Emiliano Bar

Jailhouse Rock

It was Y2K in my mitten-shaped homeland. I’d spent New Year’s Eve 1999 in the basement of a bank babysitting their servers. They didn’t spontaneously combust at midnight. In fact, computers all the world over seemed just fine with those fancy four-digit years. The apocalypse didn’t happen, the economy didn’t collapse, and not a single airplane fell out of the sky. But I digress. Getting to the point, ’00 was the year that I started a band.

I co-founded Doxa1 with some good friends. All of my bandmates were on the worship team of my home church. There was Caleb (drums/vocals), Curtis (lead vocals), Dan (bass), Nate (rhythm guitar), and a small army of volunteers, including our sound guys Sam and Corey. I played lead guitar. For the most part, we wrote and performed original material – all hard rock (+/-) with a strong Christian message. We played regularly for the youth group, as well as events at the church and out in the community. We released a single, had some local radio airplay, and went on to do more recording before I left the band due to a cross-country move.

It was an awesome experience. Some of the most memorable times of my life were behind my Stratocaster with this group of guys. It’s one of those things that’s tough to put into words – the highs, the lows, and the eventual payoff of hard musical work. The grinding on lyrics and arrangements, the goofing off, the laughter, and the absolute rush when everything comes together. The fact that our shared faith fueled our efforts only deepened the experience.

There is a lot I could share about this group of guys and our experiences. When I reflect on our time together, there is one event that really stands out above the rest.

Hope in a hopeless place

Our church was connected with Rich Rybka, the pastor of a church in Baldwin, MI. Pastor Rich also served as Chaplain at the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility – a maximum security prison for young men convicted of the most serious offenses. He extended an unexpected invitation to play a concert at the prison. We were more than a little intimidated by the prospect but we decided to do it anyway. I’m so glad that we did.

On the day of the concert, we packed our gear and our nerves and caravanned to the facility. Upon entry, guards made a detailed inventory of our gear – instruments, amplifiers, cables, drum sticks, and even guitar picks. On exit, all of the counts would need to match or the prison would go into lockdown until any missing items were located. We learned that even the smallest and most benign objects would be weaponized. (Miraculously, I didn’t misplace any of my guitar picks and our exit was free of any issues.)

We setup the stage in a large gymnasium in front of rows of folding plastic chairs. Once we were ready, the guards brought in the first of three groups of inmates. To keep the numbers down and rival elements within the population separated, we would play the same concert three times, back to back. The young men filed in under the guard’s direction from a hallway to the left. Once everyone was seated, the guards stood in a horseshoe formation, starting off the corners of the stage and surrounding the audience. At the end of the set, the inmates were directed down a different hallway to the right. This process repeated after each set. I don’t remember which group it was, but while we were playing, a young man was escorted in separately from the rest of the group in shackles and brought into a room stage right. The steel door was closed and locked and he watched the show through the room’s plexiglass window.

We played our guts out. The set was primarily our own music with a couple other songs thrown in. (I can’t find the set list but I know that Consuming Fire by Third Day was one of them). The response was explosive. This wasn’t a place where music lived – at least not at 120 face-melting decibels.

Midway through each set, one of us shared a brief gospel message. I remember speaking of Jesus, His forgiveness and the freedom that He gave, steel bars or not. Each micro-message was concluded with an invitation to stand and pray a prayer of salvation. In all, we had 80 young men stand and pray that day. It was surreal. It really impacted me. Scratch that. It changed me. Seeing God work in such a cold, hard, and ugly place is something that I will always carry with me.

I know, I know. The realist regions of my gooey gray matter would tell me that many of the guys that stood were probably not sincere. “Jailhouse conversion” is a thing. But I think it’s fair to say that some of them did mean it and really, if no one stood, it still would have been worth it. Beyond planting a gospel seed, we showed those young men that we cared. This wasn’t a paid gig. There were no photo ops or accompanying social media self-promotion. Social media didn’t even exist. This was five dudes that showed up for them.

Closing thoughts

I think about this experience often. I think about those young men – those that stood and those that didn’t. I think about all that has happened in my life in the twenty years since that concert: kids, jobs, houses, divorce, remarriage, travel, weddings, funerals, events, highs, lows, and thousands of ordinary moments that I take for granted. Life. Those young men aren’t young anymore. As I write this, they are still behind bars. That is really difficult for me to comprehend.

Today, I play in a rock/alternative cover band that I (also) started with worship team/church friends. Although we play mainstream secular music, we do plan to Johnny Cash it up and bring live music to unlikely venues. We played at a homeless shelter earlier this year and we’ve talked about playing prisons. As excited as I am about that prospect, I’d also like do some intentionally evangelical musical outreach at correctional facilities. Stay tuned!

1 We changed the name of the band to Sun Stood Still after receiving a letter from an attorney representing a much more established Doxa.

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