In which I celebrate an angel

One of my favorite ornaments on my Christmas tree isn’t the showiest. You may easily overlook the small, white crocheted angel, but the story behind it gives me pause every time I choose a branch to display it. And I remember the story of how Wiley made it.

Wiley Dobbs learned to crochet on death row in Georgia. My pastor, Joyce Hollyday, explained that when prison officials confiscated inmates’ hooks and banned them from ordering thread, he made a crochet hook from a wire and unraveled cotton towels for thread. Each angel’s perfectly shaped round head, delicate dress, and pair of wings reflect Wiley’s care and intention.

Soon after Wiley joined our congregation, the Circle of Mercy, I remember our small round altar table covered with little white angels. Wiley gifted each family with an angel. A reminder that he prayed for each of us as we also prayed for him every week.

When our church established a sister church partnership with a small congregation in Cuba, a group of us took some of Wiley’s angels with us as presents. Kiran, our leader and translator, interpreted my words as I pulled out an angel to share with a pastor we met on our drive across the island. I teared up trying to explain the angel’s significance: a symbol of peace and beauty, made by a Black man unfairly incarcerated for most of his life. I trust the message got across as the pastor gently kissed the angel and thanked us with a smile and a tear in his eye.

Over the years, Wiley’s other artwork graced our home. Ever resourceful, he taught himself to paint, using the back side of cereal boxes as the canvas, fashioning paintbrushes from broom bristles, and collecting remnants of paint from the prison’s painting detail. Shortly after I separated from a long marriage, Joyce gifted me with one of Wiley’s sunsets. The bright yellow, orange, and red sky set off by a dark rail fence reminded me of hope, possibility, and, as Joyce often described Wiley, “making a way out of no way.”

Writing to Wiley always brought a prompt response, and usually a handmade card. My younger daughter began writing Wiley when she learned more about him in her Sunday school class. She loved receiving mail, and for a while she was one of Wiley’s most faithful correspondents. More pictures arrived—this time a series of beautiful gray and blue waterfalls, which graced her bedroom wall for many years.

I imagine that creating artwork on death row challenged Wiley’s creativity. How he thought to paint a beautiful sunset or a majestic waterfall when he probably hadn’t seen one in real life for many years amazes me. And knowing he sacrificed a new towel to crochet his angels to give away breaks me wide open. Wiley’s angel continues to bless me and our family’s Christmas tree every year. Each year I am reminded of the prisoner-turned-artist, who continues to model his best self behind bars.

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