Tuesday, May 5, 2015

One little starfish at a time

Really?  Support still another prison ministry?  Naw, can’t do it.  Already helping Forgotten Man Ministries, Crossroad Bible Institute, Prison Fellowship.  Enough is enough.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS?  Do we really need another prison ministry?  What are they doing that the others aren’t?

Another prisoner advocacy agency?  There’s a bunch of them in Michigan already.  Aren’t they all doing pretty much the same thing?

Be assured:  The last thing we would ever do is bad-mouth another prison ministry or another prisoner advocacy organization.  God bless EVERYONE and EVERY PROGRAM doing things to help people behind bars.  But also be assured:  The first thing we will do in a discussion like this is demonstrate not only our usefulness but our importance!

Let me give you two examples of pleas for help that crossed my desk in the past few days.

Anna is a 77 year old grandmother who shouldn’t be in prison any longer.  She has already served 27 years.  But now she’s in a wheelchair with a lot of pain.  She can’t take most pain meds because they conflict with a serious kidney condition.  Her pain only worsens when she must make the long trip to the chow hall for meals, over cracked sidewalks and bumpy roads outdoors.  Her simple request for help:  She would like meals brought to her, a service that is provided for some inmates.  But the system feels she can go get her own food and so far has denied her request.  In her letter to me, she said:  “So, I have to find a way to feed myself or go without.”

Judy is the mother of a mentally challenged inmate in the women’s prison.  Her daughter has been treated cruelly by prison staff and has been sadly abused.  I checked in with her this week just to see how she’s doing, and how her daughter is doing.  Here are her brief comments:

  The warden is refusing me visits, as she is one-on-one.  So, I haven’t been in to see her since January 26.

  The therapist was on vacation for a couple weeks and has been back for a couple weeks.  She has not responded to my email or phone calls.

  The chief of the acute unit has not responded in the last month.

  I am in the dark.  Other than the phone call from another inmate who is nowhere near my daughter.

Two simple requests:  to have meals delivered to an elderly, crippled grandmother;  and to allow a mother to visit her mentally ill daughter.  You wanna know which prison ministry and which prisoner advocacy agency will handle these little matters?  HFP.  To you and me, these may seem like little issues in the overall scheme of things, but think again.  Just ask Anna.  Just ask Judy.

I love to tell the story of the little girl on an ocean shore as the tide was going out, leaving behind lots of starfish struggling on the sand.  The child was picking them up and placing them back in the water so they could survive.  An elderly man, also walking the beach, came up to her and said, “Little girl, do you know how long this coastline is, and do you know how many thousands and thousands of starfish are stranded on the sand?  You can’t possibly make a difference.”  The child looked down for a second, picked up a tiny starfish and threw it back out into the ocean.  “I made a difference for that one,” she said!

That’s our work.  One little starfish at a time.  We’re in the trenches, holding the hands of “the least of these.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  This is Jesus work.  And we can’t do it alone.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Does it matter where the cry for help comes from?

This message to HFP was urgent!

A request for help from a prisoner…help for a friend of his, a 68-year-old Viet Nam vet whose lungs had been damaged by Agent Orange.  Here’s what he had to say about Mr. A:

          His skin reacting adversely to his mattress, cannot sleep
          Bunkies not treating him well for two reasons:
                   Convicted of a sex crime
                   Can’t stop coughing
          Situation so bad he believes he might not last the week.
HFP did what it does best, pushing buttons and pulling strings behind the scenes.

Six hours later:
            Prisoner A is doing OK and not complaining

           He has a new air mattress
                   Will get an allergy-free pad if any further skin problems
          He has a new Bunkie, and apparently he likes him.

          He seemed pleased for the assistance.

          He is in fairly good condition for his diagnosis.

Let me be clear, here.  We didn’t save a baby from the earthquake ruins in Nepal, we didn’t enlist the aid of volunteer pilots to fly rescue dogs to new adoption centers across the country, and we didn’t save any whales or owls.  There are already wonderful organizations and people doing those things.  But we did touch the life of a prisoner, in the name of Jesus.  And there’s no other organization like this in our state.  A cry for help, regardless of whether from the rubble of Nepal or the cell of a Michigan prison, is still a cry for help! 

At the very same time this was going on, Matt and I were scratching our heads, wondering how to meet HFP expenses.  As it turns out, we didn’t meet them.  And now we’re wondering about our future.

HFP began in 2001, the brain child of a wrongly convicted prisoner named Maurice Carter who, after all else failed in his 29 years behind bars, simple felt that he had no other alternative than to “leave it in God’s hands.”

