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February 29, 2016

Reaching out and reaching in

by Vicky Thomas, R&S Chair for Music in Worship

The article in a recent Choral Journal about starting a prison choir encouraged me to share the following about our choir’s experience with prison ministry. While this kind of outreach may not be feasible or appropriate for every church or community choir, getting out of our usual performance venues and into venues under-served by music….whether prison, hospital, community center or daycare….can yield rich rewards for both singer and audience.

Seattle First Baptist Sanctuary Choir does a yearly concert focusing on a social justice issue. This year, we decided to focus on incarceration and those in prison. Conductor Chris Vincent had taken the Market Street Singers of Seattle several times to sing a Christmas program at Echo Glen Children’s Center and recommended the experience. Echo Glen is a medium/maximum security facility in Washington for youthful male and female offenders. We asked the staff coordinator if a program of church music in March would be something to which the youth could relate. She was encouraging, so we began the detailed process of security clearance and preparation.

Even the experience of obtaining security clearances opened us to feelings of vulnerability. Former names, legal infractions, and ages had to be revealed. What is it like to walk into a locked facility? One can’t bring ANYTHING in, one can be searched. Many of us had trouble even leaving purses and ID behind in cars. Inside, things ran on their own time. There were only six youth there when we were supposed to start our concert. (Thankfully 30 more came later.) We ended up singing only half of our planned set.

But none of this mattered because, through our singing, we connected with the youth. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the freedom and justice “messages pieces” with texts by Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela that reached them. Personal songs like Create In Me a Clean Heart, O God and Precious Lord, Take My Hand were more effective. A participatory Nigerian drum piece, Fanga, opened the concert. When the planned program order had to be chucked, Fanga was what the youth wanted to sing again with us as a closer.

Toward the end of the program, I asked if anyone would like to sing for us. Shyly, about six youth came forward. One asked if we knew Hallelujah. When she sang a few bars, we recognized the Leonard Cohen song. Our wonderful accompanist, Michelle Horsley, was game to comp chords and we hummed along with the chorus, backing up the hoodied, shaking soloist. It broke all our hearts to hear a verse that could well have been biographical:

Well maybe there's a God above, but all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who'd out drew ya.
And it's not a cry that you hear at night,
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.
– Leonard Cohen

At the final chorus, all the youth and our choir were singing “Hallelujah” together. A connection had been made and our choir felt we had been the ones ministered to. Not a broken Hallelujah, at least right then, after all. – Vicky Thomas