The Workshop dance team at SCI Huntingdon (pictured onstage above) worked through the challenges of Performance, the 3rd step of our strategy. First they had to say yes to doing things that were outside their comfort zone. Then they had to follow a leader into the unknown and collaborate with people they didn’t know for the purpose of serving others. Finally, they stepped onto the stage to present to their peers what they had prepared under tight time constraints. Challenging choices for anyone, especially in prison, but a great way to develop the skills they need to be successful in life.
John* was a rather unwilling participant in a recent Workshop, a tough, young man who hid all emotion. He was constantly wary and averse to eye contact. But when his eyes were directed your way, they let you know that you should stay away. Harsh growing up years had made him an isolated loner, a dangerous man on the streets of Harrisburg, PA, before he arrived at a prison full of men with lots of similarities to him. He had accidentally signed up for our team and had no intention of staying with us, but for some reason, kept coming back.
Throughout most of the Workshop, John stayed on the fringes, participating and contributing just enough for us to keep him as a part of the team. He was assigned to the theatre team, whose role in our presentation is always to present the difficulties of life in a relevant way.
Charged to “keep it real,” dig into the hard questions we all ask about life, and do it collaboratively, the 7 men on the theatre team spent many hours developing their script together. John heard the others, mostly “lifers,” share their stories with increasing vulnerability as they sought to articulate their struggles. The stakes were very high, as prison is normally an environment where the goal is to be so tough that nobody will notice or bother you. Seeing the courage of his teammates, and with the human need to be known by others, John also started to open up and share in that group.
When parts in the script were assigned, John was given the role of a son who was sentenced to the same prison where his father had been incarcerated for many years. The father was excited to see the son, whose childhood he had missed. The son had disowned his father for his negligence and absence. Their turbulent interaction was one that many in the audience would understand well.
As the performances grew near, the men were all nervous. Coming back each day got harder as they not only faced the fear of speaking, singing, and even dancing in front of people, but the realization that with the hopes of serving others, they were taking a big risk.
John didn’t show up for the first of our three presentations, an unusual situation for us. The other men on the team were frustrated and angry with John. We had to calm them and coach them on patience and empathy for someone who was facing overwhelming fears. But he did show up for the second presentation. Having heard that the presentation had been well received by the audience, he was ready to break the image and aura within which he had lived his life for years.
John’s transformation for the rest of our time together was astounding. We saw smiles for the first time. He readily joined in our group activities. And he now would look you in the eye, with a gentle look rather than a fierce stare.
In our final download, he shared, “I never did anything good for others before, and for the first time I have had people tell me “good job” for doing something good. I am still adjusting to it. I’ve learned to trust people. I never had a Dad, so for me to be around these older dudes, I got a father for the first time. Instead of being a Blood or a Crip, I want to be part of a Jesus gang.”
Through Presence, we establish trust. Our Process provides opportunities for interaction, far beyond a classroom or even a discussion group setting. Performance raises the stakes, demands team work, and extends the positive changes far beyond our group. The benefits are reinforced in the future as men who saw themselves and were known as “criminals” now are seen by their peers as capable of doing good things, for themselves and others.
P.S. If you are ready to be a part of bringing hope to people who see no hope in their lives, we have an opportunity for you to consider! We are seeking 8 new people to be part of our support team through monthly donations. Would you help us bring a new view of life to people like John? Visit Support the Workshop!