Andrea Morgan thought she was going to the Christmas party at Howard University yesterday to watch her daughter's karate team from Randle Highlands Elementary in Southeast Washington perform for the guests.
But the 27-year-old single mother from Southeast was pleasantly surprised to leave with a baby carriage filled with toys. The party turned out to be in her honor as well -- sponsored by prison chaplains from across the region to cheer families whose loved ones will spend Christmas behind bars.
"This is such a blessing," Morgan said. "My father has been in prison so long until I don't ever remember spending Christmas with him."
The Rev. Elwood Gray Jr., chaplain at Maryland's Patuxent Institution in Jessup and founder of the National Coalition of Prison Ministries, organized the event that attracted several hundred children, adults and prison chaplains.
"This is warfare -- we are trying to win a battle to keep these children from following their parents into a life of crime," said Gray, who for more than two decades was a chaplain for the D.C. Department of Corrections at its Lorton prison complex.
The holiday party is an extension of a Saturday morning tutoring program Gray runs at Howard for children of inmates, in which college students teach and mentor kids from preschool to eighth grade.
The celebration was also a wrenching example of how incarceration reaches across the generations in families. There were parents with children locked up, children with parents doing time, and ex-offenders struggling to start over.
"I was shot in the groin last week," said Leroy Waters, a District resident who has been in and out of jail since 1965. "Christmas is the hardest time of the year for an inmate because they can't see their families. I was in jail from 1965 to 1978 and then from 1990 to 1996, but now I am saved, sanctified, fire-baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost."
But Waters said this Christmas will be especially hard. His son is at the D.C. jail and unable to have visitors because of the lockdown that followed several fatal stabbings.
Waters started to cry. "He is about to be sentenced," he said. "I don't know how long he is going to be in prison."
Like Andrea Morgan, Wanda Mason came to the party so that her child could perform in the karate demonstration. She is living in the House of Ruth, a shelter for women and homeless families, with her five children because their father has been in prison for four years.
"We didn't come here expecting to get something -- we came to give," Mason said. Deryck Mason, 11, said he enjoyed performing for several reasons. "It is building up my self-esteem because I didn't know that there were other kids like me."
While some families talked about loved ones behind bars, others declined. One grandmother said it has been so hard dealing with her daughter being locked up that she hasn't told her grandchildren the truth.
"When one child asked me what incarceration means, I said it means that her mother is in the hospital to get some help," she said.
Jeanette Harris, a gospel singer from Lanham, said she felt fortunate to sing at the party instead of being behind bars. "God delivered me from crack cocaine," she said. "So many kids are depressed during Christmas. So many feel abandoned. This was just an effort to let these children know that we care."
Andrea Morgan said she hasn't worked since her 15-month-old child was born with three kidneys and many other medical problems. But despite the family's hardship, 6-year-old Janae Morgan said she was happy to be able to give as well as receive at Christmas. "This means a lot to me because I am helping children and I am helping myself."