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Chorale ministers to incarcerated persons

What happened when the Taylor Chorale entered a maximum security prison?

By Elizabeth Carrier | Contributor

I’ve watched the musical “Chicago” once or twice, so I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of what prison was like. On Dec. 6, I found out that I was very wrong.

Unlike the movie “Chicago,” there were not any scantily clad women or inmates dancing behind bars, but there was singing.

The Taylor University Chorale was given a list of guidelines to prepare ourselves for our performance at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Phones were to be left on the bus. All metal jewelry left at home (save for small studs for earrings). And we were supposed to wear bras without underwires if possible.

When we first arrived, we filed off the bus and into the waiting room. All 54 members of the Taylor Chorale, as well as our director JoAnn Rediger and accompanist Sheila Todd, were in full concert attire. We waited in line to be put through the first phase of security.

Very much like in TSA security, we removed coats and shoes to be scanned separately. Then we showed our IDs and had our hands stamped with an invisible ink. From here there were two metal detectors, one body scan and a pat down.

Next the group was released incrementally to take a short walk outside to where we’d be singing. The clouds were pink against a blue sky making a contrasting background for the mile-high fences and tangles of barbed wire.

Chorale members Elizabeth Carrier and Madeline Logan pose in Rupp recently. (Photograph provided by Elizabeth Carrier)

Chorale members Elizabeth Carrier and Madeline Logan pose in Rupp recently. (Photograph provided by Elizabeth Carrier)

A lot of us students couldn’t help but be apprehensive. Words like “nervous” and “uncomfortable” were thrown around as we waited. None of us wanted to be judgmental, but our understanding of maximum security was that the separation was for our safety as a society. What happens when you step through those walls?

“They’ve already been judged, that’s not our job here.” Warden Dushan Zatecky reminded us. Freshman Chorale student Lauren Smith emphasized that “the only difference between us and them (the inmates) is circumstance.” But it wasn’t until we met the birdhouse builders that we were all able to fall completely away from judgement and into love.

Two men in jump suits introduced themselves to us. One had a large beard and ponytail and the other glasses and a hat. They told us that they made bird and butterfly houses at the prison. There was so much obvious joy as they talked about their time in the wood shop at Pendleton.

Then they pulled out a box that was full of handmade prayer crosses for every single member of the Chorale. Everyone in the circle was taken aback in emotion. Here were two men who don’t even have their own freedom but insisted on giving us a gift.

When the singing started, over 80 offenders listened intently, their eyes either wide with excitement or shut in concentration.

Between songs, members of the Chorale would step forward and recite Bible verses or English translation of the foreign language pieces. The men would murmur in agreement as the holy word was read. Not once did a speaker finish without the offenders jumping in with a chorus of “amen”s.

College student and inmate alike sang Christmas carols together in the sing along portion of the concert. Tears were in the eyes of half the audience and performers by the time we finished the concert. Everyone began to mingle for just a few brief moments.

At least four men introduced themselves as members of the Pendleton Choir. One proudly showed us a stack of sheet music that he was excited to get working on.

“God bless you”s and “See you next year”s were exchanged.

These men were brimming with more of God’s spirit and love than anyone I had seen in a long time. Including when I look in the mirror.

I thought when Taylor Chorale went to Pendleton Prison that we would be there to give. I never expected that I would’ve walked away with the most beautiful prayer cross in my pocket. But even better than that, the “offenders” of Pendleton Prison taught me what unity with God’s children is despite the most different possible circumstances.

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