The spirit of the holidays filled the San Quentin Protestant Chapel for more than 300 volunteers and prisoners at the annual Christmas Banquet.
“It’s such a joyous occasion. It’s the best day of the year for so many of us!” said Fred Cole, one of about 250 men in blue.
Some 50 volunteers and the inmates braved the rain and wind on the cold gray Saturday morning, Dec. 7. Inside they joined in a heart-warming celebration to begin the holy holiday season.
Chaplain Mardi Ralph Jackson, dressed in festive red and black, greeted the guests with a warm smile and a handshake. “God bless you,” she said as they passed through the foyer into the beautifully decorated chapel.
Golden angels stood 12 feet high on both sides of the entrance. Green holly and pine garlands and wreaths with red ribbons and bows and glowing lights decked the windows, bannisters and walls.
“Rejoice, Christ is Born,” announced two of the festive banners. The gathering crowd mingled and engaged in lively discussions.
Guests filled the hundreds of seats at place settings with red cups and Christmas napkins on tables draped with red tablecloths. Mini Christmas tree centerpieces glowed with alternating color lights and “Believe” ornaments glittered with gold on each of the 34 tables.
The annual banquet acknowledges the hundreds of dedicated volunteers who share the love of Christ with the chapel’s congregation throughout the year. The guests of honor, the volunteers from all the Christian fellowship groups, sat side-by-side with the men in blue at each table.
“Hallelujah, praise the Lord!” began the emcee as the entire crowd rose to its feet. “The Lord is good.”
Chaplain Jackson joined the Garden Chapel Worship Team, a choir of nine with four musicians – in singing, “We worship You for who You are…hallelujah.”
Then an elder opened in prayer “Thank You, Father God, sup with us, bless us and keep us while we worship You…Amen.”
“Hallelujah!” praised Chaplain Jackson. “On behalf of the men in blue and myself, we welcome you. Thank You, Jesus. We worship Him today. We honor Him. He is worthy.
“We acknowledge every man who worked to turn this sanctuary into a place of celebration. Thank you, Elder Derrick Holloway, thank you brother Christopher Harris. Thanks to the men in the kitchen cooking right now, the crew at the door, musicians, men in leadership and Spanish ministries. Thanks to all our volunteers who sacrifice without any pay and give of themselves in the Lord’s service.”
“Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” rang out through the chapel as the Worship Team began singing anew. The audience, still standing, joined in the spirited performance, “Let earth receive her King.”
The next song had everyone clapping and swaying to the rhythm, “…Glory to the newborn King.”
Next came Tim Young on acoustic guitar, followed by an a cappella solo of “He is Able.” Both performers received standing ovations.
Evangelist Paula Bates from Prayer Garden, who volunteers inside San Quentin with the Greater Love program, had this message: “I can’t help myself but lift my hands and say, ‘Glory hallelujah.’”
In her bright red, black and white dress, Bates complimented the stage decorations that included poinsettias, wrapped packages, wreaths and stockings and a 12-foot-high Christmas tree with lights, garlands, balls and an angel on top.
The entire audience stood as Bates began to sing, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, what a wonder you are.” The musicians joined in and guests sang along, waving their raised hands.
The Prodigal Sons quartet then captivated the audience with a medley, “Merry Christmas to you…Silent night, holy night, Christ the Savior is born…”
The audience responded with joyous praise, cheer and applause. The in-house talent continued with two brothers rapping, “The plan God has for you,” a Spanish prayer, “Gracias Padre bendito, todo para Ti” and “Amazing Grace” a cappella.
Then came the feast served to everyone: barbequed chicken leg and thigh, turkey ham, macaroni and cheese, barbequed beans, corn, potato salad, a roll with butter, cake with chocolate icing and punch. The banquet was so well attended, some of the premium table seats were used twice.
“This is way better than standing in line in the rain for a tray of the same old stuff,” said one San Quentin resident, thoroughly enjoying the top-notch dining experience. “This is even better than Thanksgiving!” commented another.
The voices of fellowship from each table’s conversations kept the chapel warm during supper, even as the cold storm continued outside. A couple of volunteers were talking with a San Quentin resident at one table. Chris Clark, a volunteer with Cornerstone Fellowship, has been coming into San Quentin for six years.
“This is amazing. God is bringing glory right to where we are,” said Clark. After struggling with addiction for 28 years, faith transformed him. “I had my come-to-Jesus moment and woke up with a new hope and a new high,” he shared.
“I really love coming here, I love being here, I love the fellowship and the testimonies,” said Ronda Clark, who has been volunteering with Cornerstone at The Q for about a year. She and Chris have been married for five years and they share the same sobriety date in 2012.
“I tried it once and I was hooked,” said Ronda about the Christian Fellowship volunteer program. “You don’t even know how much we are blessed by you. It warms my heart every time. Even after we leave the prison, we keep you in our hearts and prayers.”
The Clarks pray with the inmates during the evening services. They will be here two more times in December, including Christmas caroling in the cell blocks.
Rick Burger has been a San Quentin resident about three years. He expressed appreciation for the chapel volunteers and the opportunities they bring: “Thank you for sharing your blessings with us. I hope I can be as big a blessing to others, inside and out.” Burger continued, “If someone would have told me when I was in county jail that when I go to prison, I would attend college, go to church and work, and become an amazing soldier for God, I would have told them, ‘Let’s pray for something a little more realistic.’ This chapel is a miracle.”
As the dining slowed down, entertainment resumed. Soothing acoustic guitar by David was followed by a “parable” by comedian Jesse Ayers that got the crowd roaring with laughter.
Chaplain Jackson took the stage once again to present the certificates to the volunteers. “The San Quentin Garden Chapel Christian Fellowship presents these certificates to you to express our gratitude for you and all you do to share the love and fellowship of Jesus Christ with us,” she said to each group. Representatives came onto the stage to accept the certificates and say a few words.
Some of the groups and volunteers recognized were 19th Street Baptist Church, Second Chance Ministry, Man to Man Ministries, Hillside Covenant, Tiburon Baptist Church, Malachi Dads, Aldo Yannon, Steve Wiegert, Overcomers, Evangelist Leslie Smith, New Faith Cathedral, Brother Donald Mack, Pastor Tom Pham, Elder Darryl Jenkins, Pastor and Sister Hipple, Evangelist Sam and Karen Knapp and Larry Wilson.
“How many mighty men of God we have here!” said Chaplain Jackson. The audience burst into a standing ovation.
“During this season, if you feel like giving up or if you feel like you’re all alone, remember God loves you. Jesus is your hope,” said Evangelist Paula. Then she closed the celebration with a strong and soulful song, “He is the reason…Jesus is the reason…”
The sun shone in through the chapel windows as the storm outside cleared and the guests began to trickle back out to the garden.