The inmates at the St. Mary's County Detention Center clapped and rocked to the music yesterday during a not-so-traditional Southern Maryland Christmas concert held behind bars.
"Welcome, everybody. You're in for a treat," said the Rev. Damian Shadwell, parish priest of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in St. Inigoes. He came to the detention center yesterday afternoon with his church's gospel choir.
The billed as a Christmas concert, the choir's performance included about twice as many gospel tunes as holiday songs. The singers traveled to Leonardtown from their tiny parish in southern St. Mary's County.
The performance was a first of sorts at the county detention center, where groups have serenaded inmates with carols at Christmastime for years. Until now, the singers had always had to remain outside the jail.
"This is so good. Since we can't go home for Christmas, they're bringing Christmas to us," said a 41-year-old inmate who was enjoying the concert.
Choir member Mabel Foote of Lexington Park said she had given up a holiday shopping day but didn't mind volunteering her time to be part of the program. "This brings so much joy to a lot of people," she said.
Accompanied by guitars, keyboards and tambourines, the choir presented two performances in the detention center's gymnasium. The first was for about 60 male inmates, many of them detainees being held for the Immigration and Naturalization Service; the second for 14 female prisoners.
Performing at the detention center was an extension of her faith, said Ida Briscoe, a soprano.
In a program of Christmas songs and gospel praise music, it was an old Louis Armstrong favorite, "What a Wonderful World," that brought the inmates to their feet.
"We love spreading the gospel to the community and especially the people who can't come to us," said Shirley Dickerson, president of the choir.
Yesterday, that community included the county sheriff and many of his deputies, who clapped along with the spirited music. St. Mary's Sheriff David Zylak said the inmates truly enjoyed the event.
"Just because they are paying a debt to society doesn't mean that they have to be treated inhumanely," Zylak said. "We just wanted to let them know that society has not forgotten about them."
Permission for the concert came about through heavy lobbying by the center's activities coordinator and by Shadwell, who teaches a Bible study class at the jail.
The program began with the Lord's Prayer. Then, Shadwell read the story from the Book of Acts of how the Apostle Paul and Silas sung hymns while they were imprisoned jail.
"There is no hardship so great that we can't sing hymns to God," Shadwell said.
One of the concert's most emotional moments came at the end, when Elena Hall sang "I Just Can't Give Up Now," a song made popular by gospel group Mary Mary.
The choir sang lyrics that included "Nobody told me that the road would be easy, but I just don't think that he brought me this far to leave me." Many of the inmates dropped their heads, while others nodded and smiled.