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