Because December 25 last year came on an unusually warm and sunny Sabbath morning, the day felt different from most Christmases. I got up early, put on my Sunday clothes, and left the house. My children had agreed that the presents could wait until after church.
I am one of three bishops who help serve the needs of twenty-eight hundred prison inmates housed in Utah State Prison facilities in and near Draper, Utah. Along with many other members and leaders from nearby stakes and wards, I strive to carry out the Savior’s admonition, “I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:36).
My plan that morning was to speak about the true meaning of Christmas to inmate congregations at four different prison facilities. I hoped to uplift their spirits and assure them of God’s love for them as well as mine.
At my first stop, I was pleased to find that prison officers had already set up chairs, hymnals, and a microphone for our meeting in a visiting room. The spirit of Christmas was off to a good start! A record number of inmates came to church that day.
Before I spoke, I looked into the faces of several inmates whom I had learned to love. I saw Eric*, whom I had blessed soon after I was called as bishop several months earlier. Midway through the blessing I felt impressed to tell him that Heavenly Father loves him and that if he were present, he would encircle Eric in his arms of love. I learned vividly that day that Heavenly Father loves every one of these men and women, for they are his sons and daughters. I know that he wants them to repent and return to him, for Jesus Christ atoned for their sins just as he atoned for everyone else’s.
I looked into the faces of the inmate choir members and remembered my first Sunday as a new branch president in the prison system. The choir sang a medley of Latter-day Saint hymns that day, and I will never forget the strong spirit I felt. I had thought that the Spirit would be absent within the walls of prison, but I was wrong: the Spirit is there very powerfully. As the choir sang that first Sunday, my wife leaned over and said, “I’ve never seen music make you cry like this.”
I looked into the face of Carl, who had spent hours crocheting his family a Christmas-tree skirt one year. I remembered the time we brought Carl’s son to see his father at a prison family home evening. When it came time to leave, Carl embraced his son, and tears ran down the cheeks of the fourteen-year-old. My heart filled with compassion when I realized that this boy had no memories of his father’s being outside of prison.
Andrew’s face brought back the memory of his telling me about being incarcerated in a foreign prison. To pass the time, he had whistled the hymn “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” One of the guards overheard him, and Andrew soon learned that the guard was a counselor in his local bishopric. Andrew expressed love for that man, who befriended him and made his prison time more tolerable.
My next stop was at a youth facility. I peered into the faces of a number of young men, many of whom were the ages of two of my own sons. I silently renewed my hope that this early intervention facility combined with Church programs would turn these young men around. I recalled an interview with one young inmate during which he agonized over his past sins and resolved to start down the path to repentance. On each subsequent visit I noticed that his countenance had brightened and that his eyes sparkled more. I felt grateful to the Savior for his atonement and for the opportunity we all have to repent.
My next visit was to a women’s prison. As I walked into the meeting room, I could feel the Spirit. Many inmates’ eyes filled with tears as we talked about the birth and life of the Savior. Looking into the beautiful face of Angela, I remembered visiting with her as she grieved over the unexpected death of her 48-year-old husband. She had been unable to attend the funeral, but she did see the service on video. She relied on her faith to get her through that difficult experience.
One face I wanted to see wasn’t present. Beth had died of complications from AIDS a few weeks earlier. When I visited her in the hospital just prior to her death, she had reached for my hand as we talked about death, the spirit world, the Resurrection, her children, love, the Savior, and other sacred things. As tears rolled down her cheeks, I gave her a final earthly priesthood blessing.
When I reached my final destination, the men were already midway through their meeting. I saw Todd, who had humbly shared his past with me and explained how his heart had changed after he learned the principles of the gospel in an institute class. He was now living the gospel in an environment where it is difficult to do so.
I saw my friend Alan, who had told me of a terrible dilemma he faced. He was scheduled to be released from his short sentence just prior to his wife’s giving birth to their third child, but he knew in his heart that he was guilty of another offense to which he had pleaded not guilty. If he changed his plea, he would have to serve additional time and miss the birth of his child. After receiving a blessing, he stated, “I know what I will do.” He is now serving the additional time. Though separated, this man and his family kneel together in prayer at nine o’clock each evening, wherever they may be. I remember Alan leaving a choir practice once at that hour so he could go to a corner and join his family in that sacred act.
After my last prison meeting, I hurried home so I could attend sacrament meeting with my family on this sacred Christmas Day. As I sat with my family in our chapel, I noticed that the hymns seemed more worshipful that day, the administration of the sacrament seemed more reverent, and the prayers and talks seemed to have more impact. That afternoon, even the opening of gifts seemed more meaningful. On this Christmas Day of Sabbath observance and service, the birth of the Savior seemed more real to me than ever before.