I'd sung at the prison before and it'd always been a special and humbling experience. But it's amazing how quickly my attitude can change....because it doesn't start out that way. Making my way through strict security, being reminded of the many, many restrictions and warnings, pinning a bright yellow visitor badge to my fancy black dress...and then walking into the dingy little room they use as a chapel to await the arrival of 50-60 women, all dressed in their matching UDC scrubs-like uniforms. Women from all walks of life...but with one major thing in common...this being that they had all made some sort of choice to do something that had been bad enough to land themselves in prison with their freedoms taken away for a time. You can't help but wonder...."What did they do??" These were non-violent prisoners, of course. I wasn't worried about my safety in the slightest. But it's always a little awkward at first and I'm always a little scared to make eye contact. I don't know if THEY are feeling awkward and worried about superior and judgmental attitudes. I don't want THEM to feel awkward, even if I'M feeling that way, strange as that seems.
But a few songs into the concert and somehow the stiffness loosens and starts slipping away. The women are not anywhere close to models of perfect concert etiquette. Comments hollered out between songs, pointing, whispering, getting up in the middle of a song to move seats...this is not abnormal here. But it is obvious that they LOVE having us and LOVE hearing us. That they are enjoying themselves, they make abundantly clear. And pretty soon they aren't a bunch of prisoners. They are a down-on-their-luck audience that my heart hurts for. They are friends.
After we were done singing all of the songs we had prepared, we surprised them with the news that we were now coming down to join them in the audience and sing Christmas carols WITH them. They were delighted and shifted around on their rows to make room for us...so badly did they seem to want to hang out and talk with someone from the outside world. We took requests and sang just about every Christmas song in the hymn book. Believe it or not, there was even a request for "America the Beautiful." Many of these women, surprisingly, are still patriotic and loyal to the country that has imprisoned them!
I was sitting next to a young girl who, when we began singing "Joy to the World," started crying. She told me that this was her first Christmas here in prison and that she missed her family, her children, so badly. This specific Christmas song reminded her of them, she said. And so though I was specifically told NOT to hug the inmates unless they initiated it, I couldn't help myself....I wrapped my arm around her and kept it there throughout the whole song while I sang and she cried. Oh, how my heart swelled for this girl! The consequences were hers, for doing whatever it was that had landed her there in that facility...but at that moment all I could think of was what my mom always used to tell me: "Bad things can happen to good people." Good people get caught up in bad things. Satan is tricky, darn him....and he sets devilish traps. Temptations, addictions, plain old bad choices. I don't know this girl, have no idea what kind of person she truly is. But at that moment, all I wanted to do was hug her sadness away...even if for just a moment.
They didn't want us to go. They begged for one last song. "O Holy Night" was the song of choice and they were trying to get our director, Sally, to sing it solo. She begged off...for many reasons, one being the excuse of no music for that particular song. But the ladies had an ace up their sleeves...because in fact, they DID have the music for "O Holy Night" in a book near the piano. A little desperately, Sally volunteered Katie, Melissa, Linda, Georgia and myself to sing it. We agreed, and after scrambling a bit on whether we knew the words well enough, the piano started and we began to sing. I felt Katie grab my hand and realized that all 5 of us were holding hands in a row. With strength in song and spirit we sang in unison, as one voice blending perfectly....and we sang that song with all the emotion in our hearts. I've NEVER sung that song so well. I was blown away at how we sounded and how it was received. The Spirit was so strong, there weren't many dry eyes in the room. We sat down, a very touching and humble closing prayer was offered...and I cried and cried.
After talking to, shaking hands with or hugging almost every inmate as they made their way out, I talked to Georgia, Linda, Katie and Melissa...each one of us expressing the same thought: "What WAS that???" None of us could satisfactorily explain what we had just done other than to give the credit to Heavenly Father.
It's not a night I will soon forget.
Some pictures of my "singing sisters" at our concert Friday night at Waterford Concert Hall...
Melissa, Georgia, Linda, Katie and Sarah (me)
(Katie and Melissa are my actual sisters...)
Carolyn (my sis-in-law), Linda, Katie, Georgia, Melissa, and Sarah (me)