Adriana Perera, right, with a group of volunteers as they prepare to visit the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana.
Every Thursday morning, six to 10 incarcerated teenagers at the Saint Joseph Correctional Facility in Berrien County, Mich., attend a music lesson hosted by the Andrews University Department of Music. It also holds a weekly Saturday music education program for 12–15 male inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana.
Adriana Perera, chair of the Department of Music, has been going to Saint Joseph since January 2018. This smaller program only allows one music teacher to attend at a time. The Westville Saturday program, also known as the “Beyond Bars” ministry, started in October. At that time, 28 Andrews University music faculty, staff and students volunteered and attended a training session provided by Rod Kitchen, the Westville Correctional Community Service coordinator. Currently the group rotates so that approximately 5–7 students and faculty attend each week. Inmates are given music theory, keyboard, guitar and singing lessons.
The inspiration for this outreach came from an experience Perera had as a music teacher in Spain. She would go with the choir to the prison there and sing for special occasions, like Christmas or Easter. A choir member friend of Perera’s visited the prison every Saturday and eventually initiated a choir. She and her husband, both musicians, led the choir for 10 years in Valencia. Perera says, “Their testimony has been an inspiration for me. Now my husband and I are leading this local prison ministry project together. He also is an educator, and loves to sing and teach songs in several languages.”
Even though the prison outreach is relatively new, the results are beautiful. Students in Saint Joseph are writing melodic dictations, and some are now able to play an excerpt from Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” or the first few bars of “Lean on Me.” In Westville, prisoners continually express their love of the program and their excitement to participate. Perera shares, “Each Saturday when we finally arrive and get to the room (after going through many security procedures), they are already sitting and anxiously waiting for the class to start. That is moving to see!”
While it is indeed a challenge to attend every week, the end goal is to find more volunteers to participate in Saint Joseph so there is a rotating schedule like Westville. Furthermore, Perera also is working hard to establish a choir in Westville and have them sing for Christmas and other special events. There is, in fact, a theater inside the correctional facility, and the Department of Music would like to present a music recital there at least once a year.
“Music is powerful beyond words and can do what words alone can never do. When you go to the prison, you see how music brings light and joy to the lives of these people,” shares Perera. “Music touches their hearts, connects with their souls. It brings a smile to their faces and, oftentimes, tears. Melody and rhythm help them to remember the lyrics, so when we sing “Amazing Grace,” you know its message has been planted in their heart and will resonate in them during the week. That is my favorite part and the most rewarding aspect of this ministry.”
Hannah Gallant, University Communication student writer, Andrews University
Photo credit: David Quero