Have you ever been to church in prison before?

Old routines die hard.

As I cautiously made my way toward the prison chapel with the other, mostly seasoned volunteers, I found myself instinctively edging toward the right side of the yellow painted line running down the concrete walkways between buildings. Even though I was at the Polunksy Unit as a volunteer, I had this nagging feeling that at any moment I might be asked to surrender my ID so that one of the officers in gray could write me up for being “out of place.”

It was my first time to step foot inside a Texas correctional facility since my release from a similar unit more than nine years ago. Though I had visited a prison in Iowa last year, it felt different being inside the perimeter fence of this particular unit. As I began catching glimpses of men in white uniforms, visiting with their families at small tables outside the visitors reception area, mopping the floors, waiting in line for pill call, preparing for midday chow, I suddenly felt a queasy sense of familiarity–like I was stuck in the middle of a bad dream. Even after all these years, it felt like I had only just left this environment. Some of the faces I saw even reminded me of people I had done time with myself–people who had far longer sentences than I did and who, for all I knew, might very well have been assigned to this unit after I left the system.

I was halfway to the chapel before I realized that I was deliberately avoiding eye contact with the prisoners. It’s one of those rules the older guys teach you when you’re a first-timer landing at a new unit: Walk tall. Look tough. But don’t make eye contact unless you’re ready for a fight. Without really thinking about it, I had fallen back into the habit.

But once I let myself return their gazes, I saw something different in their eyes. They weren’t looking at me like a fresh piece of meat because, in their world, I represented something exotic–an outsider from the free world who had decided to spend his Saturday with them in a hot concrete gymnasium. They didn’t know where I came from or why I had come. But to them, I wasn’t just another nameless face in a sea of hundreds of white-garbed offenders doing time for God only knows what. I wasn’t a competitor or a threat. I wasn’t anybody’s homeboy, and no one needed to size me up to determine whether they could count on me in a fight. I was just there to visit, and to remind them that some people beyond the razor wire fences really do still care about them.

Some of the guys seemed to sense that I was nervous, and so they kept their distance out of respect. But most of them just came right up to me and shook my hand–black, white, Hispanic alike. Most of them just offered one or two words of greeting, but the smiles on their faces communicated far more. “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you,” they seemed to say. “But who cares? I’m just glad you’re here.

All at once, I knew I had come home. Not to my place of permanent residence, of course, but to the kind of place where I could truly sense the presence of Jesus Christ. Though my wife and children were many miles away, I sensed that I was still among family here, and it had been too long since I had paid a visit.

I was there with others from the Austin area as part of a group that comes every 5 or 6 weeks to assist with weekend chapel services at Victorious Living Church. This inmate-led ministry exists inside the Polunsky Unit by the grace of the unit’s warden, who acknowledges that its effect on the prison culture helps to keep in check much of the violence that once made Polunsky one of the most notoriously bad institutions in the state. It’s sustained by generous donations and frequent guest visits from churches across the state, but the real engine of ministry is the unmistakable movement of the Holy Spirit among the dozens of prisoners who form the chapel ministry team. Despite their uniforms, these are godly men who are sold out for Jesus, and they spend generously of their own limited resources to bless and encourage their brethren in white.

Like others who had come that day to visit, I was there primarily as a spectator. For two hours before the service, I spent time just chatting with members of the worship band and choir. Though there was a conspicuous absence of officers supervising the proceedings within the chapel, I felt as comfortable and safe talking to these men as I do with members of my own church. And when the general population prisoners began filing in for service, we had church like I’ve never experienced it before–before, during, or since my incarceration.

At the end of the service, when the volunteer pastor opened the floor for an altar call, I had the privilege of praying with and for some of the men in attendance who had private needs. But it wasn’t just the volunteers who were doing the praying. I watched many of these men pass us up in order to pray with members of the inmate ministry team.

Somehow, that felt right. It felt like I was a guest in someone else’s church–not some ramshackle chapel service at a correctional institution, but a bona fide congregation of true believers in a community with its own elders and pastors. As the service wound down and we prepared to leave, I couldn’t help reflecting on how the men had probably blessed me that day far more than I had blessed any of them.

And this is where so many of us in the church get it wrong when it comes to prison ministry. So often we think of this work in terms of bringing Jesus to the prisoners. But I’m increasingly convinced that we have it backwards.

Prison ministry isn’t about taking Jesus into the prisons. It’s about being the hands and feet of the Jesus who’s already there–with or without us.

Why I think LOU should win the Oscar for Best Animated Short

I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a movie awards junkie. My wife and I love watching the Oscars–red carpet pre-show and all. We spend the months leading up to the ceremony trying to make sure we catch as many of the nominees as possible. We trade bets on who the likely picks will be for each of the categories.

Not a lot of people pay much attention to the Best Animated Short category, but this year, I’m seriously rooting for Dave Mullins’ and Dana Murray’s delightful little picture LOU to take home the Oscar. You might or might not remember this one, since it screened right before Disney-Pixar’s surprisingly charming sequel CARS 3 last summer, but in case you missed it, here’s a plot summary (warning: spoilers ahead).

We see children enjoying recess out on a playground before being summoned inside by the school bell. Now vacated, the playground is littered with the remains of children’s abandoned playthings, and we watch as a mysterious creature surreptitiously sweeps across the yard, snatching up these objects and depositing them in the nearby “lost and found” box–which is conspicuously missing the letters “L-O-U.” (We quickly realize that the elusive creature is an amalgamation of the various things that children have left behind on the playground over time.)

