Godspell in a Men's Prison
A glimpse at what I got to do last Saturday...(for subscribers)
Last July I published an essay on The Corners about The Denver University Prison Arts Initiative, and my experience of an original theater piece that was staged inside a men’s prison:
(Many of you have asked if there will be a film available of that piece and I am told that yes, it is in the works…I will post it here whenever it’s made public)
A week ago Saturday, I spent the day inside two men’s prisons in Southern Colorado - both of which are in rehearsals with DUPAI for the musical, Godspell. The director, Clare Hammoor, asked if I would write a liturgy for the men using some of the biblical source texts from the play - and then have a theological conversation with the incarcerated cast and crew. My answer? “All day long”.
(The video below is about the staging of A Christmas Carol inside and outside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility that took place before COVID - I saw this performance and it was gorgeous)
My experience of leading these men in a liturgy and a theological conversation was more deeply moving than I can possibly express. Their thoughtfulness, heart and appreciation overwhelmed me. At the end of each session I stood in the middle of a circle while they showered me with gratitude and I don’t think I have ever felt exactly that way before. All I know for sure is it is what it feels like to “receive a blessing”.
Below is the liturgy I created for them, it moves from scripture (read by them) to reflection (read by me) to prayer (read by them) to a song from Godspell (sung by us all) 3 times. I grew up listening to the cast recording of this musical; and singing these beloved songs, with God’s beloved children that day was the most worshipful moment I’ve had for a very long time.
A Liturgy For The Incarcerated Cast and Crew of Godspell
1. Centering movement or breath.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight,’ ”
so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
3. Rev. Nadia:
So, in the spirit of full disclosure I feel you should know that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a crazy street corner preacher who waves her Bible wildly while shouting red faced at passersby. Repent! I’m not ruling it out as a possible career move in the future. But (for now) as an outsider to the crazy street corner preacher world, I must say I feel for those guys. Because what could their success rate possibly be? ? I mean, does shouting repent! at people actually work? just speaking for myself, never once has my life changed because a crazy guy with a sign yelled at me from a street corner.
But given the success John the Baptist had, you know, with all of Jerusalem coming to partake in his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, I wonder what the guy said exactly? Why did so many people come to him for his baptism? Because our modern street corner preachers who hold signs that say “repent” don’t have near the same results at all. Maybe because when I hear a preacher shouting “repent” what I really hear is he or she saying is Stop being bad. Start being good because if you don’t, God’s gonna be real mad at you. Which, to my ears, sounds feels like more of a threat than anything else. And that never works on me. Who wants their spiritual arm twisted until they cry Uncle….it’s like… religious bullying .
So I just can’t imagine that it was religious bullying which brought all of Judea and Jerusalem to be baptized by John. I mean, you guys know fear and threat can create change in behavior. No question about it. But they doesn’t really change your thinking. Threats don’t change your heart.
For that kind of change…change in thinking and change of heart it takes truth and promise. Namely truth and promise that comes only from God reaching into the graves we dig ourselves and bringing new life. Because if repentance comes from something other than a word of truth about who you are and who God is it’s not repentance it’s self-improvement.
And I’m pretty sure that what happened that day by the banks of the Jordon was more than just a massive wave of self-improvement.
Not to mention, when the Gospel says that John the Baptist came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and ALL of Jerusalem came to be baptized I kinda wonder if that wasn’t maybe a tiny exaggeration. Because I bet that not all of Jerusalem came. I mean, I bet the so-called good religious people, the people for whom the system was working, for whom life was easy, the peopl who were at the center of power – It’s hard to imagine those folks thinking they needed a thing like a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I bet they stayed put that day.
And I bet the ones who did come to John that day were all the others, the ones for whom the offer of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins sounded like good news. The last the least the lost the lonely and the forgotten – the sinners, I bet they RAN to the Jordon for that.
So if John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins then maybe it wasn’t so much so that sinners would confess and stop being bad. maybe it was so that all would hear the truth and promise about this God who comes near to us in the person of Jesus Christ - not so that we might be good but so that we might be new. John says to them Prepare the way of the Lord. Get ready for something new. Because, there is one who is coming who will change everything.
And the way in which John the Baptist prepares the people for the Gospel is by washing away their old ideas about themselves, washing away their old expectations about their lives, washing away the weight of every regret, every embarrassment, every tear in the waters of a river. And in so doing, all that untruth and shame and biterness floats away in the Jordon because the real thing was coming. The real thing, not a self-improvement scheme, not a reward and punishment system, not a political ideology. The real thing was coming so it was time to wash away their old ideas and get into some forgiveness. Forgiveness is what Preparing the way of the Lord looks like.