LONDON — The setting may not be uplifting, but the Christmas sermon certainly will be, for inmates at Rochester prison, near London.
Earlier this month a chaplain at the facility, Salvation Army Col. Margaret Hay, won Britain's "Preacher of the Year" contest, edging out some 500 competitors including Anglican parsons, rabbis, and Roman Catholic priests.
Colonel Hay is the first woman ever to win the prestigious award, offered annually by the London Times newspaper. Hay, who also counsels asylum seekers at a detainee center in Kent, says "listening to people" is "fundamental."
"That is why the work I do in prisons is so amazing. I'm talking to people one-to-one, and I find listening, prayer, and preaching all come together."
Hay adds, "A preacher doesn't have to tell everything. Many say too much. If a preacher is too free off the lip, too glib, or too long, it won't work."
Of her success, she says modestly, "It just goes to show that God does use the foolish and weak to do His work."
Before coming to Britain in 1996 with her husband, fellow Salvation Army officer Col. Laurence Hay, Margaret Hay did lengthy stints as a teacher in Zambia and Hong Kong.
Hay says her preaching is "part of a long Salvation Army tradition," and sees "nothing unusual" about a woman being a successful preacher.
The religious and charitable movement to which she belongs, founded in 1865, has a long tradition of giving men and women equal access to the pulpit, and to power. "Catherine Booth, our co-founder, [along with William Booth] was a profound thinker. In her later years she was also a passionate preacher," Hay notes.
"In fact," she says, "passion as well as hard study are essential to a good sermon."
Hay, a native of Auckland, New Zealand, says her work as a prison chaplain provided much of the impetus for her winning sermon. She preached on the text from Isaiah, 9:02: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light."
Hay says she often reminds those she counsels that "the light of God shines on all people, even in the depths of their distress."
She describes what she often finds when she "knocks on the cell door, squints through the hatch into the darkness" and talks to prisoners, as well as to asylum-seekers waiting for their cases to be heard. "Frequently I encounter despair, but I try to bring hope." Picking up on the text of her sermon, she comments: "Just as sounds reverberate in prison wings, so the prophet's words resonate in my head.
"Isaiah declared, 'For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.' " (Isaiah 9:04)
Hay has strong views on Britain's treatment of asylum-seekers, some of whom can be detained for months awaiting a government judgment.
"We should be more welcoming to these people," she says. "Britain has a tradition of helping refugees. We stand to benefit hugely from the skills that many of these unfortunates can bring to the country." She accepts that her views have "a strong political dimension.
"Even if the argument from self-interest isn't heeded, there is what the Bible has to say. It tells us that the image of God is in every person, and anything that defaces that image or oppresses people is wrong."
Hay intends to use her 1,000 prize (about $1,500) for charitable assistance to asylum-seekers and refugees.
Her husband, Col. Laurence Hay, says he first heard his wife preach "way back in 1961 in New Zealand.
"She spoke about freedom, and what she had to say was so eloquent it almost knocked me sideways," he says.
In her competition sermon, Margaret Hay gave listeners a taste of that eloquence, telling them, "My work is with people with dreams, experiences, anxieties, and great questions. Outside prison it might be hard to talk about these things, but inside it's normal.
"The Word speaks with power to us seekers and sinners. The intensity of the divine presence is unmistakable as the Spirit intercedes for God's beloved, bent world."
Hay says a preacher must have a clear view about the purpose of a sermon: "The aim is transformation - and it is God doing it, not the preacher.
"The Bible is a book of great power and beauty. One must let its words speak, explaining what they meant when they were first uttered, and pointing to what they mean today.
"In my sermon I decided to use Isaiah as my text because I wanted to make it clear that the light of God shines upon all of us, inside and outside prison."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society