When the children next come out for recess, we watch them play from the creature’s delighted perspective. Suddenly, a playground bully comes into focus, taking things from others and adding them to his “collection” in his backpack. This angers the creature, who attempts to seize the backpack from the bully after the bell rings once more and all the other kids return to class. After an entertaining game of cat and mouse, during which the creature and the bully vie for possession of the backpack full of ill-gotten toys, the creature catches a glimpse of the child’s initials written on a garment of clothing and remembers a forgotten toy with the same initials at the bottom of the lost and found box. This toy–a stuffed rabbit–originally belonged to this child, but the creature remembers watching it being taken from him when he was himself bullied some time earlier.

As the bully charges toward the lost and found box, the creature simply holds the stuffed rabbit up high, arresting the child in his steps. But the creature refuses to relinquish the cherished item, instead loading the child’s backpack up with things that have been lost by others and, at the next recess period, motioning for him to return them to their owners. The bully starts by returning the toys we watched him take from others earlier in the film, but that’s not enough for the creature. Over and over again, he reloads the child’s backpack with things that he didn’t necessarily take from others, but which nevertheless he is to have a part in restoring to their rightful place.

By the end of the film, the bully is positively delighted with the joy of giving back, and he eagerly returns to the lost and found box with an empty backpack, ready for his next assignment. But much to his dismay, there’s nothing left to return–and the creature is gone (because he was comprised of all the things that have now been restored). Looking into the bottom of the box, the child finds that all that remains is the stuffed bunny that was taken violently from him, and we watch as he takes the toy in hand and hugs it close to himself.

It’s a poignant moment, but my favorite part comes next, when the moment is interrupted as the child is struck by a wayward football–the same one he previously stole from the children who are playing with it. We see the face of the child who threw the ball, his uncertainty about how to respond registering clearly. Then, in a delightful twist, the child motions playfully for the bully to throw the ball back, clearly inviting him to join the game. The short ends as the child delightedly throws the ball back and rushes toward the other players.

It’s a gem of a film, five minutes of cinematic mastery that I think ought to be required viewing for returning citizens and for anyone who truly wants to understand what restorative justice is all about.

The creature’s initial response is the same as all of ours: retributive ire. Its instinct is to take from the bully in the same manner that he has just taken from others, and we inwardly cheer the creature on as he darts comically across the yard, trying to evade the bully. But once we realize that the bully is himself a victim, everything changes. Suddenly, this child isn’t the real problem in this story, for he’s caught just as helplessly as all of us in the cycle of brokenness and oppression that plagues our world.

Though we’re not prepared to dismiss the bully’s behavior, we now feel compassion for him–and perhaps a bit of shame over our previous glee regarding his comeuppance.

But notice that the creature doesn’t simply require the bully to make amends. Yes–that’s there, too. Offenders should restore that which they have taken from the community (to the extent meaningfully possible). Still, the real JOY of this film comes when the bully is given an opportunity to do something profligately generous–to restore things that he never had a part in undoing in the first place. And the film doesn’t end merely with a return to the status quo. It ends with a scene of profound “shalom–of a community that is better in the aftermath of how the creature chooses to deal with the offense than it was even before the offense occurred.

That, friends, is restorative justice in action. Let’s just hope the Academy honors LOU’s artistry with the accolade it richly deserves.

Going back to prison–to hear my own music

I never thought I would be so excited to be back in prison. But then again, I never imagined that I might someday be listening to the world premiere of one of my own musical compositions from within the walls of a state correctional facility in Iowa.

I’m writing today from a coffee shop in bucolic Iowa City, a bustling university community with a storied history of inspiring some of the greatest literary minds of our time–and for good reason. The atmosphere here is rich with intellectual rigor and cultural sophistication. It also happens to be the home of the University of Iowa, where Dr. Mary Cohen is Associate Professor of Music and something of a local celebrity for her role as founder and director of the Oakdale Community Choir. (Those who have followed my blog will remember me discussing Dr. Cohen’s work with this group in an earlier posting.) I was invited here on the University’s dime for one of the most peculiar ethnographic experiences of my life: to go behind the walls of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (aka Oakdale Prison) in nearby Coralville to hear the first-ever public performance of my unaccompanied choral piece titled “Life Within These Walls.”

Both the music and the text of this composition are my own:

Life within these walls:
Secret, dangerous game,
Death by institution.

Life within these walls:
Love, hope, compassion,
So far away,
Just a faint, luminous memory.

Stranger’s unseen grace:
Where the prisoner languishes
Dawns a new freedom.

Community mends broken hearts;
Souls move forward,
Dignity restored.

Stranger’s unseen grace:
Life within these walls.

Honestly, I’m still processing the experience of hearing those words come to life in the musicking of this ensemble. It would be impossible for me to articulate at this moment the paradigm-challenging events I witnessed in this three-hour encounter. So it’s too early for me to share my response. But I simply can’t wait to share these eloquently worded thoughts of one of the “inside singers”–a choir member presently serving sentence at Oakdale Prison–who introduced my composition on the program. As this man spoke these words, I knew God had used my music to touch the lives of these men and women in the choir.

