The Word Among Us

Advent 2004 Issue

Christmas in Jail

A Strange Place to Find Peace on Earth

By: Lou Torok

When the Mexican teenager walked into the county jail, he was understandably nervous.

The nineteen-year-old, baby-faced Hispanic youth had never been in jail before and he had no idea what to expect. Would he be robbed, assaulted, raped? The other prisoners looked at him with suspicion. They distrusted anyone who did not share their anger, paranoia, and mindless destructiveness.

Eliasar Salazar Zamora had reason to fear them. He was a simple boy from a small mountain town in Mexico who didn’t even speak English. After a few days passed and the terror in his eyes subsided, I approached him. I decided to teach Zamora enough English to survive in jail. He grinned when he sensed that I was going to help him. I made flash cards of the alphabet out of toilet paper. He was an eager student and learned the entire alphabet in just two days. But he still didn’t have any idea what the words he was learning meant.

A volunteer jail visitor brought me an English-Spanish dictionary that I gave to Zamora. With the help of me and the other men in the cell, Zamora soon learned English. He became our mascot and the little brother we all needed.

A Special Christmas Gift. Zamora asked me to help him learn to read the Bible. I selected the Christmas story in Luke. A week before Christmas, the volunteer church visitors were stunned and joyful as Zamora read the Christmas story in nearly perfect English. Many eyes filled with tears. My own eyes were damp. I was proud of Zamora. At that time it seemed as though I was looking into the innocent face of a young Jesus.

With Christmas a few days away, I wondered what I could give to Zamora to celebrate his new victory. My lawyer brought me a large color picture of Jesus. It was beautiful and even seemed to have Hispanic features. What better way to cement our friendship and celebrate his learning English than to give him this picture? When I looked at the peaceful, beautiful face, I realized what a contrast it was to the fear, hurt, and loneliness we experience in jail.

Two days before Christmas, I surprised Zamora with the picture of Jesus. Tears filled his eyes as he accepted this special Christmas gift. It was at that moment that I realized that he had a family somewhere in Mexico wondering where he was. His family must have taught him to love Jesus. We hung the picture on the jailhouse wall, and all the prisoners seemed pleased.

Welcoming Jesus into Our Cell. The day before Christmas, the guards ordered all pictures taken down from the walls. I asked if the picture of Jesus could be left up through Christmas. The answer was "no," under the threat of additional punishment. Anger in our cell house rose in protest. In spite of the threat of punishment, we all agreed to keep the picture of Jesus on the wall. To our surprise, there was no objection from the guards.

It is typical that, as Christmas Eve arrives, emotions in a jail will run high and tensions will mount as prisoners—deprived of normal social interaction with loved ones—strike out in anger and frustration at one another. Even though we still felt the tension, we also noticed a strange peace in our crowded cell. While fights broke out in other cells, there were none in ours.

Just before bedtime, I asked Zamora if he wanted to say the Lord’s Prayer in his beautiful native Spanish. When he finished, I joined him in saying that beautiful healing prayer in English. There was no doubt that Christ was with us that night in jail.

On Christmas morning, the picture of Jesus still hung on our wall. Somehow now it didn’t even matter if they were to order it removed. After all, wasn’t Jesus in our hearts and actions? We all had a new appreciation of the power of love that Jesus represented to us. "Feliz Navidad," I wished Zamora in my clumsy Spanish.

"Merry Christmas, Lou," he replied in nearly perfect English. It seemed a strange place for me to find peace on earth at Christmas— in a jail cell.

Lou Torok is an inmate in the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty, Kentucky.