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The Power of Redemption thru Gospel Music — Healing Inside The SQ Gates


The Power of Redemption thru Gospel Music — Healing Inside The SQ Gates

May 23, 2019
By: Jeff Benson

The Power of Redemption thru Gospel Music — Healing Inside The SQ Gates

Thank you OIGC Family for the gift of Black Gospel music! 

I felt compelled to write a brief note after participating in the “Bread & Roses” event at San Quentin this past weekend Sunday, May 19, 2019. Many of us left there with so many mixed emotions. Joy, sorrow, pain, confusion, hurt.

That evening, we heard it loud and clear from the moment the incarcerated opened their mouths — the clap of their hands and tap of their feet, the light of our music ministry brightening their eyes.

We often take for granted the sounds we hear everyday — makes one wonder what collective sound they had running through their heads and are forced to pay attention to while locked away — ours sometimes a baby crying, the sound of an alarm, laughter, or something as beautiful as a bird chirping in the calm of the SF Bay Area winds.

Many of those individuals behind bars I’m sure grew up in broken homes, placed behind ‘redlines’ from government manufactured housing projects on street blocks modeled after ‘cellblocks’ of low income housing, Bay View, Hunters Point, East/West Oakland, battling the government manufactured “War on Drugs” and seeing hustlers on street corners destroying dreams, stealing education opportunities, and their parents battling addictions and alcoholism.

More often than not, music, church, sports, and school were there only option to “get out” of the ghetto off the (cell) block, or to survive. Young African American males would often hear elders say, “make something of yourself son — obey your Mom & Dad, because tomorrow is not promised and your chances of making it out are slim to none” — and echoed from the streets, “You’ll likely end up a statistic (dead or imprisoned) because you’re black and male...” It’s analogous to today’s shackle of “Three Strikes — you were born carrying two strikes, one more in life and you’re gone. Today we know it as the school-to-prison pipeline, prison industrial complex, or as Michelle Alexander refers to it in her book titled, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”.

Grandmothers and mothers would yell, “Go to church son, get your education, sing in the choir, play your instrument, your daddy will return some day” — well that day never came for many. Sometimes it was the father left holding the responsibility and mom was carted off to jail. Often mothers/fathers looked to the pastor of their church or a teacher at school to help act as a positive role model for those young men & women.

Music is so powerful in that listening to it can provide a certain vibration and educational rhythm for life — the more you listen the more you’ll learn. The more your heart beats to the rhythm, the more your soul is filled. When society turns its back on these individuals, music can still provide hope in the darkest of places. In San Quinten's church Chapel we integrated — we helped them forget about that 25 to life maximum prison bid. Whatever the reason for lock-up, their voices were heard and their souls freed for one day.

As we sang, I asked God to allow them to hear a different sound that night — one of hope, laughter, joy, and love with the acute presence and awareness to distinguish between oppression, hate, fear, loneliness, and despair.

We sang, shouted, and uplifted the hearts of those who’ve lost their voices and are castaway, silenced, and overlooked. They even sang gospel songs for us, we sang jointly “Total Praise” and then a few other renditions we readily recognized. There was an equal distribution of joy after that, where we literally saw them overcome and touched by the spirit, feel the power of the gospel, open up and then sing out louder! It was an experience you never forget, uploaded and striped across your memory and hard drive of life.

However glorious that was, I do remember distinctly the parting glances as they went back to their cells. One last look towards Hope. “Don’t stop praying & singing” we told them! One inmate rushed out to hand us a copy of their prison newspaper. It’s a stark reminder of the delicate life balance between what is freedom and what is not. Are we really free? Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “God is not merely interested in the freedom of brown men, yellow men, red men, and black men. He is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.”

As the OIGC ensemble shuffled out of the Chapel into the main prison courtyard where we were only hundreds of feet away from death row, past the massive iron gate, through security, “stay behind the yellow lines and show me your ID”, they said, out to the street where the main tower was — we read on a granite memorial headstone that said, “In Memory of our Fallen Brothers” were the names of 10 prison guards killed in the line of duty from the 1950s to the 1980s. We were all quickly reminded that life is short, when you’re in prison for a long time, it’s probably very difficult to find genuine joy, peaceful sleep, absence of fear, and a sense of belonging or safety, and ultimately, humanity — that there is a redemptive power through the sharing of song and gospel music!

It’s what’s kept me alive. I was that small black boy that society told I wouldn’t make it — I’d end up a statistic, dead or imprisoned. Through the unwavering strength of my black mother, the black church, black gospel, family, friends and allies neither of those came to be.

