Greystone Chapel (Psalm 84)

This week we continue with prison songs in Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. Please read chapter 5, Greystone Chapel, and chapter 6, San Quentin.


The first song this week we will be looking at is “Greystone Chapel.” Greystone Chapel is the worship space at Folsom Prison dating back to 1903 and is named after the grey granite stones of which it was constructed. The song was written by Glen Sherley, an inmate at Folsom Prison, and given to Cash at some point before his live concert at the prison in 1968. Cash ended both of his concerts and his album with this song because of the hope which it speaks into the darkness.


“Greystone Chapel” is a song of transcendence. The song begins with the lyrics: “Inside the walls of prison my body may be, But my Lord has set my soul free.” The song uses the physical presence of Greystone Chapel as a metaphor for the vibrant spirituality that can be found within prison. It is a song about how a person’s mind who is aligned with Jesus can transcend his physical circumstances. In this way, the song echoes Paul’s observation that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Cor. 3:17.

As we looked at last week, all of us have our prisons of guilt, shame, loss, and regret. Too often we believe that we must leave our prisons to meet God. However, as Glen Sherley’s lyrics remind us, God is not bound by our walls. When you listen to this song, think of those times when you have been within your prison, and nonetheless the Spirit comes to you and sets you free.


“Greystone Chapel” is also a song about physical presence. Sherley ends his song by describing the physical Chapel itself as having “a touch of God’s hand on every stone. It’s a flower of light in a field of darkness.” The Chapel is made of the same stone that the rest of Folsom Prison was constructed. There is little to mark off the Chapel from many of the other older buildings at the prison. However, as Sherley tells us, there is something special of going into the house of the Lord. As the psalmist says, there is a longing to be in the house of the Lord (Ps. 84:1), a great joy to approach and to enter (Ps. 122:1), and desire to remain there forever (Ps. 23:6). We are physical beings who often requires physical spaces to be our light in our darkness. Think about where that space is for you and how that physical space is created?


The song is a beautiful gospel hymn. The story behind song, however, is not. Since his youth, Sherley had been in and out of prison several times. In 1968, he was serving a sentence for armed robbery. Sherley had found Jesus at Folsom Prison, and Cash had found an individual that embodied his desire for prison reform. Cash had Billy Graham write Governor Reagan to give Sherley parole. When Sherley left prison in 1971, Cash gave Sherley a recording contract and had him join his tour.

Unfortunately, Sherley was unable to keep up with Cash’s tour schedule and began to threaten members of the tour, eventually telling a member of Cash’s band that he would “Like to take a knife and just cut you all to hell. . . I’d just rather kill you than to talk with you.” After the incident, Cash fired Sherley. Sherley went back on drugs, became homeless, and committed suicide a few year later. He simply lacked the ability to make it on the outside.

For Beck, the story of Glen Sherley is a cautionary tale about our roles. Our calling is to be in solidarity with the least of these, not to save them. That’s for Jesus. In a salvation narrative, we are the hero who saves the object of our heroism from destruction. We are talking and giving directions. We are in charge. The other’s salvation depends upon us because we are there to fix them. To see the inherent limits in saving others, think of your own shortcomings. You have total control over them, and yet they remain. If you cannot fix yourself, then you will realize that you cannot fix others.

The alternative to saving others is simply walking with someone in solidarity. Unlike salvation, in solidarity we recognize the other person’s humanity, volition, and competencies. Solidarity is based upon relationship and mutuality. They are the hero of their story, not us. We are simply in the position of listening and supporting someone else. We are the supporting cast.

As Beck points out, solidarity is the more difficult and painful path. Fixing an object (or not) takes less investment and less risk than establishing a relationship with a person to be there for them. Cash’s relationship with Sherley shows us that failure is always going to be an option. At some point, a line is crossed, and the relationship with that individual ends. The only good news when that occurs is that at least we have loved someone well enough to make it to heartbreak.

The story of Cash and Sherley ends with Johnny Cash paying for his funeral. Once solidarity is established, maybe it never truly ends.  

Inside the walls of prison my body may be,
But my Lord has set my soul free.

There’s a grey stone chapel here at Folsom,
A house of worship in this den of sin.
You wouldn’t think that God had a place here at Folsom,
But he saved the soul of many lost men.

Now this grey stone chapel here at Folsom,
Stands a hundred years old made of granite rock.
It takes a ring of keys to move here at Folsom,
But the door to the house of God is never locked.

Inside the walls of prison my body may be
But the Lord has set my soul free.

There are men here that don’t ever worship.
There are men here who scoff at the ones who pray.
But I’ve got down on my knees in that grey stone chapel,
And I’ve thanked the Lord for helping me each day.

Now this grey stone chapel here at Folsom,
It has a touch of God’s hand on every stone.
It’s a flower of light in a field of darkness,
And it’s given me the strength to carry on.

Inside the walls of prison my body may be,
But my Lord has set my soul free.

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
   My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
   my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house
   and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
   by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
   they will always be praising you.
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
   and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
   than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.  
For the Lord God is both sun and shield; *
   he will give grace and glory.

Psalm 84:1-3,9-10

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