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

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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

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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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OIGC Scores Big at Super Bowl 50!

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OIGC Scores Big at Super Bowl 50!

This past week the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir was blessed to perform for three Super Bowl events including Super Bowl City, NFL Experience, and the GameDay Fan Plaza at Levi’s Stadium. I never would have imagined having the opportunity to sing at such a high-profile event. Yet there was OIGC, all dressed up in official NFL gospel choir robes, singing our hearts out for the attendees.

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OIGC Brings Down the House in Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway

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OIGC Brings Down the House in Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway

When I was brought on as the Production Manager for the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir in September of 2013, the groundwork for the European tour had recently begun.  Almost 2 years later, after many hours of logistics, planning, and manifestation, I am pleased to say that the tour was a smashing success!

The members of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir described the opportunity to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival as a “bucket-list experience” and a “dream come true” and after hearing their voices lifted by the spirit at the Park Stage and at St. John’s Church, I’d say they can check that dream off their list.

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A Holiday Reflection

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A Holiday Reflection

 was 24 years old, just a year home from college, working an internship at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center while I was looking for a full time job... and my purpose in life.

At approximately 7pm that Saturday night, I was sitting in the rear orchestra section of the Paramount Theatre by myself, surrounded by grown-ups I didn't know. My boss and mentor, Anne Huang, had given me a ticket to the gospel choir concert that she was in.

I was about to experience my first Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir concert. 

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