by Joe Bollig
SHAWNEE – Can music point a better path for a person?
Saint Augustine of Hippo thought so.
“Music”, he said, is “given by the bounty of God to mortals with rational souls in order to lead them to higher things”.
Some men who are on their way to higher things through music – the East Hill Singers, minimum-security inmates of Lansing Correctional Institution – will perform from 4-5:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at St. Joseph’s Parish, located at 11311 Johnson Dr., Shawnee.
The 14 inmates will be joined by nine formerly incarcerated community volunteers in their performance. They will be conducted by Kirk Carson, a civilian with a long career in music, who has been its conductor since 2008.
This performance is free and open to the public.
The East Hill Singers, named after a part of Lansing State Prison that no longer exists, were formed in 1994 as part of the Arts in Prison program, said Leigh Lynch, the program’s executive director.
“The East Hill Singers was our first program and has been around ever since,” she said.
The group held its first performance in 1996 and is the only prison choir in the country that regularly travels to perform in public, she said.
The choir members are all convicted felons serving time in Lansing for various crimes. During the concert, inmates will be supervised by prison staff.
They are a bit nervous about the upcoming performance.
“Everyone comes [to the church] to play are beginners,” Lynch said. “Many [previous] singers have been released and we have a whole new population.
Usually singers start out with little or no public singing experience. But this time, one of the singers is a true choir-trained tenor who competed statewide at the high school level.
“I told her, ‘You are the rarest of gems,'” Lynch said.
There have been no problems in the East Hill Singers’ 26-year history performing in public, Lynch said. In fact, it produced positive results.
“It has a really significant impact,” Lynch said. “We did a recidivism (recidivist tendency) survey about a year ago, and of all the inmates who sang with the choir, we have an 8% recidivism rate compared to the 32% percentage of the state.”
Inmates and the community enjoy the concerts.
“I’m sure the reason the East Hill Singers do so well when they’re released is because for a while before they come out they come out from behind the walls and do these gigs,” Lynch said.
“They can go back to the community, meet people from the community,” she continued, “and it takes a lot of their fear away from them. Likewise, it takes away a lot of the fear of community members who are a little apprehensive about these people returning to their neighborhoods.
Inmates are grateful for the opportunity to perform in public and “overwhelmed” by the kindness with which they are received, Lynch said. There will be a queue where the public can thank them after the performance.
“For them to go out in public and see people they don’t know show up, congratulate them, shake their hands and tell them they’ve done a great job is huge,” Lynch said. “And I think the fact that they can interact with people they don’t know gives them hope that they can [return] to the community and live a social life.
The parish will provide a special treat, a catered barbecue dinner, to inmates after their performance, Deacon Mark Mies said. He helped feed the inmates when they performed at the parish twice before.
“We’re going to take out real plates and silverware, and have dinner with them,” Deacon Mies said. “Many of these guys have told me in the past how grateful they are to feel normal, to sit with people and have a nice dinner.”
Dinner is for the inmates and some parish staff. It is not open to the public.
Matt Winterhalter, director of music at St. Joseph Parish, hopes lots of people will come to the show despite there being a Chiefs-Chargers football game that day.
“Supporting the arts is always precious,” Winterhalter said, “but as Catholics we are called to live the bodily works of mercy, one of those [being] ‘visiting the prisoners.’
“This is a perfect opportunity to experience this work of mercy. While we are not going to prison, we bring prisoners to us, to support their rehabilitation. »
The show will be broadcast live and can be viewed at: church.stjoeshawnee.org/watch-live.