“Please place your IDs on the counter.” The correctional officer was professional but pleasant, though it didn’t allay my anxiety. Standing in the check-in area at an area medium-security prison, I was preparing to lead worship for two services with my band.
Steve, one third of the Manuel Luz Trio, had convinced me and Matt, the other third of ML3, to join him on this trip. Joining us was Paul, an accomplished guitarist, and Karl, my favorite sound man (and everyone should have one!). We were under the umbrella of Inside Out, a ministry loosely affiliated with my church. Inside Out has taken more than a dozen trips to different men’s and women’s facilities in northern California over the past three years. Some parolees have even sought out and attended our church after their release.
Everyone has preconceived notions about prison. Mine are colored by movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Walk the Line, and even The Birdman of Alcatraz. Misconceptions aside, my Dad was a correctional officer at Soledad Prison (the first Filipino in the state of California), and I have childhood memories of my Mom informing us that Dad wouldn’t be home today, because there was another lock down. I remember the pained look on her face, the volumes she spoke in her silence. Our visit is coincidentally in the shadow of the fortieth anniversary of Johnny Cash’s famous concert at Folsom Prison, which is just down the road from our church, and I felt a little irony in that serendipity.
They inventoried our equipment and cords before ushering us through two security doors, and into the inner courtyard. The guard tower was a silent, steady reminder that this was not any ordinary gig. Soon, we were setting up our drums, guitars, and keyboard in the chapel. Several convicts milled around us, all wearing powder blue shirts and jeans, and offered their assistance. They were friendly, helpful. They were just like you and me.
Soon, the chapel, which could seat about 150 people, filled. And at the first downbeat, we were off. These men worshiped! They sang loud and clapped often and raised their hands with heartfelt spontaneity. They overtly encouraged us to lead them. They responded with conviction and certainty and abandon.
It was like they really believed the God of the universe was in this chapel with them. Because He was.
One of the inmates there was the apparent leader of their prison worship band, and had played professionally. We met him at our first break, learned one of his songs, jammed with him a bit. Playing through a cheap Fender Strat Squier and an ancient Shure Vocal Master speaker, but he could really play. I sensed his excitement that he had some people who could hang with him musically for a change, and we welcomed him into our next set.
The second service that afternoon was filled mostly with new inmates who had heard about the morning session. And it was even more lively. “Off the hook!,” our leader Greg described it. “The best response I’ve ever seen.” The 90 minute service ran an extra hour, and finally one of the prison pastors gave an altar call. Thirty inmates came forward. It was extraordinary to see these men completely unashamed of their need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
One truth became tangibly real to me that afternoon. These men knew about God’s grace in ways that I did not. And they didn’t take that grace for granted. In a sense, it was all they had. Our grace is seemingly wrapped up in our busy, privileged egocentric lives. Freedom becomes a sedative, masking our need for God. Behind concrete walls and barbed wire fences, words like repentance and mercy and transformation take on deeper meanings.
And in my reflections later, I had a weird thought. I wished that we had a greater sense of amazing grace. I wished that we weren’t so wrapped up in our properness in worship, our love of busyness, the distractions of our luxuries. I wished we would use the freedoms we have to choose to raise our hands and sing and pray and serve and love God with the abandon of one who was lost and then was found.
It has been a week now since then. And I wish it still.