“My parents drugged me … to church.”
Darlene Middleton sang those words with power and emotion Sunday morning to a packed audience including Georgia’s governor at Antioch Baptist Church in Gainesville. The congregation responded with applause and “Amens!”
To the average eye, Middleton and the other singers appeared to be just another choir clad in their robes. But this 26-member choir is composed of convicted felons from Arrendale State Prison in Alto.
However, that fact did not make a difference to the men and women listening to their heavenly praises Sunday.
“Jesus loves the backslider,” said Rodney A. Lackey Sr. , pastor of Antioch Baptist Church off Mill Street in Gainesville. “God frees you and forgives you. He won’t hold it over your head.”
Lackey also said just because the choir is based in a prison does not mean its members cannot share their faith in God with others.
Arrendale State Prison Warden Kathy Seabolt agreed.
“You can see people are moved by what they are doing,” she said after the choir’s performance. “Seeing them working for the Lord is amazing, and I get a personal blessing for it.”
Susan Bishop, the prison’s clinical chaplain and musical director, said the choir gives prisoners a positive outlet.
“It gives the inmates a chance to use their God-given talents and not sit and be idle,” she said. “It also teaches them discipline, accountability, responsibility and teamwork. They are working for a goal greater than themselves.”
For new choir member Tamela Harvey, being part of the choir is a positive motivator.
“It gives me motivation to go home,” the 16-year prison inmate said. “I just wanted to walk in the truth and I’m excited of where I will go.”
Rookie choir member Rhonda Vining auditioned for the singing group because she needed a change. The 40-year-old has been in prison for 19 years and has been at Arrendale since it opened in 2005.
“We have bad circumstances,” she said. “But we can do positive things.”
Harvey and Vining admitted being outside of the prison for the first time in almost two decades has its advantages.
“Just to see something different and not seeing the same thing is good,” Vining said, with a smile.
But Vining and Harvey said they were nervous during their first concert.
“I was nervous and excited at the same time,” the 39-year-old Harvey said.
Middleton knows what it feels like to be nervous. The veteran choir member said she “bombed out” during her first solo.
“Then Chaplain Bishop picked a song that I could get my drama on,” the 47-year-old said. “She picked ‘The drug me’ song. I’m confident with it now.”
Middleton is so comfortable with the song she feels free to leave the choir loft and venture into the audience.
“I feel free because I can walk around with the mic and touch people,” she said.
Not only can Middleton literally touch the people she sings to, she can touch people through her other ministries inside prison. Middleton, who is serving a life sentence, teaches a Bible study and is a member of the praise dance group. She is also a mentor.
She attributes part of her success to joining the choir two years ago.
“I used to fight a lot, and I was a neglectful person,” Middleton said, adding she started to make a change.
The 15-year prisoner then joined the choir and she discovered something tangible that she was missing.
“There is unity in the choir,” she said. “Living in prison, there is a lot of disunity. Being a positive life (now) does something in me. It reminds me of where I used to be.”
Bishop said choir members learn to see past their mistakes.
“We are all so much more than the worst we’ve done,” the prison chaplain said. “They are someone’s mother, sister and daughter. One of the joys is finding their gifts and bringing out the better part.”
Bishop added choir members can use music to transport themselves elsewhere.
“Music is an escape without going anywhere,” she said.
“I didn’t say I liked prison, but it’s better,” she said. “God loves me despite all of the mistakes I’ve made.”