This provocative banner is displayed on one of the walls of the Wesley Student Center in downtown Iowa City.

(NOTE: I’ve paraphrased my understanding of what this particular individual said in places demarcated by brackets, where the quality of the audio recording I used to transcribe this passage rendered his exact words unclear.)

The song is very meaningful and powerful to me. Everyone inside prison carries his own secret, dangerous experiences, which are the secret pain that a prisoner undergoes within these walls. And it doesn’t matter how different our experiences are. They all have a common denominator: fear. Fear for a future in the absence of love, hope, and compassion. “Death by institution,” as you will hear in the song, is a daring thing to say. But it is true. To me, it means disoriented and confused institutions that are struggling to find a remedy for the recovery of sons, fathers, grandfathers, and husbands from their society. Death is everywhere within these walls, filled with questions and expectations for a tomorrow that may not come for a prisoner. Will I have a fresh start? Will I be embraced […] when I re-enter society? Will I have a chance to build a future? These are questions that [trouble such souls]. But piercing the darkness are the unseen graces of the stranger, like what we are nurturing here as a choir. It’s proof of the beginning of new freedom. Love and compassion restore dignity to lost souls trying to heal where institutions fail. Life within these walls.

This was EXACTLY the message I hoped to convey in this text. And my hope–my prayer–is that anywhere “Life Within These Walls” may subsequently be performed, it will initiate fruitful conversations about the purpose for which we imprison the men and women of our society who are, as this man so aptly stated, more than the worst thing they have ever done.

An example of why a second chance isn’t enough

As I was perusing the headlines today, I stumbled across the inevitable sad story I knew would eventually come sometime after Obama’s unprecedented use of his clemency power. And it happened right in my own backyard. A San Antonio man whose life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction was commuted last year was arrested and jailed without bond for what appears to be his attempt to flee from another drug deal. In a nutshell: the man who petitioned for a second chance and, against all the odds, actually got one seems to have proven himself unworthy of it.

Or at least that’s how many will choose to interpret the facts.

I knew this story was coming because, while I applauded the former President’s efforts to repeal harshly punitive sentences and still support his commutations for all those drug offenders, I also recognized that simply letting the offenders go would never be enough. Second chances are, oh, so very important; and Obama’s commutations set an important precedent regarding the importance of assigning appropriate punishments in the first place. But second chances aren’t meaningful unless they come with the promise of rehabilitation. Simply opening the lifer’s prison doors one day and saying, “Okay, you’re free to go,” doesn’t repair the fragmented self-control of the addict or reform the lifestyle habits of the irresponsible. It doesn’t undo the years’ (or decades’) worth of institutionalized thought patterns that the offender has had to adopt in order to survive “on the inside.” It doesn’t rebuild a meaningful sense of self-esteem, nor can it create, ex nihilo, a new set of life circumstances for the returning offender–some wholly new platform from which he or she can leap to new heights previously unattainable.

A meaningful second chance is about so much more than just being set free. It’s about being equipped to move forward into a new future.

Understand what I mean here, though. I’m not excusing this offender’s behavior. As with the original offenses that lead to long prison sentences in the first place, recidivism is first and foremost a matter of individual responsibility. It’s a matter of making poor choices and suffering the consequences of those decisions. Nevertheless, those consequences have to do with more than just the offenders’ wellbeing, and as a society I hope we’re willing to own our share in the high calling of helping those who have been mercifully granted a second chance move forward in a way that honors the grace they have received.

In his letter of commutation to this offender, Obama wrote the following (emphases mine):

I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy…. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future.

Those are powerful words, except only one part of that statement actually rings true to me. When an addict recidivates, people say, “He had his shot. He blew it.” And the next time an addict appeals for a second chance, they say, “hand-1331323_640Heck no! Look what happened the last time we tried that!” Obama’s statement of “potential” for offenders to turn their lives around is factually accurate; but only with the power of the Holy Spirit and the enabling influence of godly men and women can those offenders realistically make the “good choices” that Obama desires for them.

That’s why I’m appealing to all of us in the church. When these ex-offenders return to our communities, we need to be the ones to stand in the gap and connect them with the resources that help them move forward. They need concrete help, not simply devotional platitudes. They need people who are willing to not merely give them a second chance, but who will help them make the most out of that second chance–people who recognize that restoration requires sacrificial investment in those who don’t deserve it.

Not all those whom we help will succeed in overcoming their struggles. But God help us if we’re found standing idly by as those struggling to make good on their second chances are left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. When I see a story like this in the news, my reaction is no longer, “I guess that proves he didn’t deserve a second chance.” Of course he didn’t. None of us ever do. And so my knowledge of that fact compels me to ask instead, “What can I do to prevent another story like this?”

Is incarceration cruel and unusual?

Some people assume that, because I’ve been locked up and know how dehumanizing our penal institutions can be, I’m one of the people who is vigorously opposed to incarceration…period. But actually, I’m not. I’ve written elsewhere about how our penal institutions don’t necessarily have to be the kinds of places that they are today to be effective. That is, they don’t have to amplify the misery of separation from loved ones with the misery of basically slum-like living conditions to do their job. But as a general rule, I wouldn’t say penal confinement and separation from the rest of the world is intrinsically “cruel and unusual.”

