Hope Shows Benefit with Addison Road’s Jenny Simmons
My first prison ministry concert experience two years ago left me “gloriously ruined” (Kay Warren term) for traditional concerts, but our recent show at Greenville Federal Correctional Institute (Greenville, IL) featuring Jenny Simmons of Addison Road left me a bit speechless … I don’t mean to sound so dramatic, but I think a few of us departed the facility a bit stunned at how God showed up.
Since they couldn’t allow cameras inside at this facility, I’ll do my best to paint a few word pictures of the evening:
First, for me, the fact that we were there at all – after two years of confusion, anticipation and uncertainty regarding if and how Hope Shows would continue to provide Christian concerts in prisons – humbled me. I was so thankful God orchestrated another opportunity (the first Hope Shows prison concert featured Sara Groves in December 2009). Albeit a fairy energetic individual, I instead found myself just watching, smiling, and admiring God … standing in awe of His creativity.
First story of the night … We’re all set. Greenville College CCM Professor, Gary Erickson, and student assistant, Caleb Loeppky, make a few finals tweaks on the sound system (such a gift!). My awesome (TY Target) pink and white light trees stand at four corners, framing and lighting our stage area. Sound check is done. The artists and volunteers are munching down on a few of “my favorite things” snacks and sweets (candy cane kisses, mint M&M’s, white chocolate-covered pretzels and gummy bears) I brought to accompany our dinner snack. I’m writing down a few notes to guide my comments to the ladies … and then Addison Road‘s Jenny Simmons calls my name.
I look over to see Jenny kneeling on the floor, holding the hand of a young lady in the front row. They both have huge tears collecting in their eyes. I was surprised by the sight (my first thought was, “What could have possibly happened already?”), but didn’t have much time to process it before Jenny shared that this young lady was a good friend of hers from high school in Texas (10 hours away). They had cheered together, volunteered together, laughed together and, I’m sure, cried together … and now God had brought them unexpectedly together in this holy place.
I believe this encounter did a few things … it put a face on the inmates Jenny would minister to that night, it comforted a young girl we later learned (from her roommate) was really struggling with loneliness as she continued to lead the prison’s praise and worship team, and it connected the “us-es” and the “thems” in the room through their joint tears. As much as I believed we needed to be there, should be there and wanted to be there that night, I felt a sense of attachment to this specific community that didn’t exist before I saw Jenny kneeling at the feet of one of the ladies we came to encourage.
God working through Jenny proved a lasting memory of the night. Her authenticity, sharing with the women about her own struggles, her stories of redemption and and her honesty shone through word and song out to the prison community around her. At the end of the night Jenny shared with the audience her shock at seeing her high school friend, and closed with, “I didn’t even know what a prisoner looks like, and then I saw my friend from high school walk in the room. All I see is beautiful women here.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the chorus of sniffling that accompanied Jenny’s perfectly-chosen song list, starting with the first notes and flowing freely throughout the night as the ladies expressed teary appreciation on their way back to their dorms. Ladies seated in chairs and on bleachers in the well-used multi-purpose gym initially sought to hold back emotion, but as the evening went on, defenses were lowered and the room was bathed in watery-eyed smiles.
It was a good night, but a bittersweet one as well. Life is hard. Life is painful. Life has consequences. For us to whom the grace of freedom has been granted, we are called to care for those imprisoned by their pain, their choices and choices of others. Life is not what they hoped it would be, and may not be for days, weeks, months or years.
But there is hope, hope of the saving, redeeming Gospel of Jesus Christ who rebuilds, restores and recreates new lives out of our past ones in miraculous ways that make Plan B, Plan C or Plan Z seem like a beautiful, even more valuable Plan A (thanks Pastor Doug Newton). He uses it all for our good and His glory.
We have to trust in the darkness of life that God is working when we can’t see Him – or even when we don’t acknowledge Him – on our behalf for a unique purpose.
As the night went on we started to see ladies get up, go to the bathroom and get toilet paper Kleenexes for their friends. At one point the growing sound of sniffling motivated Doris, one of the inmates assisting us with the event, to retrieve new rolls of toilet paper from another section of the gym. What was, at first, quiet attempts to assist crying friends became an openly-acknowledge struggle for most of the crowd, and Doris’ gift of new toilet paper rolls made a lot of the women chuckle.
Jenny provided a beautiful soundtrack for the night … “My Story,” “All That Matters,” “Change in the Making,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and a personal favorite, “Hope Now,” emphasized the message of redemption and hope we sought to present to the women (check out the lyrics to each). St. Louis guest violinist, Mitchell Kirby, transformed the room with his moving performance of “Silent Night.” Jenny motivated the women early on with “Fight Another Day,” and her well-received rendition of Bruno Mars’ hit, “Just the Way You Are,” got the girls singing along:
When I see your face | There’s not a thing that I would change | ‘Cause you’re amazing | Just the way you are
And when you smile | The whole world stops and stares for a while | ‘Cause girl you’re amazing | Just the way you are
This was the first time Hope Shows implemented a new initiative to fill a prison library with hope through a collection of my favorite things written by Beth Moore, Karen Kingsbury (girls need good fiction as much as they need good Scripture ), John Eldredge and even a little Dave Ramsey and Financial Peace (especially valuable for those preparing to re-enter society and new life awaiting them on the outside). Because of the minimum-security level of the camp, we were also allowed to bring in CDs by CCM favorites, Chris Tomlin, Mandisa, tobyMac, Brandon Heath, Francesca Battistelli, popular Latin American Christian artist, Alex Campos, and, of course, Addison Road. These resources were donated as “hope” we could leave with them after we were gone … words and music that could surround them with the Gospel.
As the women were leaving, one young lady stopped me on the way out and said, “I’m not a Christian, but you make me want to be.” To which I responded, “Well, we left a lot of resources in the library to help you with that.” ).
I don’t know if and when we’ll do another prison concert. I’m desperately trying to see God’s path for this ministry interest. But I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend the evening with Jenny and a special group of ladies.