November 8, 2015
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #408: Kairos Concert
Today was one of my better days in prison for sure. I’d been preparing for this day for a while, and though it is no small relief to have it over with, the journey was nearly as exciting as the day itself.
Ever since Kairos ministries let me know that their next four-day weekend would take place in November, I tried my best to get on the servers list, hoping to help facilitate the incredibly moving weekend retreat for a new group of thirty inmates.
Again, it looked as if the outside Kairos volunteers chose me to serve, but again staff at the prison made the decisions instead, and I wasn’t chosen. However, I was asked to make sure the choir would be ready to perform on the last day.
For the previous two Kairos weekends, our community choir got to entertain the large group of support team members who arrive an hour before the closing program. I knew expectations would be high, but I was up against a wall. Due to normal attrition, extra transfers, and guys going home, my small ensemble had dwindled down to just one other choir member besides our outside volunteer, Peggy, and me.
I like a good challenge, and Peggy was all for doing whatever was needed to make the Kairos concert a success. With just weeks to go, and the final choir guys disappearing, I recruited a handful of guys who were willing to put in significant time and effort to prepare for the concert. The biggest challenge? All but one of the new guys had never sung in one of my choirs, and that guy was in the church choir I led several years ago, a far cry for the very demanding, precise, and concert-style pieces we attempt in the Community Choir. Making the situation even more interesting was the fact that only one of the other guys had any prior singing experience. However, as long as the participants are willing to give it their best, I’m always willing to try to bring each one to his best. The results I leave to God, since the greatest result possible is to bring Him glory.
As this weekend approached, Peggy once again proved why she is an absolute gift of God for our music program here, as she took extra time off work to practice with us. Having a female voice to work with makes all the difference for guys who would otherwise never get the privilege of being in a true mixed-voice choir. For this Kairos concert, we really put her to work carrying the bulk of the song lineup with her high soprano.
This morning we all prayed together, though our Community Choir is from various church backgrounds and belief systems. The single unifying factor is that we at least want to do something positive with our lives, and most of the guys concur that our lives belong to God. I am quite brutal on the guys in practices, but I make clear to the choir members that my attention to detail and constant push for perfection ends the moment we step up to those microphones. At that point, we are done. I take them as far up the mountain as I can, then the concert is the zip-line to the bottom, an exhilarating rush that I don’t want tainted with unfair expectations. My only expectations are that God will use us to bless those who listen.
The concert went better than I could have imagined. As the 40+ outside guests arrived, I suddenly noticed a familiar face walking in, that of a man who had a profound impact on my life, Bill Whealy. Sidelined due to emergency surgeries on his throat, he’d been in a lengthy recovery process that kept him from being able to come to the prison for quite some time. I abandoned the keyboard and choir and ran up to him, nearly bowling over his giant frame in my eagerness. I got a huge hug as he tried to stop my tears. So many prayers for his health over this past year found their answers today in his hug. This former Green Beret is still a fighter, for sure.
We got through most of the songs we’d prepared by the time all the thirty Kairos men came in with the thirty inmates they’d spent the weekend with. Joining the support team of wives and others who had prayed for, prepared food for, and baked 40,000 cookies to give out at the prison, they heard the tail-end of one song, then invited us to perform another, then another. I felt bad that we were cutting into the closing ceremony time, but the outside volunteers were caught up in what turned into a very moving time of worship.
Over a hundred people sat there in the chow hall in front of us, grouped at the six-man stainless-steel tables under old ceiling tiles. Several security staff members stood at the back, some appearing to enjoy the music. But the real joy for me was to look out into the small crowd and see men and woman worshiping God with us, some with smiles, some with tears, and all with the joy of the Lord on their faces.
Afterward, several of the men I’ve come to know these past two years introduced me to their better halves, godly women who support from beyond the walls as their husbands come in to bless us. One lady gave me the nicest compliments about my piano playing before revealing that she is a church pianist herself. I felt so loved. Many of the volunteers know my entire prison story, so the unconditional love is even more appreciated.
Performing for any group, for any occasion, is a privilege in itself, since such opportunities rarely present themselves here. (There are no “coffee shops” to perform at, no shopping malls, and no churches.) But our Kairos friends? Singing for them reminds you that you’re actually just singing for your family.