I hope I haven’t burst any restorative justice advocates’ bubbles with that statement.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that yesterday I published a rather forceful review of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th, which is about the idea that our present situation of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts people of color is, essentially, slavery redux. I agree with DuVernay, very strongly, because I’ve seen the inside of our jails and prisons, been subject to forced labor under harsh taskmasters in those institutions, and glimpsed something of the way the massive amount of security and other concerns that go into the maintenance of a prison facility fuel big business for others who don’t necessarily care whether inmates stay locked up for 3 months or 10 years. Or, heck, even if they’re guilty, so long as the beds are filled.

Part of the reason we imprison so many people is that we have this massive punitive machine that needs to be fed. To not use it is like having a really expensive (though really ugly) vehicle sitting in your garage that you’re making payments on but never actually driving. If we had fewer prisons, I dare say, perhaps we would be more open to exploring options that would reserve incarceration only for those especially heinous offenders who truly need to be separated for a period of time from the rest of the world. There are promising signs that we’re maybe starting to head in that direction. But I’m not holding my breath just yet for the era of mass incarceration to be over, especially when it looks like the prison-industrial complex is simply going to be replaced with the treatment-industrial complex, and we’ll keep criminalizing more and more of America.

One of the tchain_stretchedhings that DuVernay’s documentary got me thinking about is whether there’s something inherently cruel and unusual about imposing slavery as punishment for a crime. Did the 13th Amendment get it wrong? Did we authorize a form of punishment that we never should have?

Personally, I’m inclined to say no. We didn’t. We just took it in a very dark direction we never should have.

I think that the problem isn’t that we impose slavery as punishment, because that’s essentially what incarceration is–confinement, loss of freedom, limited movement, forced labor, stripped identity, involuntary servitude. If we hadn’t left that clause in the 13th Amendment, some litigious person would invariably have argued that the idea of imprisonment, even for a crime, is unconstitutional. And I, for one, see nothing wrong with incarceration per se, nor with forcing offenders to shoulder a portion of the taxpayers’ burden for their custody. For all my reservations about what institutional justice looks like right now–and it isn’t pretty–I’m not quite ready to say that the solution is to abolish prisons altogether. (What I do think, for the record, is that we need to reform our penal institutions to make them more humane, and we need to limit penal labor strictly to that which reduces the state’s costs without providing surplus revenue.)

One of the distinctions I’ve found helpful is to think in terms of since viewing DuVernay’s film is this: slavery that punishes vs. punishment that enslaves. Punitive confinement and penal labor are examples of the former. But what we have with our massive prison system and the criminal justice system that fuels it today is more like the latter. We impose incarceration on people, but then they become hopelessly trapped in a vicious cycle of punitive separation that exacerbates their criminal tendencies and fuels their wrath without any relief from bona fide rehabilitative efforts. Then we turn them loose on the streets with criminal records that follow them everywhere they go, impose all kinds of restrictions on the level and kinds of citizenship they’ll be allowed to enjoy again, and then invariably lock them back up when they turn once more to the criminal trajectories their punishment has done little or nothing to help them avoid a second time. Only this time we punish them even more harshly because they’re “repeat offenders.” Three strikes, and you’re out.

That’s punishment that enslaves, and it’s above and beyond what the 13th Amendment ever intended.

Bittersweet memories of a white mesh bag

There I am, enjoying my Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger at Wendy’s, when something catches my attention. Two 30-something Hispanic men have just walked in, one of them carrying a white mesh bag stuffed to capacity with personal belongings.

Instantly, I know this man has just gotten out of prison. I have two mesh bags just like his at home, bittersweet tokens of a time when all my most precious belongings fit into two cubic feet of locker space. My family was there to meet me across the street when I walked out lugging those bags at the Huntsville release unit. This man apparently tasted freedom by himself this morning, but at least he had someone waiting for him on the receiving end of his complimentary bus ride to the nearby Greyhound terminal.

The memories his belongings conjure are palpable.

His jersey shorts are commissary-issue, commisary bagmanufactured in one of the unit garment factories and available for purchase (if you were lucky enough to get there before they sold out) for those who wanted something other than their “tight whites” to sweat into during the sweltering Texas evenings with no air conditioning. (How ironic: the restaurant’s air conditioner isn’t working this afternoon. He’s probably the only one there who doesn’t notice.) His bright white tennis shoes tell me someone has been putting money on his books. Only “rich” offenders have the $25 it costs to buy those, and they’re highly prized on the rec yard as an alternative to the blistering work boots and laughably flimsy canvas slippers the state provides. I saw more than one fistfight escalate out of someone accidentally scuffing of a pair of shoes just like those.

For those unfamiliar with prison prices, $25 seems like an affordable price tag for a pair of athletic sneakers. And indeed, it is. Mercifully, prison “store” prices are kept low so that outsiders can help shoulder the cost of basic food and hygiene supplies for their loved ones without having to break the bank. Yet to the inmates who receive those goods, value is a very different thing. In Texas, at least, prison labor earns you nothing more than smart remarks from your custodians. In such an environment, there is no correspondence between hard work and standard of living; it’s all grace and unmerited generosity. And so dollars mean nothing. Here, the cost of goods and services is measured in terms of postage stamps and Ramen noodles. That pair of shoes is worth more than 50 precious letters home, or roughly three dozen in-cell meals with one’s companions (what we used to call “spreads”)–a veritable smorgasbord to those who just can’t stomach bland pork noodle casserole for the fourth time in the same week.

