“I was in prison, and ye came unto me…” (Matthew 25:36).
Last Sunday night, four of my friends and I had the chance to present a musical fireside to about 60 inmates at the Utah State Penitentiary. After arriving at the prison, we were directed through various gates, doors and security checkpoints. The high fences topped with barbwire and the other extreme security measures made me think about how grateful I am for my freedom.
As the inmates filed into the small chapel wearing their white jumpsuits, I wasn’t sure how to react. I couldn’t help wondering what crimes each of them had committed to end up in this awful place. And yet they greeted us with friendly smiles and warm handshakes. They were genuinely glad that we had come to visit them. We sang five songs for them in acapella four-part harmony, including “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” “Come, Come Ye Saints,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I Love the Lord.”
Before each song, one of us would take a few minutes to share some thoughts about the song we were about to sing. The spoken word was powerful, but the music is what resonated with those in attendance. We all felt the presence of the Holy Ghost in the room that night bearing witness of the truthfulness of the messages contained in those sacred hymns, especially the messages about Christ’s grace and the power of his redeeming love. Several of the inmates were mouthing the words to the songs we sang. At the end of the program, we invited them to sing “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” and it was amazing to hear all these convicted felons raise their voices in testifying of the reality of the savior Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of the program, I made some opening remarks in which I said something like, “Gentlemen, we’re glad to be here tonight.” However, in my concluding comments, I found myself referring to them as “brethren” instead of “gentlemen.” Something had changed in me. The Spirit had softened my heart and helped me to remember that despite their mistakes, these men are still children of God with great worth. This lesson was made especially poignant for me through an experience that I had during our visit.
I didn’t expect to see any familiar faces in the crowd. But I did. A man sitting in the second row was a former first-grade teacher at my children’s elementary school. Two years ago, he was convicted of multiple counts of child abuse, a situation that shocked, angered and saddened everyone in our neighborhood. Thankfully, my own children were not affected by the actions of this man, but I personally know people who were directly affected by him. And suddenly, I wasn’t just looking into a crowd of anonymous prisoners; I was sharing music and testimony with a man whose choices had seriously impacted people I know and love.
After the fireside, he approached me and we established how we knew one another. In our brief conversation, he shed remorseful tears and asked me to convey his sincere regret for his mistakes to anyone that I might know who may have been affected by him. I told him I would.
This experience taught me two important lessons. First, I was reminded of the fact that we are free to choose our own path in life, but we must accept the consequences of our actions. This man’s choices had resulted in his losing his job, his family, his church membership and his freedom. Even after he has served his time for his crimes, he will be punished by his own regret and by the stigma society places on sex offenders. These consequences will be with him for the rest of his life.
The experience also helped me better understand the power of the Savior’s sacrifice. Even this man can obtain forgiveness and be made whole through the atonement of Jesus Christ. And while it will be a very difficult road to travel for him, Jesus Christ has the power to redeem him. Perhaps some would say he is not worth redeeming, but I believe that the “worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). I have faith and hope that Christ can redeem me. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). The saving power of Jesus Christ is real. What hope and joy that brings me!