Thursday, April 12, 2012

Power of Compassion: Singing in Jail

One of the shared experiences that greatly enriched our lives was our participation in the Amandla Chorus. Rahima sang alto and I sing bass. Before rehearsal on Tuesday, March 27, 2012, about 35 chorus members crowded into the living room at 62 Haywood Street and filled the house with our songs. Rahima was nearby in the "beach room," no longer responding outwardly.

It was a shock to the singers the next day, when they arrived for a scheduled performance at the county jail in Northampton, Massachusetts, to learn that Rahima had died in the evening after their visit.

Below is a collection of materials that describe what happened at the jail: 1) an email sent to the chorus that night by director Eveline MacDougall, 2) a letter that she sent to the jail, and 3) responses she received. They are reprinted here with permission from Eveline.

Sleep with the Angels: Email to the Chorus

The following email was sent to the Amandla Chorus from director Eveline MacDougall on Wednesday, March 28, 2012, 10:10 P.M.

What happened at the Northampton Jail tonight was the highest imaginable form of tribute to Rahima and Andy.

Those men met us in our moment of grief, rising to the occasion with big wide-open hearts, prayers, & compassion. By making ourselves vulnerable, we allowed them to step outside of their individual distress and stories, and to join us in the awesome mystery of life and death, filled as it is with elation, crushing sadness and everything in between.

Most of all, what I felt tonight was WONDER.

Grown men, locked in a prison -- the epitome of shut-down emotions -- allowing themselves to cry openly with us, to reach out their hands, to offer hugs. When I told them of our loss, they reacted viscerally and fully. Faces opening up. Murmurs of condolence. Singing along with enthusiasm. Eyes warm and wet. Three standing ovations.

Rahima, your physical breath has ended. But not your spirit, nor your compassion. We brought you in there with us tonight; meanwhile you bring us along, too.

The miracles of the Amandla Chorus do not recognize death as an obstacle. Oh, my dear friends, I truly love to hear your voices lifted up in radiant song.

Good night, everyone. Sleep with the angels.



Fastest Way to Freedom: Letter to the Men at the Jail

Here is the letter that Eveline wrote on Thursday, March 30, 2012 about singing in light of Rahima's death. Eveline is addressing the prisoners who had attended the Wednesday concert.
To the Gentlemen who attended the 3/28/12 Amandla Concert:

Dear Friends

I had considered postponing our show. I was worried we might not get through it. We were exhausted & emotionally raw following the death of our dear Rahima the night before.

"Rahima" means compassion in Arabic. I'm glad I didn't postpone our show, because your compassionate hearts enabled us to leave feeling much better than we did when we came in.

I guess, sometimes, the people who've experienced hardship and adversity are the very ones best suited to offer comfort in the face of someone else's pain. When I shared our sorrow with you, you did not act indifferent. You chose to be right there with us. In that moment, you became our brothers.

This morning, thanks to you, I awoke feeling hopeful. I opened my daily meditation book, "The Book of Awakening" by Mark Nepo, and read:
"To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken."
I turned the page and read:
"We can only understand pain and joy to the extent that we have allowed ourselves to be touched by life."
And on the next page:
"The fastest way to freedom is to feel your feelings."
Did I really think I could visit you & share these beautiful songs and pretend I wasn't grieving? I would have missed an opportunity, and ended up with a giant headache (which is what happens when I need to cry, & I don't).

Thank you for receiving our grief, transforming it, and handing it back in another form known as love. Thank you for loving us, and helping us heal our hearts.

When I was young, I thought I was the only person walking around with fear and pain. I thought everyone else had it all together, and that there was something wrong with me. That was my foolish way of thinking. Since then, I have learned that we all have pain and fear, and our wounds can be visible or invisible. I've come to see that this does not need to be a problem, and since it's the human condition, I can choose to turn it into a strength.

My brothers, your generous hearts did shine through on Wednesday night, which inspires me to say: wherever you're headed, whatever comes next for you, please remember how much you have to offer, and what a difference you can make in the world.

You've made a difference for the Amandla Singers.

Thank you.

With love,

Eveline (rhymes with "green")

Beyond Fantastic: Responses from the Jail

Eveline has received letters, artwork and phone calls from the folks who attended the performance that day. Here is her unedited account:

1) Phone message (transcribed) from Kathy, the jail's community outreach officer:
"I can't even begin to tell you how magnificent your concert was. It was absolutely fabulous and the men enjoyed it thoroughly. They can't say enough about it. It was just absolutely incredible and I appreciate you coming and doing it, especially during such a sad time for your chorus. But you carried it off beautifully and I'm very, very impressed with the whole group. It was above and beyond fantastic!"
2) A fellow named Don sent thanks, a beautiful piece of artwork, and a passage from Gibran's "The Prophet" entitled "Giving." 

3) A fellow named Miguel sent a beautiful, long letter. Here are some excerpts:
Miguel expressed some things about his own hardships, and then said that our music "opend my eyes and heart to new things." He wrote about feeling a lack of support, and having family members drift away. But he added: "I come to relise that this incaration [incarceration] is good for me. It change my life. The music u guys all sang has alot of meaning behind it and I am for ever greatfull. Everyone looks at us inmates as bad people. They all so fast to judge us but deep inside we are just like everyone else. We are kind hearted and respectful people. I kno I am an I have alot of good i can do. So thank u for touching my heart and soul with the wonderful music u shared."
4) Here's another letter, which came with a beautiful handmade card, which this fellow Patrick drew and 22 of the other guys signed...
"Dear Eveline and Friends,

My name is Patrick, I have attempted to write this letter numerous times and just cannot find the right words to express how you all made me feel and the way that you opened my eyes to a new happiness.

My story is unique (I guess everybody's is) I wish you all knew it so that maybe you understand why I appriciate the way the you came to you came to our jail and shared your beautiful music with us...And as much as I did love the music and the diversity of your songs, I grew to feel that same love for all of you for the way you presented it. Like I said, I can't describe it but the atmosphere in our visiting room was amazing.

There was a certain energy in that room and it created a type of genuine happiness that I had forgot existed and now thanks to all of you, I will never forget it. I was very sorry to hear about your friend, Rahima, and I couldn't help but to cry when you told us about her. I believe for all of you to still be able to perform and to dedicate the performance to her showed incredible strength and dedication to one another. That is something that all of us need to see since we are all facing certain hardships in here together. I feel like drawing you a card and writing you a letter is not enough but it's all I can do so please just know that we all appriciate you and hope to see you again.

Thank you,


P.S. I'm interested in learning your songs and the meaning behind them...they seem very good for the soul."

Amandla means "power" in Zulu. The power of music met with compassion is indomitable. What do you think happened at the jail that day? Tell the story.  ~Andy


  1. I'm so glad you all had the singers there before Rahima died. What beauty there is in singing. And in feeling.

  2. Andy you should write up about what happened at the jail. The blog and letter explain a bit, but I thought that story was so amazing- put it up in all it's full glory! :) -Mira

  3. This one's for you, Mira. A more complete account.

    With love from halfway around the world,