The inmate in the second row of chairs said it had been near fifty years since he last sang the verses to Matthew 11:28. His favorite uncle passed away when he was nine years old and the choir featured, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened.’ at the memorial. We were reading the verse at Pelican Bay State Prison chapel when the melody rose up in him, from a deep memory, and came out in spontaneous worship. I’m not doing justice to the event. His voice climbed to the very roof of our hearing as he shook in his chair.
The man, nearly seventy years old now, rarely spoke up in church, and couldn’t remember at time when he sang since he was a child. He played some piano when he was outside, but not since he began his latest sentence. His pitch was indeed angelic, the strength of his tone belied the frailty of his body, the sheer musicality of his testimony was a delightful surprise fit for a Hallmark movie. He finished almost as quickly as he started and was about to apologize for ‘interrupting’ the service when the men in attendance stood up to shout and clap.
People sometimes ask me why I “waste my time” doing prison ministry visits. They seem to feel, despite admonitions in the Gospel, that the best course of action regarding the incarcerated is to ignore them and hope they go away, or at least remain behind bars. The chapel at Pelican Bay, and I would wager most prisons, is a light in a dark place. The purpose of visiting is to equip the saints who live there. It falls into the category of two or more gathered together reveals the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, as was the case with the song burst, the mystery is taken out of the equation as there is little natural explanation for the empathy created, or the insights shared during service.
I wrote a book called Jesus Inside A Prison Minister’s Memoir and Training Manual. It has anecdotes, advice, and arguments in favor of joining, or creating, your local prison ministry. Few people wake up with the notion that today is the day to begin carrying the Gospel behind bars, but if you happen to be one of them, or you were moved to sing scripture from a deep canyon of despair, I encourage you to get a copy and test the waters stirring your soul. It’s also available as an E-book in case you thought that visiting the prison was some sort of old fashioned idea.