“Jesus is not only the reason for the season – but for all 365 days a year.”
The gospel song “Lord, We Praise Your Name” rang loudly throughout the San Quentin Garden Chapel as the prison choir greeted more than 300 inmates and guests to celebrate its annual Christian Banquet.
The May 11 event brought fellowship, food and festivities to honor the hundreds of volunteers who have steadfastly shared the love of Christ with the inmates throughout the year. The banquet is the only time members of the dozens of churches that participate can get to know each other.
The event was scheduled for Christmas time, but was postponed twice due to prison lockdowns, including a quarantine. A gold and white banner hanging on the pulpit simply said “Victory,” capturing the faith and determination of the worshipers, volunteers and organizers.
“I am pinching myself because it is finally happening,” said Chaplain Mardi Ralph Jackson, who welcomed the crowd. “It was a long journey. Thank you, Jesus – Halleluiah!”
Elder Derrick Holloway opened in prayer, “Jesus is not only the reason for the season – but for all 365 days a year.”
The dozens of volunteers mingled with the incarcerated worshipers as they all sat together at tables spread with tablecloths and bouquets. The overflow crowd meant extra chairs were placed around the walls, where many prisoners wait- ed for an opening at a table.
The music by the prison’s Garden Chapel Worship Team had bodies swaying with hands waving high in the air as the large crowd joined in singing “We praise your name, Lord, and we lift you higher, higher.”
The audience remained standing for the uplifting performance by The Prodi- gal Sons – a inmate quartet – that sang an original gospel song titled “God Answers Prayers.”
Sanet Allen, sporting a red jacket, took the stage next. She dazzled the crowd with an operatic solo of The Lord’s Prayer, prompting a rousing standing ovation.
“Music ministry is part of my life,” Allen told a San Quentin News reporter. “I like to give something back.” She began volunteering in San Quentin last fall. She said she found something unexpected in the prison.
“There was so much love and joy; it was overwhelm- ing,” Allen said. “Now I’m addicted.”
Allen’s professional music career includes singing with the Cape Town Opera in South Africa and touring internationally.
Allen volunteers with the Tiburon Baptist Church, one of dozens of churches and groups that sponsor Christian services in the prison chapel.
“They guide us and let us know we’re not alone,” said Quincy Paige, a 31-year-old inmate. He has attended the services on Saturdays and Sundays since transferring to San Quentin about a year ago.
“When I’m in this chapel, I don’t feel like I’m in prison.”
Paige added that today he was here for the fellowship and the food.
The meal was far finer fare than standard prison chow. Each guest was served roast beef, barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, corn, carrots, a biscuit, punch, apple crisp, and a cookie.
“This is a banquet indeed,” said one content diner.
“Hace 10 años que no me siento en una mesa con un florero,” (It’s been 10 years since I’ve sat at a table with a bouquet), said 64-year-old inmate Arnoldo Rivas. It reminded him of being home – with friends and family. Rivas attends the services in Spanish on Friday and Sunday nights.
“I was a soldier for a prison gang for years,” said 53-year-old David Rodriguez. Incarcerated for 27 years, he rededicated his life to Christ in 2010. This was Rodriguez’ first banquet. Two days earlier, he was found suitable for parole. “I’m a true miracle of the Lord – He opened the doors.”
This was also the first banquet for Susie Erin, who has been volunteering in San Quentin for over five years. Every three months she comes in with Tiburon Baptist Church on Saturday evenings. Their pastor delivers the message and Erin sings with their choir.
“The guys sing better than we do, but we sing anyway and they appreciate it,” Erin said.
“The guys that come in are really exuberant. They’re not just coming here to get out of their cells. They really want to worship.” Erin said that was unexpected at first.
After the meal, the celebration continued with some comedy by inmate Jessie Ayers. On stage, he said he was asked to do a clean comedy act, but couldn’t comply – because he got barbecue sauce on his shirt. The comedian wished the mothers a happy Mother’s Day and added, “I want to invite you all to the Mother’s Day banquet. It will be in December – right around Christmas.” The chapel roared with laughter through Ayers’ entire routine.
Musical worship by Sister Linda Jackson and The Well got the audience sing- ing and moving again.
Then Chaplain Jackson took the stage. “We’d like to acknowledge all the volunteers with certificates of appreciation,” she said.
“The San Quentin Garden Chapel Christian Fellowship presents this certificate to (each group) with our deepest gratitude and thanks. This certificate expresses our gratitude for you and all you do to share the love and fellowship of Jesus Christ with us,” Chaplain Jackson read.
Some of the groups and volunteers recognized were Cornerstone, One Accord Ministry, Malachi Dads, Aldo Yannon, Steve Wiegert, Overcomers, Evangelist Leslie Smith, Brother Donald Mack, Pastor Tom Pham, Elder Darryl Jenkins, Nathaniel Sparks, Anthony Evans, and Sister Hipple.
Chaplain Jackson concluded, “I really do love each and every one of you. God bless you.”
Solid gospel by New Faith Cathedral had the entire crowd on their feet, clapping, swaying, and repeat- ing full-volume, “Halle – Halle, luiah – luiah!”
After the grand gospel finale, the audience settled down for the closing prayer by Brother Patrick Baylis.
—Marcus Henderson contributed to this story