I watch as the man fumbles with the touchscreen on the Coke Freestyle machine, realizing he’s probably never seen a digital soda fountain before. I was bewildered, too, when my wife suggested renting a movie from something called a Redbox on the way home from Huntsville. He seems frustrated and embarrassed as he tries dispensing his drink. Still, at least this time he’ll get to enjoy it over ice.

I know absolutely nothing about this man, yet I feel a strange kinship with him.

Suddenly realizing that I’m staring, I abruptly return to my cheeseburger.

Interesting. The food tastes better than it did a few minutes ago.

Can choral music behind bars really reduce recidivism?

Can music-making have a transformative effect on inmates? According to a growing body of research, it seems the answer is a resounding yes, and I couldn’t possibly be more excited about it.

Recently, after stumbling across an intriguing Prison Fellowship profile on the subject, I reached out to Dr. Mary Cohen of the University of Iowa. Since 2009, Dr. Cohen has directed the Oakdale Community Choir, one of the coolest restorative justice initiatives I’ve ever heard about. This is not your typical community ensemble. It doesn’t perform in concert halls or church sanctuaries, and many of its members probably never imagined they would become serious musicians at all. The group rehearses and performs at the Oakdale Prison in Coralville, Iowa; and its five dozen or so members are comprised of “inside” singers–men currently serving sentences at Oakdale–and “outside” singers–community volunteers who come into the prison once weekly to work alongside these men. Together, they prepare a diverse body of repertoire for community concerts in the prison gym, often featuring inmates’ original songs. There’s much more to it than just music, though. Many of the singers participate in a writing program that Dr. Cohen developed to extend the limited interactions during rehearsal time throughout the week between rehearsals. As a result, the “inside” and “outside” singers are having an ongoing, thoughtful conversation all semester long, even as they’re making beautiful music together. (KCRG has a great news spot on the choir’s most recent concert, and microphonesDr. Cohen’s fascinating research on the group appears here and here, for those who would like to learn more.)

Dr. Cohen credits her decision to explore the transformative potential of music in prison to attending a public concert of the East Hill Singers, a men’s chorus comprised of minimum security offenders and community volunteers who perform outside the prison walls and help bring attention to the rehabilitative possibilities of the arts. During a recent conversation, Dr. Cohen brought my attention to a similar program involving music right in my own backyard at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center, sponsored by the Austin Classical Guitar Society. I simply had no idea that there were so many people already exploring serious rehabilitative opportunities for music and the arts behind bars like this.

We don’t have space here for me to talk about the many fascinating insights Dr. Cohen has gleaned from her work with the Oakdale Community Choir, but one thing is abundantly clear as your read the material in the links above. Music-making in community with outside volunteers is peculiarly powerful in tapping the best of inmates’ potential and inspiring them to become something better than what the prison system consigns them to be on their own. It’s not difficult for me to imagine why choral music, in particular, is so effective.

  • First, any music-making ensemble is an outlet for esteem-boosting hard work. Most of us know that a job well done can be a gratifying reward in itself, especially when the tangible product of that hard work is something as beautiful as a musical concert. This sense of having contributed to something meaningful is positive reinforcement for the inmate to discover outlets for his other gifts and talents as well.
  • Second, there’s something about vocal music that is peculiarly personal. Being a good trumpet player is one thing; being a good singer is something else. You can always upgrade your instrument, learn new techniques, and even change instruments to suit your preferences as a player. Not so with your voice. You’re stuck with whatever voice God gave you–be it a rich baritone or a squeaky tenor. Choral music trains even novice singers to fall in love with their voices and the voices of others. They feel better about who they are as they realize that God has gifted them with a beautiful “instrument,” and they learn to appreciate the uniqueness of others’ “instruments,” too. This must surely prepare them to recognize other gifts they bring to the table in their communities, even as it helps them appreciate how their gifts are different from others’.
  • Third, choral music emphasizes the power of working as an ensemble. The word “ensemble” means “together,” and it refers to a process whereby component parts are brought together in a product that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Ensemble participation means not only knowing your own part (and knowing it well), but also respecting the fact that your part may or may not be the most important thing going on in the score at a particular moment in time. Sometimes you have to back off. Other times you have to take the lead. Learning to sing from a choral score is particularly enlightening on this point, too, because unlike instrumental parts, a vocal score shows all four vocal parts together on the same page, often with a reduction of the instrumental accompaniment beneath. So vocal musicians are accustomed to seeing the “whole” picture of what’s going on–their own parts plus their peers’–which tends to promote the musicians’ interest not only in their own part, but in what others are doing around them. That’s a valuable life skill. Learning to know one’s place in society–when to take the lead and when to back off, what to spend more time practicing and what you can help others do better, seeing the big picture and appreciating how all the different parts weave together to make it happen–these are skills that choral music-making can teach in a peculiarly tangible way. I would be shocked to think that inmates who learn to sing together as well as the Oakdale singers do could walk away from that experience without a sense of balanced humility regarding their place in the world.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, choral music breaks down boundaries between musicians. There’s a world of difference between what it takes to produce good oboe timbre and what it takes to play the timpani well in an orchestra. They’re different skill sets, and they require differently trained musicians. Even vocalists who perform solo tend to have different timbres that are unique to them and which vocal coaches do well to cultivate in their students. But when it comes to singing in the choir, the goal is a unity of sound that has the effect of minimizing individuality in order to amplify community. You don’t want to hear individuals’ voices; you want to hear a chorus. That may seem obvious enough, but imagine the psychological ramifications. No voice is more or less important than the one next to it. You can have an operatic bass perfect for playing Rigoletto in the concert hall, but if you’re singing in the choir next to a novice baritone, you need to find the common ground between your voices so that you can match one another. Likewise, if you have a decent-but-not-great voice like me, you get the privilege of sharing parts–and credit–with others who have tremendous talent. That psychological boost must penetrate especially deeply for inmates who are joining their voices with those of community volunteers. They find that the “outside” singers are no more important than they are, and they’re no more important than any of them are. All are necessary, and all have a meaningful role to play. All have something to offer, and all have something to learn from one another. If that doesn’t help restore transformative dignity to the inmate’s life, I can’t imagine what else would.