Thank you Terrance, Sophie, and Isa for guiding the whole chapel towards a sound of encouragement and positivity, hope and love. “Until we see you again,” we sang... Hoping they find a new voice in this world, hearing a new song of redemption for whatever and whomever they’ve wronged — a new guide in the music of life. Thank you & continued blessings upon OIGC for affecting the world in such an awesome and positive way! Keep creating opportunities where the incarcerated can reflect on their ills and experiences but for a brief moment some laughter, joy and love!

❤️ Jeff Benson
OIGC Lower Bass




Dan and Tehree

Dan and Tehree

It has been a great joy for me to be able to work with OIGC this summer. The experiences I have had working with OIGC for SKRUK’s visit, helping OICC with their annual concert, and assisting in the office have all revitalized my faith in OIGC and the power of music to bring people together. I have been uplifted and blessed by the music I heard, and I know that the members of the community who participate in any OIGC performances and the choir members who spread peace, love and joy are all fortified through the wonderful power of gospel music and the spirit of unity that accompanies it. 

One of my primary responsibilities in the office was compiling a catalog of the music OIGC and OICC perform. The combined list included over 200 songs. I spent much of my time working on this project listening to different versions of these songs to find the best version to put in the catalog of the choir’s repertoire. Repeatedly hearing the messages of hope, faith, love and acceptance of these songs was very powerful for me. Each of us has a different set of life experiences as well as personal characteristics and beliefs that set us apart and make us different. The truth that was reaffirmed to me as I worked with OIGC this summer was that all of us need to and deserve to know that we are worthy of love and acceptance. We each need to know that there are people around us who care, and we need to hear it over and over again. That is why I am so thankful for OIGC. The gospel music they have shared with me has truly changed my life. It has made me a better, more compassionate, more accepting and more understanding person. The world has never needed the joyful noise and unconditional love OIGC shares more. Thank you all for the good you do. I am excited for the next chapter as I hope to stay involved in whatever way I can. 





Oh What A Night! OICC's 5th Annual Summer Concert

OICC with guest artist Ms. Jackie Tolbert

Oh what a night!!  Of course, this is a completely biased review of the evening given I was one of the earlier members of the Oakland Interfaith Community Choir (OICC) that began in 2014.  But there are some things that are undeniable; the house was full, the music was infectious and many of us could not stay in our seats throughout the evening.  I’m so proud to see the choir now 100 plus strong but still representative of the diversity of who we are as unique individuals, unified by the common desire to lift up each other and all those within earshot with anthems of joy, hope, and love. Watching from the “stands”, there was a sense of envy that I was not with my OICC peeps, but being on the receiving end of OICC’s presence and vocal energy more than made up for it.   

It’s a tradition to kick off the concert with a spiritual and OICC wowed the audience with “Thy Way”.  The challenging acapella arrangement had several difficult movements and was handsomely directed by Paul Daniels.  The altos anchoring and holding out strongly on that final single note brought gasps amongst us in the crowd.  OICC honored the life and music of Edwin Hawkins by busting out with “He’s Alright” and “O Happy Day”.  I could literally feel the joy and energy of the choir igniting us to sing and celebrate with them and we happily obliged.  Special guests Rebel and SWAG treated us to laughter, endearing singing, as well as powerful messages of change and acceptance.   Jackie Tolbert mesmerized and took us to church with “He will Supply”.  What a treat to watch Terrance and Jackie doing a gospel tango of improvisation as the choir responded enthusiastically to Jackie’s testament of God’s faithfulness.  Of course by night’s end, we were all in the mood to dance and Terrance obliged by literally making ALL of us dance while Jae did an awesome job directing.

Terrance keeps challenging OICC to higher levels of excellence so as not to be content to be just another good community choir.  I thought last year’s concert was the best, but each year, OICC continues to outdo itself.    I’m so grateful to Terrance and the Oakland Interfaith family of choirs that my wife, Cynthia and I, are blessed to sing in.  I’ve made so many new friends from so many different walks of life that is enriching my life journey now and will continue to do so for years to come.  Oakland Interfaith is more than just a choir, or singing.  It is family.  It is a movement of positive change, peace creation, and love sending and I’m deeply honored to be a part of this distinctive assembly.

