“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is one of many songs the incarcerated population at San Quentin will not hear carolers singing this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For many years, volunteers from multiple outside churches, accompanied by a group of incarcerated members of the SQ Garden Chapel, spent a chilly December evening singing Christmas carols in the cell blocks.
During this joyous season of the year, songs that bring love, joy, hope, and spiritual uplifting will not be heard within the walls of the prison units because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The popular Christmas banquet has also been cancelled.
“What I’ll miss the most by not being able to carol this year is the tremendous sense of love, fellowship, compassion and care the singers from outside bring,” said Robert Barnes.
Giving freely of their time and voices on a night when people are home preparing festive feasts honoring the birth of Christ, SQ’s extended family could be found dedicating their evening to the men of San Quentin, bringing light into the dark walls of prison life.
“It is easy to lose sight while in prison of being redeemable,” said Barnes. “The carolers coming from outside are reminders—messengers of God’s love.”
“The humanity the singers bring inside is a testimony to how a person should not be defined by the crime he or she committed,” said Charles “Pookie” Sylvester. “They have been volunteering to come in for years. They must believe that we are not the monsters that society depicts us as.”
When the men would hear that the carolers had entered the building, they would line the tiers, many joining in singing their favorite Christmas songs.
Selections would include “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The residents’ favorite was usually “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The singers would receive praise and honor with loud handclaps, shouts of “Thank you!” and “Merry Christmas!” cheers.
The group would sing in the main cell blocks, and sometimes in dorm buildings. Rarely they were allowed into Death Row. When not allowed, the carolers sang in the atrium just outside Death Row where the men could hear the music.
“I will be keeping the happiness, health, and wellbeing of all the carolers in my prayers and heart,” said Barnes. “I’m looking forward to when we’ll meet again.”
“I sincerely miss the church and the whole evangelistic experience of God’s community coming together to celebrate Jesus Christ to all in San Quentin,” said Anthony Waldrip, SQ church member.
“Keep your head up and keep knowing that Christ has everything under control…(PUSH) pray until something happens,” said Andress Yancy, SQ church member.
Waldrip added, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 4:31, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread (of COVID-19), for the Lord our God goes with us. He will not leave or forsake us.”