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Steven Curtis Chapman: Inspiring Hope in Prisoners
Momentary Escape from Reality
Nothing Short of a Miracle
In 1999 I was ready to change the world. Fresh out of college, and having received my appointment to chaplaincy at the Women's Prison, my heart was full of hope, with dreams of making a difference in people's lives. I completed the Department of Corrections Academy next, (for my own safety and theirs) and determination to affect change filled my heart with hope. This is just one of a series of stories about prison that has to do with people, rather than crime.
I have always had unusual aspirations, and my family (except my Dad) thought I was crazy for the most part. My friends were no exception to that conclusion either. I was ok with it. I needed to do what I have always wanted to do....help people. Now my dream was being fulfilled in the most amazing way.
Adaptable, yes, that is the term that came to mind. After a 4 week stint in the Training Academy which included tactical defense training, I had to find my way in this brand new prison. You can't really get to know people unless you circulate. So circulate I did as we grew from 40 inmates to 400 in the first year.
I had a hard time settling in, once the office was put together, as I had grown accustomed to traveling around. I visited inmates, got to know the officers, and case managers, and the Majors, Lieutenants, Captains, Sergeants. I wanted to understand and navigate through this place with grace and mercy, where "justice" had already been meted out. The first year and a half went by so fast.
My friend, Tom Hall, was the area director for Prison Fellowship. We became friends through different community meetings, some volunteer projects and some training I did for their volunteers. He came to me one day, and said "Chaplain, do you think it might be possible to put together a choir that could sing at our annual banquet?
I caught the vision. It would be so amazing to actually have a group from prison where ministry is actually working, and people were making changes. Having established myself and hopefully gaining some trust, I decided to dream big. I told him I would ask the Warden.
When I called, he was available, which isn't all that normaI, so I walked the the couple of blocks to his office. really wasn't prepared for the answer. My Warden said "yes, but don't you let on what might happen or the whole thing wouldn't work".
He was right, I had seen it alot, when their is a privilege, everyone wants it, but no one really wants to work for it. He and I have worked together for four years prior, and he is a person I highly respect. The advice he gave was sound and I trusted his judgment being spared from several incidents he foresaw.
For the women a test of the heart and ther sincerity had to happen. We formed the choir, and some came and went, but it got down to a few dedicated ones. We started from there, and what happened? They loved it, and I am sure it felt good to give back, so they worked so hard everyone heard about it.
Shortly, they were begging to have more practice time it motivated them. I got a variety of CD's donated, and they learned them all. It was exciting to see a small project create so much motivation. It's what I live for, seeing people thrive in this tough place.
Against all odds, by April they were ready. We worked with Headquarters to evaluate who could and coudn't go, and we narrowed the list. Some didn't have enough time served yet to be trusted not to become a flight risk.
Others were doing life: 48 years sentences and they had never been to a parole board. I worked with Prison Fellowship on the logistics, separate entrances, the layout of the building we were going to, and the security staff to be selected.
The women had absolutely no idea until we told them they were going. They went back to their respective housing units and put on their best greens, and fixed each other's hair, then came to my office and I escorted them to intake to be searched. Then we waited until count cleared and boarded the van.
It was going to be a good night. I was pretty organized, schematics of the complete Marriott, phone numbers of everyone including the Warden distributed in case of emergency.
Our Major was assigned to be with us at the destination. Two officers and I rode in the van. We had a special entrance set up so the offenders did not mix with the general public.
The event went just like we planned. We were ushered to a room to await Steven, Chuck Colson and Dr. James Dobson were to speak to a smaller group prior to the main banquet. I had met Chuck and Dr. Dobson before, both at the Focus on the Family Headquarters. I found them both compassionate and compelled to changes lives.
Reading Chuck Colson's book Loving God and the stories of real lives changed and activated into service was monumental in choosing my life's direction. He had founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries on his own short experience as a prisoner in a Federal detention center.
I had significant conversations with them on behalf of the prisoners, at conferences and such, but putting Steven in the mix, sweetened the blessing. Now Steven is no stranger to prison mininstry, he has had many opportunites to go into some of the roughest.
He in fact wrote a song called "Free" that described one of these experiences, and that was similar to many of mine. He too, had a heart for the hurting, that's why I loved his music. When he stepped into the room, it was like a dream come true for me. I have been his fan since my early days of being a Christian.
I had seen him in concert before, but this was close and personal. He laughed and joked with the women like he had known them all their lives. He was personable, kind, and really took time to visit with these women. I also have a hunch that he was touched too! Steven Curtis Chapman sang, then shared about what a wonderful experience he had sharing with the women.
At the banquet, he sang a song about the high school shooting in Franklin, Tennesse. Little could Steven or any of us have known that just 7 days after this wonderful event, the Columbine High School massacre occured and 21 high school students would be killed.
As the we watched the horror of that event unfold, the song was brought back to mind.That song would take on a whole new significance to us because it offered comfort in the midst of chaos, something Steven's songs have done for me over the years I have listened to him.
I found myself wishing I would have had an opportunity to tell Steven personally how so much of what he had written had touched my heart. I am sure he has heard that at least a few times before.
As the exciting event drew to a close, We took pictures (all cleared through consent forms) and shared laughter. We then went back home to our reality (justified confinement). It was always a difficult transition to a place of perspective. It reminded me of Cinderella leaving the ball. For a moment, their uniforms, numbers, and sentence were in the background.
The people were generous in heart towards them. They even brought all their unconsumed desserts to the women because they knew that must have been a treat. It was a blessed transaction of caring, and a joy for me to share. In recent years,
Steven and his wife Mary Beth and their family have had their own share of pain recently through the loss of their daughter, and I wept for them and prayed. Beautiful songs were birthed out of that experience that touched my heart.
For a number of the women, this was a life changing event. I gathered them early the next morning to thank them for their contribution, and for their dedication. The choir was asked to sing many times after that, including a volunteer appreciation banquet.
What I will always remember most, though, was their faces as they each realized that in spite of what they had done, they were accepted and loved by God. That is all the reward I need!