Dateline:Alabama: Community helper inspires prison inmates through music

Story originally posted to Dateline: Alabama on Oct. 23, 2013

By Arielle Peacock

The sound of three acoustic guitars echoes off the walls in harmony, while a faint tapping on the ground slowly builds into a loud rhythm. A sudden burst of clapping erupts, as the guitars end with their final strum. Energy and smiles radiate throughout the room. This is where Billy Brown, 56, finds himself playing guitar to transform an inmate’s life.

Brown began playing guitar at age 46 after witnessing how music affects listeners during one of his ministry’s sermons. He decided he wanted to spread good vibes and make a difference.

“I started in the prison ministry by originally just being involved with the ministry, but I saw guys who were just playing guitar and I thought, ‘Hey, I’d like to do that,’ so I picked up a guitar and started learning,” Brown said.

Soon after learning guitar he became involved with the Kairos Prison Ministry. Recently, Brown became state chair of the Kairos Prison Ministry in Alabama, but he still spends his weekends going to Donaldson Prison in Bessemer, Ala., playing for the inmates.

“We visit all over the prisons,” Brown said. “But we mostly play in the chapel we funded and built in the Donaldson Prison because we give a lot of money to the prisons.”

Brown visits prisons on special three-day weekends in the fall and spring to allow the inmates to express themselves in different ways.  The inmates are allowed to request songs and participate in other activities such as drawing and reading.

“We have songs prearranged to set a mood,” Brown said. “But sometimes they get to hoppin’ and hollerin,’ and it’s really fun.”

The overall mission of the ministry is not to turn the inmates into Christians, Brown said. They will tell the inmates about how God has been a good influence in their lives, but they really want to give the inmates an open space to have fun and freely express themselves.

“It’s just a way to break down barriers, black and white, free world and inmates,” Brown said. “We just set a lot of that myth to the side by our interaction there.”

According to Brown, he prison inmates are helped more philosophically and psychologically because they are allowed to express themselves through a creative outlet. The visits allow inmates who have been in prison their whole life a way to express their ideas because they cannot through sports or intellect.

“Society has told them they are basically worth nothing,” Brown said. “Their family doesn’t even call anymore after they’ve been there for 15 years. So we try to tell people that they are of value, they are of worth. Of course to God, but to each other and themselves. It really is incredible how it works.”

Brown said the ministry encourages inmates to talk and they listen because most of the time they do not have someone to listen to them.

“It truly is a rewarding experience,” said Debbie Brown, wife of Billy Brown.

Kairos Ministry is a worldwide prison ministry involving 35 states and nine countries.  The 35 states involved meet twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. The ministry sends 50 people from each of the 35 states to go at a time on the three-day weekends, but they all carry the same motto.

“Listen, listen,” Brown said. “And love, love.”

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