February 14, 2020
Friday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #483: Dysfunction Junction
In all my time in prison I have rarely felt so clearly the hand of God at work in the circumstances and situations. With so much resistance in my own heart and mind about moving to this prison—for education reasons and health reasons primarily—God worked through your prayers to let me experience a supernatural peace and assurance that I am exactly where He wants me to be, for His glory. Besides Saul, God needs me here because of the church on this yard and their dysfunctional worship team (their own title, not mine).
At each of the seven prisons I have been at, the word gets out that I can play piano, and never from my own mouth. There’s always been someone—and usually several someones—who tell the church leaders, the chaplain, the choir members, the worship team, and any bands that have formed—that they should use me.
This typically has a negative impact, because prison church leaders like to exert a high level of control over their congregations, and those in ministry typically aren’t that interested in either giving up their hard-earned positions or in training someone to take their place, unless they know they are leaving soon. This opinion of mine comes from observing ministries in English and Spanish and on multiple yards, meaning I’ve personally observed eighteen congregations and their leadership (and participated in some way in each) in prison, plus listened to story after story from brothers who have been at other prisons. I thus try to be clear that I am not seeking to play piano for the services, but I’m willing to serve in the church in whatever capacity they need me. This prison was no different, and I just began attending services.
The first indicator that a need exists in the music area was the fact that the congregational singing times are 1) always led by one of the elders and 2) accompanied by CD. Yes, it is as terrible of an experience as you can easily imagine. Close friends of mine whom I’ve known for six years and ten years respectively have both recently led worship here before being transferred, and I heard from them that the leadership isn’t very supportive of worship leaders or worship teams. Of course, I took this as a fun challenge, since I love helping leadership.
In the past nine months, I’d joined the Spanish church at Golden State MCCF and played piano for their two weekly services. A friend of mine put countless hours into making a Spanish songbook for the church, which greatly helped the worship team to be organized and efficient. In just the month before I left, God used me to share humbly with both the pastor and assistant pastor who were at odds with each other. Averting a church split, both men individually followed my counsel (given to me by a pastor friend as counsel for a situation I was facing!) and humbled themselves in front of the whole church, asking for forgiveness. It was such a joy to see God at work!
While the situation was dramatic, the leadership issues weren’t by any account unique, yet the guys involved in leadership rarely seem to possess the skillsets and character necessary to navigate such turbulence. Therefore, it is to this behind-the-scenes ministry of support that I find my deepest calling in this place.
After observing a few contentious worship team practices, I met with the church elders to let them know what I felt led to do. I told the elders that I would like to wash the feet of the worship team and encourage them in ways that they can be others-minded and supportive of the leadership. At each practice, worship team members would speak disparagingly about the elders, even questioning their authority to tell the worship team that they couldn’t lead in worship yet.
The leadership liked the idea of me washing the feet of the worship team, saying it was something that perhaps the elders themselves should do. They told me they blessed my efforts to help, but warned me that the group had been together for three months already with no progress. In a recent meeting with the elders to ask if they could begin leading worship, the guys on the worship team couldn’t even make it through the meeting without arguing with each other. I said I was looking forward to what God would do with the group.
At the practice the next morning, I brought foot-washing supplies and chocolate candy I’d just received in my quarterly package. The guys all said “no, thank you” to the foot-washing idea, and I eventually abandoned my request altogether. However, they were all receptive to my ideas of how to move forward as a group.
For one thing, we aren’t calling ourselves a “worship team,” since we aren’t even authorized to be one. We decided upon “praise group” instead (I know, I know … but semantics are important here, as it indicates submission to the leadership).
While the elders had originally told the … praise group … to operate without a leader, thinking it would be better, I immediately put the lead singer, Eddy, in charge of most basic decisions such as song selection and individual instrument volume levels, and I set basic ground rules such as no critiquing each other’s voice or instrument, since none of them know what they are talking about anyway. I also told them that there would no longer be any negative talk about the elders behind their backs. Scripture tells us how to address issues. Follow it.
The guys thanked me, and we all prayed together before sharing the chocolate. There is still contention, but I see a path forward. There are practical challenges, too, such as the fact that only one out of the five guys can match a pitch vocally, a somewhat necessary skill when participating in a praise group. Of course, the lone pitch-hearer was taught the melodies of the songs by two of the guys who are tone-deaf, making me wish several times per practice session that I was tone-deaf as well, so that I could enjoy the songs as much as they do.
Thank you for praying as we make joyful noises to the Lord. He is worthy!