Today, the Candler School of Theology had the opportunity to host Voices of Hope, a choir composed of women who are currently in prison at the Lee Arrendale Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison two hours northeast of Atlanta. Candler has been abuzz about their arrival for weeks; “A life changing experience!” one of my third year classmates exclaimed. “You’ll really understand what it means to worship freely,” another one commented. After seeing Voices of Hope (VOH) perform today, I’ve can say that both of them were right.
As I got dressed this morning, I began to think about the women who too were getting dressed to prepare to come sing to us. As I freely put on my lipstick and fitted skinny jeans, and as I changed my mind on what top to wear a few times, I thought about the women who may look like or even be my same age as me who are brushing their teeth in their cells, using a small mirror’s reflection to comb their hair, and doing their absolute best to make a good impression on us who were coming to listen to them. In tandem, we woke up today, prepared ourselves to come to Candler, and arrived with expectations of something great.
Words cannot really express how powerful it was watching these incarcerated women praise God in spirit and in truth. What a juxtaposition it was to see their beautiful robes swinging with every beat and their well shined prison shoes and khaki pants peeking from the bottom.
One woman told me that she had been in jail for 19 years and wasn’t sure how long she would remain in prison. She sang, however, as if she was free from everything. All of the women did. Free from the past, free from the present, free from it all. With hands lifted, they gave us a roller coaster of emotions; at one point, the entire chapel was in tears.
What does this have to say about our own worship experiences with God? If one can be in physical bondage but can still worship God so freely, what is keeping those who are “free” from doing the same? These women sang of victory, liberation, faith, justice, and a hope for the future despite their incarceration. Whom the Son sets free, is free indeed…even if they are confined to a prison cell. The idea of “freedom” is relative. “We” are free, yet we live bound by the past, our fears, our inadequacies, and our shortcomings. “We” are free, yet we sit tight-lipped in church, slow to speak to our neighbor, and use religion as a means to control the “others”.
When it was all over, students from the ConEd site served the women their lunches. We catered to them, got them anything they needed; I wondered when was the last time many of them had a catered lunch with a full wait staff. They disrobed and we were starkly reminded of the “labels” that had been placed on them: they were “owned” by the Department of Corrections. Their spirits, though, belonged to God.
Today reminded me that this idea of “freedom” is such a relative term. It reminded me to stop taking my own freedoms for granted and use every moment I have to give thanks and exert intentional actions into my praise and worship with God. Knowing scripture, having the most profound exegesis, or have a good Holy Ghost dance means nothing without an understanding of freedom in Him and a heart of servitude. Serving God begins and ends with serving the least of those among us.
On the Chase,