The most impressive gospel stories I know these days come from people who spend time in prisons. Go figure. I’m a little surprised too. But sit with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for awhile who advocates for prisoners in Durham, NC, or my friend Richard Beck and my son Josh who teach in the prison in Abilene, TX and you will hear stories that simultaneously inspire you and break your hearts.
My latest prison stories, though, come from Claire Davidson Frederick who leads an amazing project in the Tennessee Prison for Women. Claire has worked in the music industry in Nashville. She is a singer/songwriter with a powerful voice. But she’s also a good theologian, currently completing her MDiv from the Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb University.
Bringing these two interests together, she currently leads a Collaborative Redemptive Songwriting Workshop in the Tennessee Prison for Women. She and other songwriters (she had to recruit others given the response to the workshop) teach the women about what makes a good song, lyrically. So, they are invited to write lyrics and bring them back to the workshop where musicians help put their words to music. The project has been remarkably successful. They recently performed the songs that have been written in the prison, which was an amazing experience for all involved.
My friend, Richard Beck, talks about the importance of singing in finding courage for difficult times. Civil rights activists sang for hours before they marched, knowing that on the other side of the church walls, dogs and fire hoses and beatings awaited them. Paul and Silas sang in prison. My favorite scene in The Shawshank Redemption is when Andy Dufresne pipes a Mozart aria through the prison loud speakers, allowing for just a moment an experience of soaring freedom. You get the idea.
More, however, poetry is a subversive language. Walter Brueggemann suggests that control is maintained through prose, where even love letters sound like memos. But poetry evokes something different. It suggests possibility and hope that the settled world given to us by the principalities and powers is not the only world available to us.
Imagine the power of women prisoners bringing their experience to poetic expression and put to music. Imagine the way this would empower them in a situation that suggests they have none. Imagine the experience of community and belonging that would come through collaborating together, to bring something beautiful out of something so difficult. Imagine the experience of freedom for these singing captives.
I am thrilled that Claire has agreed to come to Streaming, Oct 8-10, to tell these women’s stories and to perform their songs. Her presentation will be called, “Songs of New Creation from the Tennessee Prison for Women.” You will want to be there.
I recall bringing Harding University’s Good News Singers to the Women’s Prison in Gatesville TX in the mid-90’s. They were an 8 member group, 4 men/4 women…and I watched with awe as the mixed group, then separately–the men and women, sang of joy, hope, forgiveness, acceptance, and Presence–entities not often experienced in those surroundings. I watched the women sigh, and cry, and shout and sing as their hearts were penetrated and surrounded with the voice of the soul. Ministry in this arena is powerful; music in that setting is freeing and empowering. This unique opportunity enabled by Claire is an added dimension of ministry that will have eternal effects on the lives of many who come in contact with their crafted songs from the heart. Thanks for sharing this great story.