Portraits From a Hong Kong Prison Cell: Postcards for Jimmy Lai This Christmas
Children young and old have joined a campaign to send letters of love and hope to an innocent man in China this winter — and we invite you to do the same.
A suffering Christ hangs from a cross, appearing thin and emaciated, sketched in black pencil, the only media available in a small jail cell inside Hong Kong’s Stanley Prison. Another image, with a bit of color, depicts Our Lord looking forlorn, wearing a crown of green thorns with red blood pouring from his hands, feet and his gouged side. The Blessed Mother, drawn in color, with golden-blonde hair and a silhouette of light radiating from her head, is portrayed with head bowed.
These images are a few of the portraits that Jimmy Lai has been creating from the inner confines of jail as he awaits a trial that many say has already been decided, his fate already sealed. A media mogul who could’ve easily found safe haven in distant shores stands for his people who live in a country that is set on silencing men and women who stand for truth. As Catholics, our hope remains alive that Jimmy will be set free and return home to his loving and caring family.
As Catholics across the globe have been following the gut-wrenching reality of what is occurring in China with the trumped-up charges against Jimmy Lai in the wake of China’s so-called national security law, what can we as Catholics do for those suffering so unjustly?
Lai, now spending his third Christmas alone in a cell, is being cheered up by schoolchildren.
Several schools have been sending him mail this Christmas.
“Postcards for Jimmy” is a campaign that April Ponnuru started alongside her colleagues at Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, an organization so dedicated “to the freedom of political prisoners being held in Hong Kong that it’s contagious,” Ponnuru noted in explaining this amazing project. “Jimmy’s story is particularly compelling for an American audience because he loves America — he has visited many times and shares so many of our values — and his Catholic faith is shared by millions of Americans.”
Corporal Work of Mercy
Participating Catholic schools are happy to spread some Christmas cheer. Dozens of middle-school students at the Basilica School of St. Mary in Alexandria, Virginia, sent the postcards, showing Lai’s sketch of Christ Crucified as the main image, are then put together by Ponnuru and addressed to Lai. The initiative is a way for students young and old to take part in the suffering of others and to understand the precious freedoms we so easily take for granted. Most importantly, as Ponnuru pointed out, sending these encouraging messages is a “wonderful opportunity to perform a corporal work of mercy. ... [and] also learn about the enormous sacrifices people are making even today to obey their consciences.”
St. Mary’s students, including Ponnuru’s own children, have been moved by the opportunity to take part in the project. Her daughter Betsy, age 12, reflected on Lai’s art, noting the friend one always has in Jesus. “It's incredible that Mr. Lai is able to use his suffering to create such beautiful art. I think when he draws Jesus on the cross, he remembers that Jesus suffered too, and he doesn't have to go through it alone." Betsy also took to heart a quote from one of her favorite saints, telling the Register, “St. Augustine said that singing is praying twice. I think Mr. Lai's art is also a prayer — a kind of meditation.” 10-year old Luke Schwartz also participated from St. Mary’s in Alexandria. He noted Lai’s courage, saying "Mr. Lai is a strong man for standing up for the people of Hong Kong. I’m happy I could do something to make him smile.” His older sister Ella, 12, understood how crucial prayer is during this difficult time when a man’s life is literally on the line. “Mr. Lai is inspirational just like his beautiful art. He’s fighting through a tough time, which means we all need to keep praying for his heart to stay strong.”
Even the youngest participate in the corporal work of mercy. Bubbly 3-year- olds at St. Luke’s Catholic preschool in the Garden State were quick to point out the crucifix in the classroom that matched the image on the card when I distributed the postcards during my daughter’s Christmas party last week. They were eager to discuss what their mommies and daddies did when each one came in with a boo-boo, as well as how being alone, especially on Christmas, would make someone feel. Each one intently picked up their favorite color crayon to draw a dog, a cat or hearts: empathy and compassion poured out from the youngest of hearts for a man living on the other side of the world.
Students in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grade classes at Perth Amboy Catholic School also participated, sending postcards just in time for Christmas. Karen Ninehan, who serves as a social studies teacher to middle-school children at the New Jersey school, was moved by the opportunity. After learning of the suppression of free speech and the treatment of Lai for working to operate Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s last free-press media enterprises, Ninehan said the kids all felt compelled to offer a message of hope ahead of Christmas. “The students were moved by Jimmy Lai's courage and faith,” Ninehan told the Register. “They were very happy to offer their prayers and support.”
The only school in New Jersey's Diocese of Metuchen, Angelina Ramirez, secretary for the school, told the Register students each took the postcards and their prayers for Jimmy to Adoration. "When the postcards were completed we placed them on the altar and prayed that our messages would be blessed and bring healing and joy. The children also brought this intention to Mass."
Lai has been drawing during his confinement, and the images seem to show a spiritual transformation through his ongoing suffering; and this project is intent upon making sure he doesn’t suffer alone.
“Jimmy has taken up religious art in prison as a form of prayer and meditation,” Ponnuru told the Register. And although it’s impossible to truly understand the isolation and emotion he is experiencing, sending postcards to Lai is a way to offer a ray of hope in a room where light isn’t even let in. “I can’t begin to comprehend the loneliness of solitary confinement — but I know that political prisoners often fear being forgotten,” Ponnuru said. “I like to think that when Jimmy receives these cards from his little brothers and sisters in the faith, he is consoled in his suffering and encouraged to carry on the fight. The children express their admiration and heartfelt messages of solidarity and share promises to pray for him. It’s quite moving.”
Given the recent headlines about Hong Kong protests, images of teens and young adults holding blank sheets of paper, a sign that their voices have been silenced, the Register is inviting all readers to take part in this program to send a card to our brother in Christ, who represents the atrocities that are being carried out by the Communist Party in China.
As Ponnuru pointed out, the project offers a real lesson to young people about true sacrifice and not compromising on conscience. “They can learn about the sacrifices people make around the world, and especially in China, to exercise the freedoms we often take for granted, such as freedom of religion” and understand the opportunity and need for real protest. “Many of them might not realize that people are being persecuted for their faith this very day. And they can start to understand why people all over the world take to the streets for their freedom.”
While we wait in joyful hope for the Christ Child, for innocence incarnate to be born into this lost world, the steadfast faith of Lai provides for us all an opportunity to come to terms with our own faith.
“Jimmy Lai is a testament to the power of faithfulness. He has done the right thing instead of the easy thing, and that has taken great courage and come at enormous personal cost,” Ponnuru explained. “Many will not understand his choice to suffer rather than bend to the will of those in power. But Christians especially appreciate that the lowliest places in the world can be the most important. In his humility, from his prison cell, Jimmy is testifying to the truth in an incredibly powerful way.”
As 12-year old Betsy Ponnuru said: "As Catholics, we are encouraged to visit the imprisoned. I like to think that we're visiting Mr. Lai through our postcards. We want him to know that he has a backup team praying for him."
Call to Action
If you would like to participate in this important project, please send an email to the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation at [email protected]; let them know how many postcards you would like to receive and your mailing address. Then just place the completed postcards in the pre-addressed, pre-paid envelope and mail back to us soon as possible. CFHK Foundation will ensure correct postage and mail the cards directly to Stanley Prison in Hong Kong.