For these reasons and many others, it seems abundantly obvious to me that music is a powerful restorative tool. I applaud the work of people like Dr. Cohen and her community volunteers for having the humble courage to venture behind bars for the sake of the least, the last, and the lost.

Fond memories of prison music-making

I have a degree in music from a prestigious undergraduate university. I don’t talk about it much these days because my life has definitely gone in a different direction since those years when I dedicated myself so diligently to studying voice, choral conducting, and musical composition in a conservatory-style setting. When I was performing as a bright-eyed undergrad with some of the state’s premiere ensembles, I never imagined that the most formative years of my musical life would come only shortly after I finished my music degree, when the sin in my life landed me in a state prison instead of a professional orchestra.

For about fourteen months, while I was assigned to a transfer facility in east Texas, I had the tremendous privilege of participating in the inmate chapel music team. I earned this opportunity, in part, by auditioning to sing with the choir. Ours was not a robed bunch of well-rehearsed individuals, though. We were just a half dozen grown men who happened to be able to carry a tune well enough to not sound awful together. And all of us were either too proud or too humble to care about singing church music in front of about ten dozen other men in a setting where even the slightest impression of being a “choir boy” could potentially get you in trouble.

It was in that context that I received a kind of musical training none of my college professors could offer. I could share any of a number of stories about our experiences as an ensemble–and perhaps I will in future posts–but this much has stuck with me ever since: we were a family behind the walls, united by a love for music and the discipline of learning from each other in a sort of hard-knocks conservatory.

Most of the music we performed was very different from–and considerably less sophisticated than–the art music I had been exposed to in college. At first, this was a source of misplaced pride, but I soon found myself desperately trying to “keep up” with my non-music-reading friends wPianoho had done plenty of session work with popular musicians but who lacked my classical training. I found myself begging for lessons from the guitarist who could improvise riffs in about a dozen different complex chord progressions on the spot. I envied my black chorister peers who seemed to just “get” the harmonies of the songs without having to be handed an octavo with their parts defined by the composer. In so many ways, I came to realize, these men were my superiors, despite their lack of formal training. Yet they welcomed and admired my ability to score the music they could only intuitively play. They sought my input in crafting new harmonies for the choir and respected my knowledge of proper vocal technique.

And so there, in the unlikely bonds of incarceration, a rag-tag group of musicians found spiritual kinship in the creative process of music-making–in its signature frustrations and unrivaled triumphs. We were never Grammy material, but we managed to work up a core of standards for worship services that our peers responded to, and we treasured our time together each week. I sometimes tell people that rehearsing with that group was every bit as demanding for me as working with the University Chorale was in college. But in spite of the amazing performance opportunities they afforded me, Chorale rehearsals always seemed like a chore, something keeping me from other things I would much rather be doing. My prison rehearsals, on the other hand, were something I looked forward to (most of the time). They lent meaning to an endless stream of hours in a miserable place.

It all came home for me one night about ten months into my participation with the group. We used to open the worship services each week for a local volunteer preacher who was a very well-trained gospel musician himself. We did a lot of the same songs from one week to the next because, in prison, rehearsal time comes at a premium. (We had many, many weeks’ rehearsals summarily cancelled for security reasons at the last minute.) One of our standards was the MercyMe favorite “I Can Only Imagine.” But we did it a little differently. Our version was a peculiar fusion of gospel soul and soft rock–a blend organically born of the diversity of musicians that were thrown together in that particular place at that particular time (not to mention the limitations of the built-in ‘beat box’ on our keyboard’s drum kit). One night, after we had finished our opening set, the pastor asked us to do “I Can Only Imagine” a second time. When we finished, he quietly told the inmates gathered together that night about how he had recently attended a concert where MercyMe was performing. He said that, as much as he enjoyed getting to hear them sing “I Can Only Imagine” in person, all he could think about was how much he looked forward to the next time he got to hear us sing it.

That made us feel like human beings. For a moment in time, we were musicians before we were inmates. Suddenly I realized how in all my formal training I had missed the grand point that, at its best, music-making isn’t about impressive sounds and wowing audiences. It’s about working together in community to make an impact on others. It’s about being part of something bigger than ourselves, getting caught up in the thrill of making something beautiful and then sharing that gift with others.

