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Abundance and Joy | The Prism Family Picnic

Not even gray skies and drizzle could put a damper on the joy of the Prism Family Picnic hosted by the Parish of St. Matthew, Pacific Palisades. We partnered with Get On the Bus and the Center for Restorative Justice Works to invite families from all over the Los Angeles area who share a common grief - they all have a loved one who is incarcerated.

The loving people of St. Matthew's had a breakfast buffet set up when we arrived. Croissant sandwiches, boiled eggs, pastries and muffins, beautiful farmer's market strawberries and a giant bowl of fruit. Granola bars were passed out table to table. One little boy, Jaelyn, held up a nectarine and asked me what it was. We cut it in wedges so he could see the inside before taking a bite. He loved it and decided not to share it with his sisters!

After breakfast families were invited to swim, play basketball in the gym, shop at the boutique where each family could take home two items, go on a hike, get their face painted or make a friendship bracelet. Lunch included hamburgers with all the fixings, hot dogs, homemade macaroni and cheese, broccoli salad, fresh corn. The dessert table was full of homemade brownies and cookies, and there were plenty of take home containers to pack food to take home.

At the end of the day, everyone was given a raffle ticket and called to the gift table where children were given a backpack full of art supplies and their choice of a sports ball. Adults were given a gift bag with a beach towel, first aid kit, sunscreen and lip balm. Jackie Ehlers, a St. Matthew’s parishioner who has organized the picnic for over 10 years, explained, “We are trying this ‘raffle ticket’ system this year because we don’t want anyone to stand in line to wait for their gift. After each small group, we will refresh the table. We want them to come to a table of abundance to have their choice of backpack color and sports ball.”

At the Family Picnic I get the opportunity to meet families and hear how they are coping with their loved ones being locked up. I met Caryn, a woman whose husband is in his 28th year of a life sentence. Both of her sons are also in prison serving 25 and 30 year sentences. Caryn is taking care of 5 children…two from one son and three from another. Their mothers suffer from addiction and mental illness and live on the streets. Caryn is exhausted and out of patience. She tells me, “I can’t do one more thing today. I’m so glad they can go and get their own food.” She feels pretty hopeless about the possibility of any of the men in her family coming home in her lifetime. She points at the oldest daughter and says, “I just hope I live until she turns 18.”

Some families have been coming to the picnic for years. Alicia says, “My girls grew up coming to this picnic. They went on their first hike here. And one day I hope he (her husband) will be able to come here with us.” Alicia tells me that her girls, 6 years apart in age, are best friends because it’s difficult to have close friendships when you are always hiding the truth about your dad being in prison from other kids at school.

The conversations seemed too deep and emotional for a picnic. But there’s something so sacred about sharing tears with people in the midst of all the joy and laughter. The one thing I have learned from those who are incarcerated is to experience joy in the midst of great suffering and sadness is to be fully human…fully alive. It’s in this space we deeply know the presence of God. Their incarcerated loved ones were not present at the picnic, but we honored them in sharing our laughter and our tears through stories.

Abundance was the word of the day. Everywhere you looked there was an abundance of hospitality, an abundance of grace, an abundance of joy.

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