The Rev. Deacon Leeann Culbreath is a deacon in the Diocese of Georgia and a founding leader of South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, a humanitarian non-profit supporting individuals and families impacted by immigrant detention through hospitality, visitation, pen pal, post-release, and advocacy programs. She also serves on the Georgia Detention Watch Steering Committee.
Fourth Sunday of Advent reflection
Sometimes, when we close our eyes, God opens them.
Not our real eyes, of course, but the eyes of our heart and soul. When our daily defenses are down, God can give us a powerful vision for our lives and for the world that we would normally reject.
Joseph almost rejected God’s plan for him to raise the Son of God, to help unfold God’s grand dream of redemption. He had every right, in that day, to publicly shun and even stone Mary for a pregnancy out of wedlock. Joseph was compassionate, though, and planned to quietly abandon her. But then he had a dream.
As we hear in the first chapter of Matthew, an angel came to Joseph in his sleep to unveil the impossible truth of the situation—the long-awaited Messiah was forming in Mary’s womb. The Almighty God was coming to dwell with humans, starting first with him and Mary. Can you imagine being the first ones to welcome the incarnate God into the world?! What would Joseph have missed without that dream—if he had walked away?
Four years ago this week, in the thick of Advent, God disturbed my dreams. I had recently attended a vigil at an immigrant detention center in Georgia and learned about rampant injustice and human rights abuses in the mostly for-profit immigrant detention system.
After the vigil, I met an 80-something-year-old activist nun, who told me about a prison near my home in Georgia—she had served time for civil disobedience there. She encouraged me—nay, she told me—to go minister at that jail. I nodded, but silently rejected the notion.
I had just left a busy parish assignment and was discerning next steps in my diaconal ministry, but I was certain that prison ministry was not my calling. I forgot about the nun’s empathic instruction and dove headlong into the holidays.
Then, one restless night, God nudged me again. I had a swirling, strange dream of a conversation with my bishop and a priest friend about a new ministry at that nearby jail.
Now, if you ignore a nun and then your bishop shows up in your dreams, it’s time to pay attention!
Upon waking, I googled the jail and discovered it was an immigrant detention facility, just 20 miles from my house, housing women as well as men. My stomach flipped, and I knew God was calling me there—to do what, I didn’t know, but I trusted God would lead if I would faithfully follow.
Eventually, leaning into fear and the unknown, I sat in a prison visitation room, building friendships with strangers from around the world. Despite plexiglass, clunky black phone handsets, arbitrary rules, and nerves, love broke through. For some, I was their first visitor after months or years in detention. Hope blossomed in a desolate place through welcoming hearts.
Usually, there wasn’t much I could do for the women and men I met—people of all ages, walks of life, and nationalities. But I could be present with them, affirming their worth and their story … and they could be present with me, offering grace even though my tax dollars supported their oppression, and I had the sheer luck of birth in the United States.
Amid powerlessness and pain, in an unexpected place, Emmanuel was born anew—through love pouring forth from the well of God’s heart into new friendships.
God was indeed with us, palpably, powerfully.
What a gift I almost missed, and that Joseph almost missed. Thanks be to God for dreams that pushed us where we didn’t want to go—a place where we could welcome, and in turn be welcomed by divine love. Where might God be sending you to experience this holy welcome?
O come, O come Emmanuel. Come in the prisons. Come in the refugee camps. Come among the children and parents separated by cruel policies. Come wherever there is suffering and darkness. Come in our dreams, waking and sleeping, so the eyes of our hearts can fly wide open to see Your dream at hand.