That’s why I’m convinced that music-making behind bars is a source of tremendous power for restorative justice–for helping broken people discover a sense of worth in community. I’m telling this story to set the stage for a more focused discussion of something I recently learned about. It seems that a growing number of creative thinkers are discovering the transformative potential of music-making in prison and are channeling their efforts into programs that offer inmates a meaningful opportunity to collaborate with community volunteers in the production of beautiful works of art. I want to talk about one of those efforts that I’ve come to know about in recent months, but that will have to be a subject for a new post.

Stay tuned.

Why the prerogative of mercy is the stumbling block of God’s justice

I’m part of a weekly community Bible study program, and this year we’re making our way through Matthew’s gospel. It’s fascinating to read familiar stories about Jesus and see them through new eyes. The other night, we came to one of my favorite of Jesus’ parables, where Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a master who hires workers to tend his vineyard at different times of day. When it’s time to pay the workers their wages, he starts with those who were hired late in the afternoon and pays them the same as those who were hired first thing in the morning. In other words, everyone gets the same pay, regardless of how many hours they spent toiling in the sun for the master.

The workers who were hired first get excited, thinking they’re actually going to get more money than they bargained for. But when they receive exactly the same as thscissors-1168640_960_720e others, their objection is palpable. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day,” they complain. Nevertheless, the master insists he has done them no wrong. They agreed to work for a day’s wages, and that’s what they were paid. He has dealt justly with them and kept his promise.

Yet all of us intuitively sympathize with those workers. The situation may be just, but it’s still not fair.

It all really comes down to what the master says in verse 15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” The implicit answer to such a rhetorical question is “Yes.” It’s his money; let him do with it as he pleases. Right?

Though this silences the workers’ objection, it doesn’t make their resentment go away. That’s because the real substance of their objection is that, at least this time, they’re not the most abundant beneficiaries of the master’s generosity. They saw others treated with generosity, while they got only what they earned and no more. In a sense, they got the lowest hourly wage, and as they compare that to the value they brought to the master in terms of actual labor, they feel insulted and cheated. At the beginning of the day theirs was the happiest lot, because they had a chance to work while others did not. But now here at the end of the day their lot is quite unhappy because they’ve been shown that the work they’ve done is apparently no more valuable to the master than the work others did for him late in the day.

But that’s not what the master says. He simply reminds them that his money is his to give away as he sees fit. He only contracted to pay the workers hired later in the day “whatever is right” (verse 4). That means it was left to the master’s prerogative to decide “whatever is right” for the workers to earn, and in this case, he ensured that no worker he had employed would go home that night unable to provide bread for his family the next day.

But let’s get honest with ourselves. We don’t really like this aspect of God’s sovereignty. Sure, we like to accept God’s unmerited blessings because we’re the ones getting all the goods. But when it comes to watching others get something they didn’t earn–when they seem to get it easier in life than we “hardworking” believers do–we resent Him for his grace.

One of the things that this parable reminds us is that retributive justice–that part of our nature that demands tit for tat, as it were–has to do with more than just “an eye for an eye” in punishment. It has has to do with the doling out of rewards according to merit. Just as we get upset when a serious offense is punished with a mere “slap of the wrist,” we don’t like it when someone gets more of a good thing than they’ve actually earned. We desperately want there to be a one-to-one correspondence between our merits and our rewards, between our offenses and our punishments.

But that’s not the way God runs things. He’s sovereign over the good things we desire, and He’s a generous God. And one of the good things that falls under the purview of a sovereign is the prerogative of mercy. Indeed, this is intrinsic to God’s basic goodness, as He explains to Moses:

“I will make my goodness pass before and will proclaim before you my name, ‘The LORD’ [lit. YHWH]. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

It’s essentially the indicative form of the master’s question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

When God elected not to destroy the evil city Nineveh after the people repented in response to Jonah’s teaching, the prophet complained bitterly–a sobering reminder that even the most servant-hearted of us resent this aspect of God’s character. Jonah knew enough of God’s character to understand that preaching repentance would open an opportunity for God to deal mercifully with the wicked–to offer an opportunity for restoration where Jonah preferred to see swift and utterly destructive retribution meted out instead. Jonah didn’t like that, and so he didn’t want to be an instrument in the hands of a God with the prerogative of mercy.

So the other night, as my Bible study group pondered the meaning of this parable, I found myself getting fired up. I felt convicted, recognizing how much of a Christian truism we’ve made this aspect of God’s grace. We preach God’s love and forgiveness, but when it’s our turn to show mercy on those who don’t deserve it, we falter. When we have an opportunity to “make others equal” through our generosity, we protest, “It’s not fair.” Despite the extravagant measures God endured in Christ to make us equals in His grace, we cling to our own prerogatives of retribution, caring not that in so doing we betray the inbreaking Kingdom whose upside-down principles ought to rule our hearts as we anticipate its consumption at the Master’s return.

It’s not fair. It’s most definitely not fair. But that’s what grace is: it’s not fair. And if it weren’t for grace, none of us would have a chance to enter the Master’s vineyard.

I don’t want to be a Jonah. Maybe it’s because I’ve been convicted of a horrible crime and experienced the unsavory side of just desserts that I’m fired up over this parable tonight. But I hope it’s a fire I never lose–and I hope it’s a fire that spreads to others. If someone like me can be made worthy to share the Kingdom, then I dare not protest the Master’s prerogative to welcome in others who don’t deserve to be there any more than I do.

