—By David Ditto; Richard Fernandez contributing
The annual Christmas Banquet filled two San Quentin chapels with the holiday spirit for hundreds of incarcerated churchgoers and community volunteers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in prison,” said Eddie Olesiak, who attends church most weekends in the Protestant and Catholic chapels. “This feels like Christmas with family.”
The celebration was the first since 2019, before the pandemic struck.
“This is great to be back, I think I am more blessed than the men in blue,” said Mark Camella of Cornerstone Church, who has come to San Quentin to lead Bible study and prayer group and enjoy the holiday dinners for 15 years.
This year’s banquet was a Protestant and Catholic partnership, held in both chapels simultaneously. To accommodate so many congregants, church leaders expanded this year’s event to the two Saturdays before Christmas weekend.
In the Protestant Chapel alone, some 200 invitees flowed into the beautifully decorated sanctuary each day as the worship team musicians played and sang.
“Listen to the angels sing glory, glory, glory to the newborn King. Jesus, Jesus, wonderful child,” they sang from the stage adorned with red and white poinsettias, shiny garlands, golden stars and big red stockings.
Next to the stage stood a Christmas tree decked with bows and multi-colored lights and wrapped gifts underneath. “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” declared one of the bright banners on the walls.
“Welcome to the Garden Chapel Christian Fellowship annual Christmas Banquet,” announced chapel clerk Lee H. Smothers Jr. “On behalf of our chaplain, and in the name of God.”
Smothers opened in prayer, “Thank you, Lord, for giving us this day; we give you the praise, the glory, because every day is the season of Jesus.”
Incarcerated men in blue and guests from the outside community sat and talked side-by-side, filling every chair in the chapel.
As the music played, community volunteer Evangelist Paula Bates sang and addressed the congregation, “We are here not just for a piece of chicken, some coleslaw, and a biscuit. We are here for Jesus — the wonderful Prince of Peace — not just in December, but 365 days a year.”
Twenty-eight servers in blues with black gloves, bouffants and aprons loaded food and drinks onto trays in the lobby and brought them in to the seated guests. They served each diner a paper plate with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw and a biscuit.
“Merry Christmas to you …” sang the festive holiday music and the invited guests feasted as volunteers served every one. “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel. Born is the King of Israel …”
The volunteers who come in from the community for fellowship with the incarcerated in the SQ chapels throughout the year were the guests of honor. “Now we want to take a moment to honor our volunteers,” announced Smothers.
“Thank you, Pastor David, for the chicken dinner. Thank you, Ms. Diana Sackett, Pastor Tom Pham, Evangelist Paula Bates, Elder Bill Barnes, Mr. Chris Bailey and wife, Kimberly, Ivory Wright, Brother Donald Mack, Pastor Sam Herron, Tim Hartung, Sam and Karen Knapp.”
“In honor of your labor of love, the Garden Chapel at San Quentin presents to you a small token of our appreciation …,” read the certificates handed to each volunteer.
Diners began washing down the meal with lemon punch in plastic cups. Servers delivered desert on a paper plate: frosted white cake filled with lemon butter cream.
“This is the best thing I ever ate in prison,” said Olesiak, one guest who has been incarcerated five years.
He said he has spent time in juvenile hall and has been homeless, but hopes to live with his uncle in Texas when he paroles in May.
Olesiak said the fellowship in the SQ chapels made a difference in his life. He thanked the volunteers and the leaders for their compassion and for the Christmas cards.
“These San Quentin chapels are the real deal. In here it doesn’t feel like prison,” said Joseph Poggemeyer. “The people in here have brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. You can feel the love.”
Poggemeyer shared that when he was homeless he had to jump over a wall to dumpster-dive for KFC chicken. This day it was served to him hot on a plate.
“I’ll never forget what San Quentin does for us. I’m going to share this story and I’m not going to come back to prison,” he said. Poggemeyer said he has been “clean — off meth” for years and hopes to go to church with his dad when he gets out.
The music continued, “Oh, come let us adore Him … Christ the Lord …”
As the meal wound down, each guest received a red and green wristband with crosses that read “Keep Christ In Christmas.”
“Thank you to Pastor David, Father Manny and all the servers,” announced the chapel sound engineer Stephen Pascascio.
Then Smothers invited Sister Paula to give another blessing.
“Where are my worshipers? Wave your hand and give the Lord a halleluiah. Halleluiah, the highest praise,” she began.
Soon, the worship team musicians were back on stage and everyone was clapping to their rhythm of the “Ha-le-, Ha-le-, Ha-le-, Halleluiah,” with many singing and repeating the call.
“Why not give yourself a Christmas gift: a relationship with Jesus?” closed Evangelist Bates. “He might not get you a package, but he will make your life brand new. The greatest gift is that Jesus loves you. He is the reason for the season and for every day of our lives.