Monday, April 30, 2018

Prison volunteers: lightening the burden!


No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.

I discovered something very important back in the 70s, when I was leading a little rag-tag group of 13 singers in a new group called HIS MEN. It was important to stretch these white, middle-class businessmen, teachers and laborers. So I constantly pushed them into unfamiliar venues with their message of song: jails, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, and churches unlike theirs.

The results were predictable. Not only were listeners of these fine old gospel melodies blessed beyond compare, but the singers were touched even more! Their world was suddenly expanded. The ripple effect followed. They shared with others.

I’m reminded of all this while basking in warm feelings over a weekend experience at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. I attended the annual Volunteer Appreciation Celebration. I barely qualified to participate. Most volunteers are regulars, while I had merely gone into the prison to conduct a couple of workshops.

I was amazed at the number of people who go into Michigan prisons weekly to interact with inmates. Volunteers of many colors and persuasions. At the Muskegon CF event the warden thanked them, the chaplain thanked them, and prisoner after prisoner stood up representing his particular group to say thanks.

Over lunch, my friend John was quick to explain. The reason we are all so grateful is that this is our window to the outside. We can’t be out there, and so these wonderful people come in here. They’re busy people. They have their own families and their own churches. The reason you are hearing so many words of thanks is because these busy people GIVE OF THEMSELVES! Just to make a difference here!

The prison’s Activities Director presented a token gift to every volunteer. But HFP’s significant award came from two prisoners. John, who said to me: We can’t say enough about your work. For 17 years you’ve been helping us!  And an anonymous prisoner who made certain he shook my hand before he returned to his cell: You don’t know me, but when I heard your name I had to thank you. I’ve been in here over 30 years, and I’ve heard of the good things you do many times.

My dear friend and gospel singer par excellence Alma James Perry used to sing this old Mahalia Jackson song:

If I can help somebody, as I travel along
If I can help somebody, with a word or song
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain
No, my living shall not be in vain.

Amen.


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