Monday, July 21, 2008

Rehearsing for a Choir of Angels

I was a little nervous as I sat in the chapel...there for my first church service behind bars. I had no idea what to expect. I was a little surprised to see that it was other inmates who were leading the service...everything that is except the message itself. The room was pretty full - probably more than 120 men sitting in the neatly arranged rows. A few Blacks. The majority Hispanic. Maybe about a third White with the occasional Asian sprinkled amongst the rest.

The choir was made up of four men, plush the young man on the keyboards. They weren't really very good, but it didn't really matter. I'd come learn that in God's ears, it all a sweet sound. The worship leader finished directing the congregation in a couple of songs...sung in both English and Spanish and then a middle aged black man gave a few announcements. And then he introduced an elderly Black man who was sitting in the front row.

"And now a special treat. Mr. Willie Griffin has a song to sing for us."

The elderly man with closely cut curly grey hair stood up and nodded to the young White man sitting at the keyboard.

"Dis is a song dat I wrote last week an I jis wanna share it wit all of you here today", he said as he took the microphone in his dark-skinned hand.

Soon, a "bluesy" sound began to come from the keyboard and Mr. Griffin began his song. He would occasionally look down at the sheet on the podium in front of his as he sang his freshly written song. The men in the audience were appreciative and gave him a solid ovation as he finished and sat down.

A few days later, I began my job in the chapel and discovered that this elderly Black man also worked there. I went up to him and extended my hand.

"Hi Willie. My name's Mark. I just started working here and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the song you sang last Sunday."

He slowly extended his hand and quietly said, "Mr. Griffin. You can call me Mr. Griffin." and slowly turned around and walked into one of the offices. I stood there quietly for a moment, looking after this man that I was to soon learn would turn 70 in another couple of months. I wasn't sure what to think of his comment to me, so I walked back to the other office and went to work.

Over the next thirty plus months, I would get to know this gentle old man well. As anyone would expect in prison, most everyone is a little hesitant with new people. (I was one of the few who wasn't). Before long, I was invited to call him "Willie" and became one of his closer confidants.

Willie had grown up in rural Mississippi, the oldest of nine kids. He quit school after the fourth grade to work to help his dad support the family. He would sit and tell us stories of his past...the mule and the wagon, walking down the dirt lane barefoot, his Godly mother who he loved so dearly. He told us about how he was pulled into the allure of the "world" and moved to California to make it "big". He did pretty well for himself, but making it "big" came by bending a few rules that finally caught up with him.

Mr. Griffin struggled with his writing, and certainly his spelling, and he would frequently ask the other clerks or me to help him with his writing. Dave, the young man who had played the keyboard for him on that first Sunday in church, was one of the chapel clerks and he would type Willie's return address on about a dozen envelopes at a time for him. Mr. Griffin was a faithful writer to his family and ex-wives. He had several...I'm not sure if it was three or four, and he had stories about each of them. Amazingly, he still had a good relationship with them all. It was easy to see why...Willie was just a lovable man!

After I had been in prison about a year, Willie started to struggle in his singing. He seemed to constantly be hoarse. He went to the prison infirmary several times, but they would simply tell him to buy some cough drops at the commissary and come back if it didn't get any better. When the drops didn't help, he would go over to the infirmary at 6:00 AM and stand in line for sick call to let them know his throat was still hurting. Once again, cough drops were the prescription.

Several months later, Willie quit singing his songs for us on Sunday mornings. He had written over 250 songs while he was in prison (most sounding oddly alike) and he loved to sing. But his voice was giving up on him. He talked with a constant mouth full of gravel and seemed to always have a pocketful of cough drops and one in his mouth.

Finally, after nearly two years of going to the infirmary for help, the prison decided to send him into Bakersfield for tests. When Willie came back, we sat down in the chapel office and I asked him how the tests went.

"Der not certain. Said it might be cancer. Gotta do some mo tests."

I could tell from his voice and his body language that it had not gone well. I asked when he would learn more and he said they just told him to keep an eye on the "call-out" and they schedule him back to the infirmary when they got the results back.

Several weeks later, I saw Willie in the chapel and he told me that he was going back to Bakersfield in the morning for more tests. We prayed together and I went off to the rec yard to walk with a friend.

That night was the last time I saw Willie...Mr. Griffin. After he went into Bakersfield, the compound was ripe with rumors about him. Everyone knew Mr. Griffin and most people liked him...staff and inmates alike. We soon heard that he was in the hospital and that he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Stories circulated that his family been called to the hospital to be with him...and that the prognosis was not good. We even heard that one of the staff members who had served as the preacher for our mid-week services had tried to visit him, but was denied because he no longer worked for the prison and Willie was still a Federal prisoner.

I don't know what happened to Willie. I was released about a month after he went into the hospital. But as I think about the way he was treated, my heart aches. There was no reason that they couldn't send Mr. Griffin to a specialist when the throat condition didn't improve after a few months. Would it have made a difference...no one can really say. But it might have. Maybe he could have published all of his songs as he dreamed. Or transferred to a camp where he would have had more freedom and access to his family.

But he was only a prisoner...and inmates don't always have the same privileges as the free man does on the outside. Maybe that's as it should be. If we are in prison, it's because we didn't something wrong and have consequences to pay for it. All I really know is that I lost a friend in prison. A quality man who loved God and loved people. A man who loved to sing and had a desire to share his gift with everyone around him. A man that I look forward to seeing in Heaven where I have no doubt he will entertaining the angels with his heart-composed songs.

1 comment:

Deb said...

This is a new story! I rates right up there with the Miss Davis story for me. I love your writing about the people you lived with for those three years. I love the dignity you see in people that most have given up on or at least look down on.

As your informal editor I think you should get as many of these people in writing as you can as soon as you can while they're still pretty fresh. A book of your prison time with each person a different chapter would be really unique and powerful and would serve to humanize a population that most of us have no idea about.

Great writing! Great writer! Love you.