May 9, 2015
Saturday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #382: Drama with a Side of Concert
For the past several months, I’ve worked with my band and the choir to prepare Christian songs to perform. We were asked to entertain the Kairos guys’ wives and other support staff who come in to the prison for the fourth day closing ceremony. Since they arrive nearly an hour before the ceremony begins, we were given the opportunity to bless them with music and worship before the Kairos participants and their outside volunteer hosts joined for the closing ceremony.
Because other bands monopolize the prison’s equipment, I was not able to practice with anything other than a keyboard and an acoustic guitar for months. Several weeks ago, I asked for practice time in the main music room and was told (by inmates) that they were busy with the equipment every day, preparing for a yard concert that hasn’t been approved by staff yet.
They finally agreed to let my band practice one session prior to our Kairos concert, then they got staff members to deny our requests to use the equipment for the concert. I was told that we couldn’t use it because we were playing for a “Christian event.” Never mind the fact that my job at the prison is as a music tutor, and that the concert is for more than sixty outside guests who consistently benefit the prison through seminars, Bible Studies, and over 40,000 homemade cookies brought in last weekend alone.
As stunned as I was by the denial, I didn’t complain. I’ve learned that sometimes, there isn’t much I can do about a situation. I figured we’d have to make do with less.
Gratefully, our incredible volunteer, Sister Peggy, wasn’t content with the denial to use the prison’s equipment. She made a list of everything we’d need: bass and electric guitars, amplifier, microphones, cables, stands, and even music stands. Then, she rented the entire assortment for a week and came into the prison four full days leading up to the concert date so that we could all practice together.
That wasn’t the end of my roadblocks, however. My electric guitar player, Raul, decided the day before the concert that he didn’t want to play with us. Though we play all styles of music including many original pieces, the slower “churchy” stuff we were performing for the mostly-retiree crowd wasn’t his thing. Pulling out last-minute left me with limited options, I explained to him.
Raul has twenty-three years of prison left, and I was trying to give him the opportunity to use his musical abilities for God again. The last time he’d done something similar was when I led worship at another prison in California five years ago. He was on my worship team, and I used to let him take over the worship services on lead guitar every so often. I didn’t have time to be devastated at his decision. I was determined to not let the guests’ experience be diminished, so I recruited another electric guitarist.
Then, my drummer, Joel, couldn’t keep his personality in check long enough to survive the concert. That is, he so aggravated the other musicians in both the band and choir that four guys told me separately that, due to Joel’s controlling nature, they were quitting. I had to let Joel go, and I’ve now met with him on the side to help him learn to be gracious.
A former cellie of mine, Luis, who has played drums for me in three prison’s worship teams, filled in nicely, and we cobbled together something that sounded acceptable. We set up all the equipment in the prison’s chow hall, the closest thing to playing in a restaurant I’ve done in years. As the guests finally arrived, we launched into our song set as they followed along on programs I’d printed. We only got through six songs with the majority of the guests there before the weekend inmate participants arrived with their sponsors, and our “filler” portion of the event came to a close.
The music was warmly and enthusiastically received by everyone, but I’m not sure why. I always wonder, when I play for non-prisoners, if the music is appreciated for its content and actual musicality or just because outsiders are shocked that prisoners can do anything substantive and artistic. All the same, it was a privilege to bless so many who bless us, as was evident by many tears.
The closing program is simple. Each of the thirty participants stands and introduces himself to the audience, then an opportunity is given to any who wish to say a few words about their time at the Kairos Four-Day Event that weekend. How powerful to hear from lives that were impacted, touched, and changed, with two who surrendered their lives to God for the very first time.
To close out the ceremony, I’d been asked to share a five-minute speech on Kairos’ impact upon my own life. I spoke from my heart about how I’ve been challenged to “Make a Friend, Be a Friend, Win a Friend for Christ.” Then, I spoke about my recent initiatives to reach guys who didn’t make the cut to attend the special weekend. I also said I was planning “a mass tunnel escape where 30 of us will sneak out of here, show up at one of your churches, and feed you prison food for four days in retaliation for all the food you’ve served us.” Everyone loved it.
I closed with a tearful tribute to a guy who befriended me at my four-day weekend, Bill Whealy. Recovering from surgery, Bill couldn’t make it this past weekend, so I challenged the inmates to step up like others did, who ministered in his place, and be a light once the guests leave.
Thank you for praying for me!