Eighteen choir members, carrying their robes over their arms, went to jail on the Saturday before Easter.
They couldn’t bring their cell phones or pocketbooks. They had to hand over their driver’s licenses to the guards. They even had to give up the paper clips attached to their songbooks.
“What this does is let these individuals feel like men again,” said Officer Rick Staples, explaining why the inmates were permitted this special visit. “They feel connected to society and that helps their mindset when they go back out into the community.”
Staples and the other guards teased the choir members as they passed through the heavy doors, body scanners, and long, austere hallways. “Have you ever been wanted?” one officer asked a grandmotherly singer.
The choir walked deep into the facility, until they reached the part housing the “Exodus Project.” Inmates call it the “God Pod.”
Pete Garza, director of programs, explained that there are 800 to 1,250 total inmates in this east Knoxville prison. The Exodus Project only includes inmates who have successfully applied for the faith-based, life-skills program affiliated with Focus Group Ministries.
The choir was directed into a large room where 18 plastic chairs were arranged in the center. Facing them, on the opposite wall, were two floors of prison cells, impressively tidy. Lined up in plastic chairs outside the cells were the 48 men, dressed in identical gray-and-white-striped uniforms and orange rubber clogs.
The Rev. Dave Henderson, pastor and choir director, walked to the front of his group. It was his idea to bring the church choir to the jail, after a few months of working with a brand-new inmate choir. Henderson volunteers at Knox County Detention Center because his son used to be an inmate there.
Garza introduced the Lake City choir – 18 singers from a congregation with 30 in average attendance – and Henderson lifted his arms. The singers launched into “One Had to Rise,” their first public performance after two months of practice.
The men settled in to listen to the resurrection story. Some slouched in their chairs. Some jiggled their knees nervously. But they all watched and listened.
In the back of the room, the officers also listened as they drank coffee and chatted. “I saw one of the mothers visiting this morning,” Officer Charma Truman whispered. “I asked how she was doing. She said, ‘I’m better, now that I got to see my son.’”
When Larry Poole began his solo in “What Wondrous Love is This,” the listening became more intense. A few men leaned forward in their chairs. One inmate, wearing a Mohawk, stood and stepped to the handrail, as if to get closer to the message.
Poole sang, “For you my body will be broken. For you my body will be spilled.”
Later, the choir would talk about how their hearts started to beat faster, how they felt warm and their voices sounded louder and better than ever. They noticed how a few more men got up from their chairs during the singing. Some clasped their hands as if in prayer.
When the choir finished, their listeners applauded enthusiastically. Then six men with orange clogs came forward to sing two Easter songs that Henderson had taught them, a cappella.
The inmate choir called themselves, “39 Stripes.” The church choir returned the applause, many with tears.
“A lot of these men have had to scrap all their lives,” Garza said when it was time to walk single-file back out of the jail. “You all coming today is the spear point of a positive change in their lives.”
Twenty-four hours later and 35 miles away, the choir from Lake City United Methodist Church sang the cantata again for Easter Sunday worship. They were more than ready.
The Rev. Dave Henderson is pastor of Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Tenn., and Dutch Valley United Methodist Church in Clinton, Tenn. Garza’s childhood church is Ketron Memorial United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn.