God in Music

His smiling face greeted me as I pulled up at the transition house where he was staying. A few smokers were huddled next to the door and cast suspicious glances my way. “He’s okay”, Nick told them. “He’s the chaplain.”  And it was at that very moment I saw the continued grace of God shining on a man who many had given up on.  I handed Nick a guitar that had been promised to him by another pastor, a gift never fulfilled, to a man whose life had been shattered by broken promises.

I had first met Nick at a Holy Week service in the prison three years before.  He was one of a trio who made up the inmate guitar program.  Before the service, he confessed to me he had only picked up the guitar seven days before. Well, he strummed through The Old Wooden Cross, and didn’t look out of place.  Still, that wasn’t a hint of the amazing story I’d learn from Nick over the coming months.

We struck up a friendship that day and he became a weekly visitor to Pastoral Care. His sharing didn’t come easy, but I learned his childhood had the atrocities of hell.  He had suffered abuse of all sorts, spent weeks chained to a bathtub, locked in a basement, forced to do things my fingers refuse to type.  And now, he was incarcerated for kidnapping, forcible confinement, sexual assault, and a lengthy list of other charges.

He had pleaded not guilty, and the remand time stretched on and on, in an overburdened court system. More than one guard shared with me that they figured he had become institutionalized, and might never again see, let alone, survive on the outside.

Complicating all of this mess was the fact that Nick could not read or write, and now was trying to learn guitar.

For months, I served as his sounding board, confessor and more. He’d bring that guitar through the metal detector and up a flight of stairs, to play me his latest conquest. He was so proud, and would smile, as he touted he was ‘playing like a champ’.  I learned he would have another inmate read the words for him, and he’d play by ear….and memorize the lyrics.

All this time that he was coming to see me, before and after the guitar playing, we’d talk about his life, his crime, his future, and God. It wasn’t long before Nick was wearing a cross around his neck and sharing in prayer with me. I saw his tears and his fears.  I saw God’s grace grant a miracle before my very eyes….the eyes of this audience of one.

Nick ultimately took responsibility for what had happened on the outside. By now, most of his sentence had already been served.

This man, who could not read, write, or play guitar, spent his final months of prison singing and providing music at my weekly service.  And now, he was almost free. He’d serve the rest of his “time” at a halfway house.

I was no longer the audience, but this guitar I delivered today would be his companion to complete his journey.  As I drove away, I checked my rearview mirror, and there was Nick, sitting on the sidewalk, surrounded by friends, strumming and picking away and belting out a tune.

Nick is still playing and praying….and oh yes, today, he is free!

Gerry Phelan is the Roman Catholic Chaplain at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St.John's, Newfoundland, Canada. He previously spent 37 years as an award-winning journalist, in radio, print and television. He calls his chaplain's work "the most rewarding" thing he has ever done.

  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 20:55h, 12 August Reply

    Great to hear a good news story! It is good to befriend those who have served their “time” and taken responsibility for their wrongdoing/mistakes. We must remind them that is who they were once but that is not the person I now have come to know and appreciate.

  • Peggy Spencer
    Posted at 05:34h, 13 August Reply

    Another story of love, hope, forgiveness, and new beginnings. I pray that Nick is still strumming his gratitude to God and leading others also on this path.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 09:58h, 13 August Reply

    Thank you Gerry!

  • Karen Arthurs
    Posted at 11:47h, 13 August Reply

    loving instead of judging has joy-filled responses.

  • Sami Helewa
    Posted at 15:06h, 13 August Reply

    Amazing life despite the brokenness. Thank you Gerry fir sharing.

  • John Matheson, SJ
    Posted at 15:42h, 13 August Reply

    Having recently completed twenty five years of involvement with prisoners and ex-prisoners in our “Friends on the Outside” community (Regina, Saskatchewan), I can only begin to guess the joy that Nick feels as he “jams” with his growing community of friends! and their joy in their own transformation.

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