The chapel service this past Tuesday was packed. I had to climb through three sections to find a seat. The Voices of Hope women’s gospel choir was singing, and I knew they would draw a crowd. I had a lot of office work to do, but they are a choir that you do not miss. I’ve heard them sing three times now and I’ve been blown away and reduced to tears every time. I have had to collect myself in my pew when they’re done, so I’m not overwhelmed after the service. The power is palpable, carrying out of the chapel, feet tapping, voices humming and singing, smiles everywhere. I left the service alone, back to the office; the choir left escorted by armed guards back to prison.
You see, the Voices of Hope is part of the gospel choir ministry of Rev. Susan Bishop, chaplain at the Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta. Metro State is a notoriously violent maximum security prison; in 2004, Diane Sawyer from ABC News spent a day and night in the prison as part of an exposé on the culture and violence in women’s prisons. Rev. Bishop, an ordained Baptist pastor and Candler graduate (’75) formed the choir as part of her ministry in 1992. She is a “godmother and mentor” to many of the women at Metro State. The traveling choir numbered 18; the in-house choir counts roughly 35 members among its ranks.
The Prison:Candler has a long-standing relationship with Metro State. The prison serves as one of the Contextual Education sites in which Master of Divinity students serve during their first year at Candler. First-year students serve in ministry setting outside of church settings—settings like hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters. Students primarily counsel inmates one on one, assisting with worship, facilitate groups, and help with bible study. One Candler student remarked that “Chaplain Bishop is one of the most inspirational, loving, caring, and outstanding ministers you will likely ever meet.”
While the choir members repeatedly thanked those of us in the congregation for allowing them to sing, we were all very clearly the ones who had been blessed. The choir is an embodiment of the Christian notions of salvation, grace and redemption. Bishop said, “God has work for us to do, no matter who you are, no matter where you are.” It seems doubtful that many of the women, upon being incarcerated, could imagine being used by God for such acts of beauty and hope. And yet that is exactly what the choir is—a living message of hope.
The Voice of Hope also have a new CD out—a first for a Georgia prison choir. Emily Saliers (above right, with her dad) of the Grammy Award duo The Indigo Girls, helped finance the CD project and has sung with the choir on a regular basis for the past several years. Saliers has deep Emory connections. She graduated from Emory College with a BA in English in 1985 and her father, Don, taught worship and theology at Candler until 2007. They co-authored A Song to Sing, a Life to Live in 2004, about the intersecting strands of music and theology in their lives. Bishop said the recording has given the participants a sense of accomplishment and offered them an opportunity to give back to the community. Proceeds from the sale of the CD go toward a program that brings children to visit their mothers at the prison.
To buy the CD, go to: http://www.cccgeorgia.org/cd/index.html
Check out the Voices of Hope singing “Not Forgotten” from earlier this summer in Atlanta.