Sharing the Christmas Message of Hope with Prisoners in Song

by Jin’nouchi Taizo, pastor
Tobi Church, Nishi Tokyo District
Professional Musician
It was the Christmas season. With church concerts and other responsibilities, I was busy going back and forth between Yamaguchi and Fukuoka prefectures. In the midst of these activities came a request from a pastor who was serving as a prison chaplain. “When you have an opening in your schedule, could you come as a volunteer and sing at our prison? Please help us.”
It just so happened that I was on my way from one place to another at that time and was able to stop at Yamaguchi Prison on my way. Since I am from Yamaguchi, I knew of the prison, but this was the first time I had gone inside. It was a Christmas program, and the prisoners who wanted to were allowed to attend. A street performer and I were the entertainment.
I asked the chaplain if it would be all right to have the prisoners sing with me and keep the rhythm by clapping their hands. I was told that when such requests are made before performances, they are sometimes refused. I guess that is because music can raise people’s emotions. But then he said, “However, Pastor Jin’nouchi, if while you are singing it seems natural to ask the prisoners to sing along with you or to ask them to clap in rhythm, I think that would be permissible.” This response, however, did leave me a bit uneasy.
Close to 500 prisoners gathered that day in the gymnasium. To be honest, when I first stood on the stage, I was a bit intimidated. Everyone’s head was shaved, and everyone was wearing a gray work uniform. I felt “frozen,” like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.
Since I had been raised in Yamaguchi, I even imagined someone I might know calling, “Hey, Jin’nouchi!” My mind was racing, and I was off to a poor start. However, after I had sung a few songs, I noticed that instead of the prisoners staring at me with folded arms, they were enjoying the music. It seemed that everyone had that same kind of facial expression, and I could sense an overflow of warmth and emotion.
“Hey, if you like, why not sing with me? Let me hear the rhythm with your hands, and let’s have a good time!” I asked for requests. When that happened, everyone smiled and participated. Just imagine 500 adult men singing together and keeping perfect rhythm by clapping. With all that energy, I was overwhelmed on the stage. It felt so good, and I sang my heart out.
Then I noticed some strange movement beyond the crowd of prisoners. The prisoners were not noticing it, but the guards seemed to be moving into a defensive position. I could see this happening from the stage. Suddenly I began to wonder if the enthusiastic response to our concert was causing concern. The two groups were certainly focused on different things, but that was how much energy and excitement were in the gymnasium that night.
Afterwards, I received letters from some of the prisoners, and it was a priceless experience for all of us. If another situation like this arises, I hope to respond. These are the times in which we live. But at least at Christmas, when so many people are dealing with cold, pain, sadness, and loneliness, I pray that we can make it a season when they can feel warmth, hope, and light. (Tr. JS)
–From Shinto no Tomo (Believers’ Friend)
(陣内大蔵)東美教会牧師(西東京教区) (信徒の友)