I was nervous the first time I met the men. Possibly even afraid.
They were behind bars. Locked up in a maximum-security facility. Separated from society because they had done bad things. And most of them were going to live that way for a long time. Some already had, their crimes unfathomable.
My trip to the facility was to present a Latin jazz band concert. A few of the incarcerated men were onstage, helping with set-up when I arrived. They were polite, but physically far away in the large, concrete auditorium. I had worn a navy turtleneck sweater, black pants, and no make-up, very aware that I was a young woman entering an all-male facility. I could feel the eyes of each man who noticed me, wondering what I was doing there—so obviously out of place. A flurry of emotions flew through my head as the auditorium slowly filled to capacity. Should I be afraid? What are they thinking about me? Should I have come at all?
It was easy to assume the worst. Was someone waiting for the right moment in that packed, darkened auditorium to start a riot? Pick a fight? They had been proven guilty, and owed it to society to pay for their misconduct. Do they deserve this concert?
I am not a grievous lawbreaker according to our societal rules, but I am one in the community of sinners. And yet, despite my evil ways and the hateful and hurtful things I have done, God continues to love me. I live forgiven. I live in a state of undeserved grace.
I returned three weeks later, this time to present a classical music concert in a small, 200-person chapel with wooden pews, a simple altar, and stained glass windows darkened by the lattice of bars just behind them. I had initially felt more comfortable in the smaller space—being an introvert who likes small things—but as the men began to file in, I realized we would be sitting much closer together. My eyes darted around the room, and my mind again filled with doubts and questions as every seat filled.
The ensemble had arrived with more music than they expected to perform and planned to decide what to play according to the vibe in the room. The men were utterly quiet during the performance—there was no coughing, sneezing, or nose-blowing, no talking or bathroom breaks or even an intermission. I had never witnessed an audience so respectful or so appreciative. Some leaned forward, concentrating intently and following the movements of the artists with their eyes. Others leaned back and closed their eyes.
Two hours and fifteen minutes after the concert started, the musicians ran out of music and the last chord faded into silence. Hearty and heartfelt applause broke out as the men rose to their feet. Their applause between each piece had been almost desperate, as if begging for more, and then more. These men, relegated to life inside concrete cells and buildings with barred windows, were parched dry. They were starving for beauty.
As they filed out, many men stopped to thank me and shake my hand. “Thank you,” one man said, looking into my eyes. “The music took me out of this place. I really needed it.”
Had I not in times past relied on the breathtaking beauty of music to escape my circumstances? Had I never sat, spellbound, at a concert, desperate for more?
After all, some of my earliest glimpses of God came in the form of musical beauty.
After some time, a handful of the men became more than nameless guys in green pants, shuffling in and out of concert spaces. I learned their names, and they knew mine. We planned more concerts, and then instrumental workshops for a small group of men.
Each time the workshop met, an intense concentration fell upon the room. The men squinted at the chalkboard and tried to understand chords and the circle of fifths. When they played together as an ensemble, some struggled to keep up and others shone. Everyone focused on the music, eager to learn, to understand, to improve.
All of us involved in the program—those behind bars and those who worked with them—loved music. We all pursued music, and we all needed its beauty and its solace, its expression and its escape.
Countless times, I have longed for solace and escape from sadness or hopeless moments, for beauty to fill my empty places. I needed something to envelop my wrongs and smooth my rough edges. Through varying means, God’s grace came to me—sometimes even when I was in deep rebellion. The grace came utterly regardless of the worldly paradigm around me.
I spent hours coaching these men on their instruments and chord progressions, helping them decipher rhythmic notation and time signatures. I started to hear about their sisters and their nephews and their mothers.
At the end of the day, after hours spent making music together, I got to leave. I got to get on a train and watch the changing of the seasons and smile to strangers on the street and buy a sandwich whenever and wherever I wanted. I got to go home to a bed in a room that had windows and a door I could choose to open or shut.
I wept when I heard the lyrics Mariel had written about his mother. I rejoiced with Eureka when he became engaged and helped him to plan the music for his release party—still seven years away. There was the day David shared the sadness of his estranged relationship with his daughter, and the day I announced I was pregnant and the whole room erupted in applause and cheers.
We all had people we cherished and circumstances to grieve and joys to share. We all experienced the grace of God poured out into our lives, in varying ways.
My early fears were based on stereotypes and rumors. They were based on classifications and labels and name tags. As I grew to know these men, I learned that no bad decision, no label, no skin color, no assumption, no background or upbringing or religion or dysfunctional family of origin could hinder the truth.
These men are made in the image of God. Just like me. These men have sin in their hearts. Just like me. These men have the capacity to love, to experience fear, to desire comfort, to express humor, to long for freedom from their burdens, to forgive and be forgiven. Just like me.
These men are broken, just like me.
These men are behind bars. Not like me. And, because of that, I thought I should be afraid. I thought our differences were more than our similarities.
God grieves when I sin, but his love for me doesn’t change. Should I not strive to love as God loves? To love others, regardless of their sins, right where they are in their brokenness? To extend grace, as it has been extended to me?
Ultimately, these men, all others—they are like me. Made in his image.