In my early days of Sunday school, I remember hearing about Paul and Silas, who were singing and praising the Lord in prison.
Prison was a far-fetched concept. The closest thing we knew to prison was the jail in Mayberry or the one in Dodge City, where Marshal Matt Dillon locked up bad guys.
As I grew older, I had an appreciation for Paul and Silas, who didn’t let prison slow their love for God.
Move forward about 45 years.
On a Sunday morning at First Baptist Church in Gainesville, 25 women wearing choir robes were in the choir loft of the sanctuary. That part is not unusual. What was unusual was the presence of four armed correctional officers who kept a watchful eye on the choir.
These are prisoners. Many of them are serving life sentences for crimes such as murder and kidnapping. They are incarcerated at the Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto. They call their choir the Voices of Hope.
While the shackles of prison keep them away from society, they have a spiritual freedom that some folks can only hope for. They sing with passion and there is something about them that makes you know it is for real.
A woman who is serving a life sentence for murder sang a song called “Drug Me.” It speaks of a mama who “drug” her child to church and Sunday school: “You don’t have to sniff it through your nose and, you know, you don’t have to shoot it in your veins. And I’m glad that mama and daddy drug me.”
I don’t know all their stories, but dependency on drugs is one of the major contributing factors to criminal activity. The song was an ironic twist on words.
A woman with an acoustic guitar pushed up the sleeves of her choir robe and played that guitar with gusto. She then sang a song about getting a new name.
It starts out talking about knowing the names of regret and defeat and ushering them away for a new name.
“Hello my name is child of the one true King,” she belts into the microphone while strumming hard on the guitar.
Some of them have been behind bars for more than 15 years for a sentence of life. Parole is a possibility, but not a guarantee.
To take another person’s life is a serious offense and calls for punishment. But these women have truly found joy in their faith and are using music as a means of sharing it.
Underneath the flowing choir robes are prison uniforms. The congregation could only go to the edge of the platform to speak their thank yous. The choir filled a room of more than 1,000 people with smiles and were given several standing ovations.
What’s really interesting is, that for security reasons, they didn’t know where they were going until they arrived. I am told they didn’t know there was a planned trip until they were awakened Sunday morning.
You have to hope their spiritual awakening will represent a change in their lives that will help them if and when they get to walk out the front door of the prison.
The Voices of Hope is spreading its hope to many and I think it’s good therapy for them and those who hear them.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.