The sounds of gospel shook San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel as it hosted more than 250 inmates and 60 guests at its Annual Christian Banquet to close out 2017.
Chaplain Mardi Ralph Jackson and 30 Christian volunteers were honored at the Dec. 9 event for their service within the institution. Certificates of Appreciation were also presented to multiple churches and organizations for their contributions.
Derrick Holloway, representing the prison congregation, surprised Jackson with a wooden plaque for her tireless work, sacrifices, and for nurturing the spirits of the men in blue.
“I’m so humble to be honored by God,” said Jackson, who paused for several seconds as tears rolled from her eyes. “I’m honored to stand in a place of men of the Almighty God. I understand who you are,” added the small-statured woman with the big heart.
Jackson thanked her husband for “holding down the fort” in Los Angeles while she is miles away doing God’s work. Jackson, respectfully known as Mother Jackson, knows most of the large prison congregation by name and her office door is always open to the young, the old, and men of different faiths.
“It’s obvious—these men needed a good mom while they are here,” said Minister Linsie Arroyo, a volunteer from Well Christian Community Church. “It’s nothing like the family of God. The local churches need you out there. You have many teachers but no fathers. There is no prison like San Quentin, so pray for your brothers at other prisons, for much is given, much is required.”
Holloway added, “Mother Jackson helps us become leaders and that leadership is about helping others. She is the model of that for me. She teaches us to be a light in this dark world. I thank her and what I have learned from her will always be a part of my life.”
The audience enjoyed a variety of performances. The Praise and Worship Team (the prison choir) had people dancing in the aisles when they sung “Jesus a Wonderful Child.” The inmate group Prodigal Son sang an original piece called “Encourage” that received a standing ovation.
Volunteers Elder Rash and Pamela Bates had the congregation bowing their heads and swaying their hands in the air as their powerful voices echoed throughout the chapel. They sang “I Love You Jesus More Than Anything.”
Their vocal chemistry put one in the mind of gospel team CeCe and BeBe Winans.
“Being a part of this congregation keeps me grounded in my relationship with God,” said Mike Boutta, singer with Prodigal Son. “Mother Jackson holds us accountable. She is committed to God’s work, and she instills that in us.”
Sister Linda Jackson (no relation) and Tammy Crane’s soulful voices bought the audience to its feet when they performed their individual sets.
“It’s an honor to walk with a sister like Chaplain Jackson,” Linda Jackson said. “Many chaplains have walked through that door, but none like her.”
Charles “Pookie” Sylvester told a couple of jokes about family and church. One that had the audience laughing: “Our congregation reminds me of the Smurfs with all these men-in-blue and one female.”
The youth of the prison flock represented with gospel rap. Wisdom Arbee and Jamere Harris performed “I’m Doing Better” and received a round of applause. LeMar “Maverick” Harrison and A.J. Gonzales rocked the house with “Oh Lord,” a rap and singing duet.
“It’s encouraging to see how many volunteers are committed to these men,” said Mattie Zito, a certificate recipient from the Urban Ministry Institute. “Men are being paroled and you can recognize that hope is raising and that’s reassuring.”
After receiving his certificate, Pastor Bernard Emerson said, “God is building an army here to take back our streets for Jesus. These men are being prepared not to be paid pastors but pastors who are trying to get to heaven.”
Others who received awards were Cornerstone Church, the New Faith Cathedral Church, Valley Christ Center, and Pastor Tom Pham of Red Hill Vietnamese Church. David Mack and Aldo Yannon were honored for conducting services when Chaplain Jackson wasn’t available. In addition, the Well Community Church; the Malachi Brothers, who taught a fatherhood class; Mervin Watkins; Citizens of Zion Baptist Church in Compton; and San Quentin News adviser John Eagan of Tiburon Church were recognized.