Throughout Lent, Pray Tell is highlight stories of individuals and organizations which inspire and challenge us by their self-giving service to others.
When one thinks of church choirs, one thinks of choir lofts and anthems and rehearsals and the like. But as important as all that is, it’s not all that the Folk Choir at the University of Notre Dame is about. From the beginnings of the choir under founding director Steve Warner, social outreach to prisoners has been an important part of the choir’s ministry.
Karen Schneider-Kirner has been with the Folk Choir since 1997 and served as director and also composed for the choir. She was immediately pleased to see that under her colleague Steve Warner the choir regularly sang on Mother’s Day at a maximum security state prison in Michigan City. This Mother’s Day tradition continues under current leader J.J. Wright.
This prison is very run down. There is pealing paint on the wall, no bright colors, no open windows for fresh air. And it is there that the choir brings its message of hope and beauty to the inmates. Many of the inmates were not able to be present when their own mothers were buried, so that day can be particularly painful for them. The choir insistes on having a “meet and greet” with the men in the middle of the concert, to shake hands and talk with the men as individuals.
For her part, Schneider-Kirner started the “Celebration Choir” at Notre Dame for football weekend Masses. In addition to singing on campus, this group sang at social service agencies such as Center for the Homeless or Dismas House for rehabilited prisoners. The choir sang two concerts each fall at the South Bend Juvenile Just Center – one for male and one for female youths. In the spring they sang at Westville Correctional Facility, the largest prison in Indiana, with over 3,000 inmates, 50% people of color. Today this choir is under student leadership, but the ministry to these facilities continues. And at Schneider-Kirner’s encouragement, the Gospel Choir, Voices of Faith, has also begun going to Westville Correctional annually.
Schneider-Kirner says that she and the singers at Notre Dame are inspired by the USCCB statement from 2000, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. The bishops’ statement emphasizes that we should not forget about his population, the majority of which comes from poverty and who are oftentimes victims of violence themselves.
“Visiting prisoners is one of the corporal works of mercy, found in the teachings of Jesus,” Schneider-Kirner notes, but it is difficult at first for those who “have no particular connection to someone who is incarcerated.” She emphasizes that “we know our personal safety will not be an issue, as both prison staff and the inmates want our visit to go smoothly.”
Prisoners send poems, notes of thanks, occasionally even oil paintings to singers after they have returned to Notre Dame, Schneider-Kirner says. The choir includes an intention at the end of each Thursday night’s rehearsal “for the men of Michigan City prison” and for all the incarcerated.
Schneider-Kirner says that Lent is a perfect time for a church choir to do social outreach. In fact, this very day the choir is sing a piece originally composed for the men of Westville Correctional Facility: “If God is For Us, Who Can be Against Us?”
“We sing it, and remember,” she says.