Gene Ho
Tenor, OIGC
Former tenor, OICC

Gene with his wife, Cynthia in front of the Paramount Theatre - Oakland, CA

Gene with his wife, Cynthia in front of the Paramount Theatre - Oakland, CA


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OIYC Senior, Saaniyah Tomlinson: An Essay

The Tomlinson family from left: OIYC alum Aliah, mother Leatrice, Saaniyah, and OIYC member Niara 

The Tomlinson family from left: OIYC alum Aliah, mother Leatrice, Saaniyah, and OIYC member Niara 

Growing up, my Mom gave us two jobs: be a good student and be a good person. She worked her jobs and took care of us so that we could do our "jobs" and grow up to take care of ourselves and others. College has always been in my future, but so is service to the people. I like to learn and I am excited to be in a place where I can explore and grow. I want to major in Political Science so I help be an advocate for those without power. In these times of political turmoil, it is important to have advocates on Capitol hill, state government, and local government. With a college education, I will be better equipped to teach others and uplift my community.

Three personal attributes that will aid in achieving these goals are: knowing how to build relationships, having initiative, and knowing how to ask for help. I’m proud of the choices I’ve made in keeping good friends, losing bad ones, and being a team player. I can figure out how to work with people to get projects done and to create a strong support system while I am away from home.

Initiative will help me be proactive with assignments. I had to develop this skill by learning the hard way in 9th grade. Older friends have told me how hard college work is when you wait to prepare for a test or write a paper. Knowing how to start early and get things done will help me succeed.

As much as I think I am prepared for college, I know that there will be times that I need help. I used to think that asking for help meant that I wasn’t as good as other people. Now I know that everybody has something they need help with. I know how to ask for help when I need it.

Half of my life has been a part of OIGC and OIYC. First my mother made me attend [OIGC] concerts, then I attended my sister’s [OIYC] rehearsals, then I became a member. Although I started in OIYC because of mother, I stayed and grew up in OIYC because of me. OIYC has contributed to my growth and development of educational goals and my identity as a whole.

When I was 11, I was shy (around people I did not know), nervous in front of crowds, and not always confident. In OIYC, I was pushed to go outside of my comfort zone even though it frightened me. I learned to be comfortable in front of hundreds of people, whether I was singing a solo or hosting a concert. I learned how to push myself, which translated to how I dealt with school and life in general.

Saaniyah directing the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir to sing for their hosts during their trip to Hawaii (Feb 2017)

Saaniyah directing the Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir to sing for their hosts during their trip to Hawaii (Feb 2017)

The biggest way OIYC contributed to my growth is teaching me how to be a leader. When my [older] sister left the choir, it felt like we had lost our ringleader. She was the one who took over when Terrance wasn’t there and helped us with our singing. When she went off to college, there was a hole left. I did not want to take her place. I did not want to become “Aliah #2”, but then I realized that me being a leader was not trying to be like my sister. Me being a leader was me being ME. I started to direct more, sing solos, host choir concerts and help fellow choir members. I took on the role that had been left behind, and this really taught me how to lead. It helped me give presentations at school. It taught me how to work with different personalities. It taught me how to get people quiet so that we can work on our music. Most importantly, it taught me how to be a good role model for the young kids around me.

OIYC has also helped me develop educationally, because it taught me how to sacrifice for the good of my growth. I have missed many parties and hangouts with friends because of choir. However, this isn’t all bad. I learned how to prioritize my commitment to my singing and my section that depends on me. This translated to my education because I learned how to prioritize getting work done over giving into the urges to go out when I had an important deadline.

OIYC also taught me how to push through hard times. When there were only 6-7 kids in the choir, I felt like there was no point in being there. But then, I would look at Terrance and see that if he was not going to give up on us, then I wouldn’t either. This perseverance has helped me reach my educational goals. There have been many times when I felt like I would never understand a math concept and wanted to give up, but I thought of that exact moment. I remembered that when things are tough, the only way to go is up. That perseverance was instilled in me though Oakland Interfaith Youth Choir, and I am forever grateful for those lessons.


OIYC Senior Sending and End of Year Concert



Donations to Support the Youth Choir will be accepted

Imani Community Church
3300 MacArthur Blvd
Oakland, CA

Come celebrate our Graduates with us while listening to OIYC sing joyously. There will also be FANTASTIC food for purchase and a bake sale benefiting the Youth Choir.

Recipients of the Riley West Scholarship, available only to OIYC Youth, will be presented along with a bon voyage ceremony for our Seniors this year:

Saaniyah Tomlinson, Jacob Martin, and Victoria Smith.


I’m over the moon proud of Oakland Interfaith Choir youth and Alumni.

This Class of 2018 are attending:
Bethune Cookman University
Howard University

In addition, degrees received by previous alumni this year:
UNLV – Doctorate
San Diego State - Bachelor
UC Berkeley - Bachelor
UC Davis - Bachelor
USC - Bachelor
Harvard - Masters program enrollment
— Terrance Kelly

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