Tuesday is jail night. As a volunteer at my local county jail, I pray with and give counsel to female inmates. Most of the residents there are between twenty and forty, many have small children, some are pregnant.
We volunteers meet with the chaplain before going behind locked doors. One night, when I entered the conference room, the chaplain, usually smiling and joking around, was standing at a distance looking melancholy. I asked him if he was sad. He nodded. After a few minutes hesitation he told me he had given his daughter away in marriage on Friday. It was an emotional time for him, struggling with the finality of her leaving home.
I tried to cheer him up with a bit of chitchat, then asked about the wedding music. He said, “Well, she had the usual songs, but at the last minute she decided to end the ceremony with ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow,’ a song her grandmother used to sing to her.” (I was thinking that was a pretty unusual choice for a young bride.)
“Hmmm I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the church,” I offered. His smile faded as he slowly turned away and sank into his chair at the end of the conference table. So much for cheering him up! I prayed the Lord would lift his spirits.
After a short devotion and prayer, we filed into the lockdown portion of the jail. For twelve weeks prior, I had been visiting the section called “Gen-1,” a dorm-like room containing eight bunk beds. I wondered how many of the beds would be occupied that day as I walked down a hall, turned right and pressed a button for access. The door slammed loudly behind me, announcing my presence, and I was welcomed with smiles and nods by several girls playing cards. One of them couldn’t wait to tell me about one of their new roommates who had a gorgeous singing voice.
“Too bad, you won’t be able to hear her sing tonight, because she has laundry duty.”
I expressed my disappointment; then asked if anyone would like prayer. As usual, time flew by quickly and at eight fifty-five I checked my watch, ended the scripture reading with a prayer and said good-bye to my friends. I pushed a button and central security buzzed open the door allowing me to leave. I walked quickly to the next locked door and was buzzed out into a long corridor. Halfway down the hallway was the door to the chaplain’s office where the volunteers return bibles and check themselves out. As I reached for the doorknob I saw two girls coming my way. They were pushing laundry carts. Trailing behind them was the chaplain, still looking a little down. I decided to walk toward them, and when they were about to pass me by I spoke. “Which one of you is the singer?”
The second one raised her hand, “I am!”
“Please sing something for me!”
She wasn’t surprised. She thought for a moment, then began to sing.
“For Jesus is my portion
My constant Friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.”
I pointed to the chaplain. Our mouths dropped.
It was the same song—the one from his daughter’s wedding!
Acoustics in the hallway echoed, providing perfect amplification. Her voice was rich, high and clear, as she embellished the melody. Oh, yes! She really was as good as her reputation. I began singing with her in a glorious duet, following a third away from her high notes, adding some jazzy twists as she led with a Rhythm and Blues style.
“I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free,
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me.”
We soared effortlessly while joyous echoes resounded throughout the jail. It was a rare happening. Were heavenly voices choosing the notes and carrying the sound?
I didn’t want the moment to end. I asked if she knew “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and that became a duet as well. Several of the men on our team arrived just in time to breathe in the music. They later commented that we sounded like angels. “Bringing a bit of heaven to Earth,” one of them added.
The irony was evident. A convicted felon was singing about happiness and freedom, companionship and protection, ministering to a man whose purpose had been to bring comfort to others. The singer said she didn’t know why she had thought of that song.
“I never sing that song,” she insisted.
Suddenly there was a loud slam from a door closing and we were jolted back to earth. A warden was coming down the hall from behind me.
Still giddy, and not remembering where I was, I turned to him and said in excited tones, “Oh! You just missed the singing!”
He was not amused. His face was set in a disgusted frown. “NO, I did not!” he retorted, as he marched by us. I held my breath. No goodbyes from the girls. They straightened up, quickly pushed their carts down the hall and disappeared.
Back in the office, the chaplain was beside himself, grinning from ear to ear. “If I had left the men’s section at the time I usually do, I would have missed the singing. For some reason I was ten minutes early!”
I told him we were probably going to get written up, and maybe even kicked out. He said he wouldn’t care. “This was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the many years I’ve been coming to the jail!”
Minutes later I drove home in silence, but the song lingered on. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”
* * * * * * * *
A week later, Amy, another jail volunteer, told me more about the singing inmate. Amy had been sitting in an open recreation area at a time when half the incarcerated women in that ward were in their cells; the other half were exercising, playing cards or watching TV. One was sitting alone with a bad attitude, frowning when the volunteer approached her. Amy did her best to break down that wall of stubbornness. After a few short exchanges, she had an idea. She presented a challenge: A suggestion that singing might be a way of chasing the demons and taking charge of her drug recovery.
Not wanting to comply at first, the girl was incredulous.
“Sing? Here? Right now?”
Amy continued her story: “Much to my surprise, the inmate took up the challenge and began to sing. Immediately, ladies in the recreation area stopped in their tracks. Those in cells peered out their windows. Jaws dropped. Time stood still while they listened to the soaring phrases of a gospel message more powerful than any preacher. When her song ended, there was a loud burst of applause and cheers!”
In days that followed, I learned the singer’s voice often echoed throughout the entire maze of hallways, reaching the ears of other inmates, both men and women. The once disgruntled, sour-faced inmate, was now a gifted woman, boldly facing her demons—a songbird bringing light into darkness.
“And the beat goes on” as we say in jazz (meaning there is more to this story). Three weeks after our memorable duet, I visited the jail and there was the singer, sitting at a table with two other young women in “Gen-1.” She greeted me, waved me over, and we wasted no time to begin singing.
At one point we stopped to pray. After prayer, the singer and I shared the story of our hallway duet. We told the two girls about the chaplain’s surprise and we explained the meaning of the song, “His eye is on the sparrow.” At that, the girl to my left broke into a huge, mischievous grin. I said to her, “You look like you have something up your sleeve. What’s up?”
I was blown away when she said, “We both have sparrow tattoos!”
What! She bared her left arm to reveal a large bird tattoo. I asked what was the significance, and she said the sparrow stood for strength and endurance. The other girl pulled her shirt aside to show a bird on her left upper chest. She said she had chosen it simply because she thought it would look good opposite the flowers on the right side.
I was thrilled. With new energy, I pointed out how fortunate they were to have reminders that go with them everywhere—sparrows reminding them of how much God loves and values them.
Weeks later, I received a card from the chaplain’s daughter, who I had been told was an artist. It was a thank-you note for the wedding gift I sent her. While I was reading, something fell to the floor. Another surprise! It was a mini-sized, unframed artwork of a bird sitting on a tree branch. An arc over the bird’s head said “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” The bride’s painting now sits on my dresser—my own daily reminder of God’s abundant love for me!
I have read that sparrow tattoos have a place in prison culture where the birds symbolize freedom. I have also read that sparrows mate for life and so for some, sparrow tattoos symbolize love and loyalty. I have not read that sparrows are known for their singing. Yet, I happen to know of a county jail where a sparrow soars and sings a song of freedom.
The songbird is no longer singing in jail. I’m thrilled to see her daily God messages posted on Facebook. According to her own words, she has been sober for five years and is enjoying her life of freedom with purpose. God is using her extraordinary gifts to uplift others and to glorify Him.