“Please place your IDs on the counter.”
The correctional officer was professional but impersonal, which didn’t allay my anxiety. We had just arrived, and already I was beginning to question whether this was a good idea. My band had been invited by a prison ministry to perform a concert and lead worship for their two Sunday services at an area
The slammer, the pokey, the big house – everyone has preconceived notions about prison. Mine were colored by grim, gritty movies like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. So I had more than a little trepidation. When my band checked in at the main building, staff carefully frisked us and inventoried our equipment and cords before ushering us through two security doors and into the inner courtyard.
The guard tower was a silent, steady reminder that this was no ordinary gig. We set up our drums, guitars, and keyboard on the chapel stage. Several convicts milled around us, all wearing powder blue shirts and jeans, and offered their assistance. They were friendly, helpful. They were just like you and me. Soon the well-worn pews of the chapel were filled to capacity. And at the first downbeat we were off. These men worshiped! They sang loud and clapped hard and raised their hands with heartfelt spontaneity. They overtly encouraged us to lead them. They responded with conviction and certainty and abandon. It was like they really believed the God of the universe was in this chapel with them. Because he was.
The second service that afternoon was filled to overflowing, mostly with new inmates who had heard about the morning session. And it was even more lively. “Off the hook!” our ministry leader, Greg, described it. “The best response I’ve ever seen.” The ninety-minute service ran an extra hour, and finally, after playing every song we had twice, I finally had to admit to the men that we had run out of prepared music.
“Sing ‘Amazing Grace’!” one of the men shouted. So we did. And it was. Amazing.
The response was nothing short of supernatural. Grown men falling to their knees and on their faces, crying and singing and coming forward for prayer. Thirty inmates came forward at the altar call, with others coming to meet them. It was extraordinary to see these men, tattooed and hardened by stories unspoken, completely unraveled by God, completely unashamed of their need for his mercy and forgiveness. In these holy moments, I had the privilege of experiencing these men stripped and released of the pretense of their false selves, giving themselves honestly and fully to God.
One thing became tangibly real to me that afternoon: these men knew about God’s grace in ways that I did not. And they didn’t take that grace for granted. In a very real way, it was all they had. For many of us grace is seemingly wrapped up in our busy, privileged lives and our egocentric, false pretensions. But behind concrete walls and barbed-wire fences, words like repentance, mercy, freedom, and truth took on deeper meanings. In my reflections later, it occurred to me that I’m not so different from the people behind those prison bars. I once was lost but now am found. My need for grace, for unraveling, for reconciliation, for God, is just the same. For true freedom can only be found in Christ. Only in Christ can we know the truth, and only in Christ can the truth set us truly free (John 8:32).