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Illinois Church Streams Jazz-Gospel ‘Messiah’ to Correctional Facilities

by Paul Natkin

For the second consecutive year, Elmhurst (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church streamed the live performance of Too Hot to Handel: the Jazz-Gospel Messiah to correctional facilities across Illinois, Wisconsin, and Louisiana.

The congregation, which had an existing relationship with the Louisiana State Penitentiary through its prison ministry, wanted to share the annual Chicago event, running for 13 years at the city’s Auditorium Theatre. “Too Hot […] puts a twist on George Frideric Handel’s classic oratorio, infusing the music with jazz, gospel, rock, and blues,” according to Broadway World Chicago. The performances are traditionally held on the weekend closest to Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January) to honor and celebrate Dr. King’s message of “beloved community.”

Streaming sites included the Louisiana State facility in Angola; Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in Wisconsin; and six adult and youth correctional facilities across Illinois. Kyle Olson, the church’s technical director, was onsite at the Auditorium Theatre handling the secure livestream. The church also provided technical equipment and assistance at the correctional facilities.

The goal of streaming the event was to spread the joy of the Christian message and the arts to inmates, both local and across the country. Elmhurst CRC provided printed programs with the oratorio’s text. “They knew exactly what Scripture was being sung and what was up next,” said Jim McMillen, a member of the church’s prison ministry team. “They were really invested in the performance.”

At several of the facilities, congregation members joined inmates and staff and were able to connect in conversation during intermission, eat a meal together, or meet inmates’ families. “It provides a setting for people who don’t know each other well to sit down and have a conversation,” added John Zeilstra, another prison ministry team member. “You have an entry point for a good discussion on life, on freedom, on God, on grace.”

The church’s prison ministry has extended beyond these two concerts and other streaming events, including their Christmas service. Approximately 20 church members meet quarterly with teens at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago to show support and care. “You take the crime away and [the inmate] is still a person just like you and me,” McMillen said. “I feel like a lot of times we forget that and let a person’s crime identify them.”

What started as the simple idea to stream Too Hot has impacted the lives of more than 50 church volunteers and thousands of others: staff at the facilities, inmates, and their families. “That’s the work of the Holy Spirit,” Zeilstra concluded.

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