What would it be like to raise a newborn in prison?

I can’t believe it’s been a year since my last post on this site. But what a year it’s been! My family and I have relocated to our first home in the country, and now instead of paying rent we’re earning equity on a mortgage. Instead of working an hourly schedule at the brick plant, I’ve become a salaried supervisor of one of the busiest departments in our facility, forcing me to work seemingly interminable hours most weeks. Somewhere in the mix, I’ve managed to keep my writing career on life support, and I’ve even begun publishing some original musical compositions, like this little piano solo, which I composed for my son only a few months before I last posted on this site.

Busy? You bet. But the most amazing development in my life has been the recent birth of my daughter Nora. Holding her has been like reliving the ecstasy of Henry’s first days, when he seemed so impossibly small and helpless. What’s different this time is perhaps more telling than what’s the same, though. So many of the fears that plagued me when we were waiting for Henry to come have evaporated with Nora. I no longer worry that I’ll “break” her by holding her the wrong way. I don’t fret unnecessarily every single time she cries, because I’ve seen how well Henry turned out even when we were unable to tend to his every cry as an infant. Though the finances of raising two kids has forced us to rethink a lot of our lifestyle choices, I’ve also found that many of those concerns evaporate in the face of the parental instinct to just do what has to be done for the wellbeing of the children.

The trick is maintaining the right perspective in the process. It’s so easy to get to the end of a day, having changed countless diapers and wrestled a jealous (and biting) toddler time and again while simultaneously trying to wash the dishes or pay bills, then finally getting the kids bathed and in bed before collapsing exhausted, aware that in a mere six hours it will be time to start the whole routine over again. In such times, it can be all too easy for me to forget about the many blessings of being able to raise our children together in the comfort of our quiet little home in the woods.

I read this feature in The Atlantic today, however, and it has me seriously rethinking my attitude. It paraphrases the history and challenges of children born to incarcerated parents while in custody, and it’s at once both a heartwarming and heartbreaking story. On the one hand, I’m encouraged by the tales of people like Alyssa Mayer, for whom the opportunity to raise a newborn in prison have stimulated a real desire to be transformed. “Nothing has made me want to change before,” Mayer says. “Kids make you want to change.” I can certainly empathize with that sentiment. I remember thinking many times as I’ve looked into Henry’s and Nora’s eyes that it’s not fair that they have only me to look up to as a model for the kind of love their heavenly Father has for them. When in my frustration over chasing Henry to his room for a time out after he’s bitten his nursing mother for failing to pay attention to his umpteenth request for attention, I know that my discipline is not nearly as graceful as my Father’s has been for me. I can only hope to grow in my role as he’s growing in his.

Initially, my wife and I aimed to be back home with Nora as soon as possible, attempting to break the family routine as little as possible. But Nora’s brief stint in the NICU, coupled with my wife’s recovery from a C-section, made a four-day stay at the hospital necessary–not to mention a week away from the office for me. In retrospect, I’m glad we were consigned to that little room together, navigating the difficulties of bonding in our first days under those circumstances. My parents kept Henry at home, because he was too young to be admitted to the NICU, and so there were three days when our whole little world was just me, my wife, and baby Nora. I’m confident that our initial bonding with Nora would not have been so special had we immediately been plunged into the chaos of life with two children sooner. We were probably both a little naïve about just how difficult it would be to raise a newborn with a toddler.

Photo by Puri Devjee

Photo by Puri Devjee

I guess that’s why I can sympathize with the observation of one of the prison nursery directors about the bonding process that takes place between incarcerated mothers and their newborn children in that environment: “They can connect with their babies here. If they were on the outside, they’d be doing everything but that.” For all of its miserable qualities, prison does have one redeeming characteristic: in insulating inmates from the world, prison can offer some reprieve for those whose outside lives would be more chaotic than their “inside” lives are at present. Concerns over preparing dinner? Gone in prison, as are the concerns over paying bills, holding down a job, and jealous siblings. It’s not that even the most doctored-up prison nursery could compete for the comfort of life at home with a new mother, but it just might be that spending the first six months of life in the controlled environment of prison with the undivided attention of an incarcerated mother is preferable to the home lives that many of these children would face in foster care or with relatives in unstable life circumstances of their own.

My wife and I practice a modest form of attachment parenting, so I definitely agree that the bond formed between a child and a parent by this close attention to one another in the first year of life makes a tremendous difference. I have little difficulty imagining that this is in the best interest of both the parent and child, allowing them to endure the separation the state often requires after 12-18 months. A relationship is formed, an offender is transformed, and a child who might otherwise become a hopeless case of collateral damage has a better shot at leading a well-adjusted life.

I know it’s not that simple. The article well represents the challenges from the other side, and I’m sympathetic to many of them, too. But others can trumpet those in other forums. What I find myself thinking about most after reading this article is the fathers who are displaced from their children by an incarcerated mother–to say nothing of incarcerated fathers whose children are born during their first year away from home. I met many such men in my time behind bars–men who were at the intake facility “stressing” to death over their pregnant wives and girlfriends who would have to deliver alone, lamenting the first moments of their children’s lives that they would never know.

Children do make you want to change. I guess my hope is that what many states have begun with prison nursery programs will continue toward discovering creative opportunities for BOTH parents to connect with their newborn children in spite of their incarceration. It just might save more than one life.