity that our Higher Power has endowed us with, among our family and our fellows.  And in this new life – no longer morally bankrupt (most of the time) – I embrace each of you as my fellow pilgrims, and I hope that I can be the same to you. 
 
Whether Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, or Christian this time of year allows us to take inventory of who we are, what we have, and how we value those men and women around us. I’m proud to be included among you, my fellow Pilgrims, and to celebrate our common struggles for the myriad ways in which they’ve brought us together, and made us better Pilgrims. 
 
To each of you I say thank you, Happy Holidays, and Buen Camino. Joshua Cagney
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My Beloved Once Friends, but now Family, 

With deep gratitude, I find myself reflecting on our group and what you’ll (I am in the South!) mean to me as we draw into Christmas season and the New Year. 
 
You know I was not on too many calls when I first joined. I felt uncomfortable. I was struggling between letting everything in the past stay in the past and moving into the future. Now, I rearrange my life based on Monday nights. You have become family. 
 
Christmas reminds me of my paternal grandpa. He was a Methodist minister and my parents were card carrying atheists. My grandpa would teach me about Jesus and tell me, “Your parents have read too many books. Just ignore them. They don’t know anything.” He promised me Jesus was real and I loved my grandpa so much I believed him. His name was Samuel Emmanuel Onipede and I was the youngest grandchild and we were best friends. When I think of Christmas, I think of my grandpa because of the name, “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” My grandpa died when I was 10 years old and I still associate the presence and awareness of God to him because he planted that seed in me. 
 
God indeed has been with us as a group. You may not see it, but I do. 
 
I see how Jeff is like the parent of the group. He gathers us. He reminds of how we find our way as a community, as a family, and gets us on track. Just like God does in your life. Father Joe is the enduring priest. He keeps us spiritually grounded and is such a wonderful example of humanity in a clerical robe as we enjoy the highs and lows of his life. He reminds us to be hopeful. Just like God does. Jeffrey A. is our businessman. He is relentless and works hard, representing those in reentry out there in the world. He is focused and clear on who he is and reminds us that we have value in the world and that is why he does what he does. Just like God does. Basia shows up and draws support from us as she seeks to be a good mother to her children. Just like God is to us. Jackie keeps fighting for women behind bars, as she has struggled with her own kid and business life. She believes in those women and regardless of her own personal struggles, she prioritizes the women coming out of Danbury so they can have a soft landing entry and know that someone cares for them. Just like God does for us. Steve faithfully shows up and brings wisdom but always steps back, not wanting it to be about him as he reflects love to the group. Just like God does. Joshua is so rooted and vulnerable, so transparent. He brings such therapeutic wisdom, no judgment, and a simple but deep form of acceptance to each of us. Just like God does. Doug is so practical, does not sugar coat stuff but is compassionate and he keeps putting one foot in front of the other and encourages each of us to do the same and not get side tracked and hung up on regret. Just like God does too. 
 
And I could go on with every single person who is on the call. 
 
You see, I deeply believe that each of us represents a facet of the Divine. There is something about this animation we call life that is sacred. And no matter how badly any one of us has messed up, that Divinity still exists within each of us. Nothing we have done can mess up the fact that we have sacred, beautiful lives, filled with value, filled with the ability to reclaim our lives and do good with it. No matter the framework of your faith: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist or anything, you represent the Creator of everything. 
 
Even if you do not believe in Jesus, Our Emmanuel, (the way I do) I invite you to take comfort that the Entity that created everything knows all about you, and loves you passionately. That is why you can never use up all the oxygen provided just for you. And just like that oxygen, opportunities, love, relationships, everything that we need and want is available to each us. We live in an abundant playground. We must know this and believe it. 
 
You represent Emmanuel to me because each of you have been such a huge blessing to my life. I see God in you and it gives me great comfort to experience connection with you. You guys have been the hands, feet and voice of God for me. 
 
And so I can say with joy, God indeed has been with us this past year. 
 
My prayer is that this time next year, when I write this same email to our group, that I get to say things like, “I am so proud of you guys. Look, you got jobs, you have new relationships, you are making and saving money, you are making a difference, you are feeling fulfilled in your work, you have reconnected with your kids, you are feeling purposeful, you have experienced such joy. You have made a difference in society. Indeed God has been with us again this year.” 
 
My your holidays and the new year be filled with the kind of joy that heals things that you did not know were ailing you, may you experience a deep and profound love and know that you matter. 
 
Blessings and Peace upon your life, you and yours. Amen. – Iyabo Onipede
 
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JOY
To everyone who has been released and also those living with the stigma of a criminal record, I give hope and joy.  May your life return to normal and being alive your holiday present.  You are here for a reason, find it!!! – Barry S. Diamond

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From Disdain to Distinction:

Fellow Paddlers:

I admire you.

I want you to know that I too am a person that paddles a solitary canoe during this Holiday Season.

I want you to know that I too am a person that once lived life inside of a correctional institution.

I want you to know that I too know and comprehend what it means to find all seaworthy vessels otherwise occupied.

I want you to know that I too have stood on the shore of many a strong stream and mighty, roaring river and wondered how in the world I would find the resources, or, muster the strength to ford, let alone cross them.

I want you to know that I found a single, rickety, time-and-water-swollen canoe.

The canoe, long-ago abandoned, simply arrived.

I did not summons it. And I most certainly did not build it.

The canoe arrived.

Weather-beaten and abandoned by those who once cherished it as a prized-possession.

I rescued the canoe.

Or, maybe the canoe rescued me.

I rid its moss and sanitized its mold-ridden bottom.

I patched its holes.

I sealed its leaks.

I repaired its sodden twin-paddles.

And then, one, fine, brisk morning, I launched its new, maiden voyage.

I sat in my new canoe.

I tested its buoyancy.

I pointed its stem towards the center of the stream.

And I began paddling.

I admire you my fellow paddler.

This Holiday Season, find a discarded and disregarded canoe.

Admire it.

Rescue it.

Polish it.

Turn its disdain.

Return its distinction.

Some very strong and potent potion will do the same for you.

Cherish This Day! – Steve Bonenberger

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It’s Christmas Day! Thank God I haven’t missed it!     ~ Charles Dickens

As we grow older, it’s entirely possible to lose a lot more than our belief of Santa Clause. Through our trials and tribulations, we can forget how to have fun. Whole summers go by without a single picnic, a swim, or a baseball game. Birthdays become nothing more than restaurant dinners. What a far cry from our youth when looking forward to a good time and then wringing every drop of pleasure out of it was what we knew best!

Christmas is one of the occasions that many of us forget how to celebrate. “Christmas is too commercial,” we say as an excuse for our crankiness. “Christmas is for children.” Yet for all the hustle and bustle that surround the holidays, there is also much that is lovely and inviting of spiritual growth. The warmth on so many faces, the increased sense of caring and giving, the gathering of families, the beauty of the music – all are invitations to turn away from worry and lift up our hearts.

We don’t have to become like Scrooge just because we’re not children anymore. The wonder of Christmas is available to all comers. Let us not miss it.

So, let’s put our worries aside for this day, enjoy our surroundings and take a deep breath, breathing in the fresh air.  Take a moment today to be thankful for this community of beautiful, strong people that have blessed our hearts because of our various obstacles of life. You have all personally helped me deepen my capacity for enjoyment by your friendship and constant support.

Raising my glass, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  As we move into 2019 together only incredible things can possibly be waiting for us! – Jacqueline Polverari

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