PENDLETON — Local Christian music singer/songwriter Matt Cookman did what sometimes can be a bad idea — he listened to the voice inside his head.
In this case, however, it was a good thing, as he ended up finding inspiration from people he hopes to motivate to pursue better lives.
Matt and his wife, Connie, are in the middle of a musical tour they expect will take them to all 50 states.
For artists, this might not be highly unusual.
But what is special about this particular tour are the audiences Matt entertains; his sings for people incarcerated at penitentiaries across the country.
Since the start of this trek by Matt and Connie, which began in February 2016, the couple has performed about 40 shows at 30 prisons in 11 states and two Canadian provinces. Singing and ministering to prisoners is something the couple had been doing locally, but after the release of his first CD, Matt said he felt he had to do something more.
“Most of those songs had been inspired by the men we’d met by going into the prisons locally,” Matt said. “We didn’t know what we should do with it. I distinctly remember hearing that voice: ‘50-state prison tour.’ I ignored it for a couple weeks; it’s crazy. But as any married man knows, if you want to make something real, you say it to your wife.”
Shortly thereafter, the couple booked its first show on the tour, at the Pendleton Reformatory, where Connie volunteers as a life skills teacher for inmates. Connie said she hopes the shows — featuring an acoustic set about an hour long from Matt and a short ministry talk from her — give the inmates a respite from their daily life and hope for the future.
“Our goal is to prove that they matter and that they are not forgotten,” she said. “If we can help them forget where they are, even for an hour, then we’ve done what we came there to do.”
She added the couple is hooked on helping provide their message to the prisoners, whom they are likewise inspired by.
“We didn’t choose the prison ministry; it chose us,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing to realize that you just impacted another human being. That’s addictive.”
The couple drives around the country in their RV with “50 State Prison Tour” printed on the side, which helps keep their expenses down. They network with other prison ministries to help with the planning and training for the requirements to enter the prisons, which vary from state to state.
They say that, after a discussion about what their wildest dreams would be, everything clicked during a volunteer session at the Pendleton Reformatory. Connie, working in the financial industry, and Matt, a computer developer, realized the desires of their hearts were compatible with doing ministry work in the prisons.
“Matt said playing music every day was his wildest dream,” Connie said. “I didn’t know what mine was. Then, one day, Matt would sing a couple songs, then I would teach the life skills class. Then it hit me that my wildest dream was to be a teacher. Our wildest dreams are coming together, traveling the country in prisons.”
Matt said he was especially struck by a chance encounter at a campsite during a trip to Texas. Instead of going to the prison as was originally planned, he spoke with a young man who seemed destined for trouble.
“I was playing my guitar, just killing time,” he said. “A kid from the next campsite came walking over, and we got to talking. The more we talked, the more I realized that this was preventative prison ministry.”
“That young man was in his early 20s,” Connie said. “We noticed he had gang symbols; we just spoke into him, and Matt let him play his guitar, which no one does.”
Matt will debut his new CD, “Choose Life,” at a release party from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, at the Dickmann Town Center, 1135 Meridian St., Anderson.
Matt will perform some new songs on stage. Food trucks will be at the event.
Admission is free, but the Cookmans ask people who attend to bring canned food donations for the Christian Center.
As for the tour, the next state to be crossed off the list will be Ohio, where Matt and Connie hope to continue to sing and speak to those in need.
“The message is hope,” Matt said.