Is that our last gasp today?

We know there are individuals, foundations, churches, religious and civic organizations, who claim to care about issues of prisoner compassion and injustice, and who could fund our tiny budget for one year and not even feel the pain.  But so far, we haven’t struck the right chord.  We can’t find the right combination.  There’s no glamour in this work, but behind the scenes there’s a father/son team aided by an amazing variety of 50 dedicated professionals, extending a cup of cool water to hundreds and hundreds of needy, lonely, hurting inmates.  Every day!  7 days a week!  All year long!

We need your help, your thoughts, your ideas, your prayers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

That rare moment when a parole is granted!

It kinda reminds you of the sheep farmer that Jesus talked about!

The guy was caring for 100 sheep, in the parable as related by Dr. Luke in Chapter 15, when one of them got lost.  He left the 99 out in the open country and went looking for the lost sheep.  When he found it, he put the frightened animal on his shoulders and carried it home.  He then called his friends and neighbors, asking them to rejoice with him, because he had found the one lost sheep.

Well, that seems to be about the percentage of paroles granted in Michigan.  But today we learned of one, and we’re rejoicing!

I had written a piece on this site last November, after a discouraging day.  I had promised my friend Joe that I would speak on his behalf at a Public Hearing, where the Michigan Parole Board would collect information pertaining to his possible release.  The hearing hadn’t gone well, in my opinion.  In fact, the day got off to a bad start before the hearing even began.  Joe’s elderly step-father suffered a medical crisis right in the prison parking lot and had to be rushed to the hospital.  He later died, and Joe never made it to the funeral.  I sat beside his shaken mother as we waited for the hearing to begin.

The record clearly showed that Joe participated in a heinous crime while drinking liquor and smoking weed.  He was in his early 20s at the time.  But this was 38 years later…38 years that he spent regretting that he had ever done such a terrible thing, and 38 years spent doing his best to improve himself and make something of his life.  A spiritual being, he was assured of God’s forgiveness, but no such luck with the State of Michigan.

There was opposition in the public hearing from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, although the young assistant Prosecutor who spoke hadn’t even been born yet when the crime occurred. There was opposition from the victim of the crime.  And there was strong opposition, as usual, from the Michigan Attorney General’s office.  No one wanted to focus on Joe’s record of accomplishment and improvement.  Everyone wanted to focus on his state of mind as a young man, and the crime that brought him to prison nearly 40 years ago.

I didn’t give Joe a snowball’s chance, but in addition to testifying at his Public Hearing, I did communicate my feelings to the Parole Board and the Attorney General’s Office. I grumbled loudly in my blog entry of November 6.

Then, no word of any decision.  Silence.

Now, 5 months later, Joe receives positive news:  A parole has been granted!

Like the sheep farmer in the parable, we’re inviting our friends and neighbors to rejoice with us.  To us it seems like we hear of 99 rejections to 1 approval for parole.  But we’ll take it.  We don’t get many victories in this office, and when we do, we savor the experience!

We think there’s rejoicing in heaven as well!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A penny for your thoughts

I wonder what you’re thinking.  I’m the guest speaker at your weekly men’s prayer breakfast, but you don’t appear to be very interested.  Looking at the church you attend, the car you drive, the way you dress, I’d guess that you’re in my income range (moderate).  Judging by your appearance, I’d say that you’re in my age range (70-80). I know that we’re the same color (white). Yet I find it interesting that you choose not to look me in the eye while I’m speaking.  Not once.  And I also find it interesting that you refuse to smile.  Not once.  There’s certainly no rule that you must look at me when I speak, or nod, or smile…but it’s hard for me to know your feelings when you won’t even look up.

When I talk about the plight of prisoners, something is obviously bothering you.  What is it?

Just because I believe that all prisoners deserve humane treatment, appropriate medical care and decent food---regardless of their crime---does that make me some sort of left-wing do-gooder? 

Or when I speak of people behind bars who claim they didn’t commit the crime, do you grumble in your mind that “all prisoners say they are innocent.”

When I speak about the racial disparity in our prisons and the overabundance of minorities, are you secretly saying that you’re not surprised based on the ghetto problems in your own community?

When I tell about the beautiful relationship my family and I had with the late Maurice Carter, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, did it secretly make you shudder?  You and I are both of the age that we remember very well how the pillars of our church agreed that we had to be friendly with minorities, but then asked how you might feel if your son or daughter married someone of color.

Does it take you out of your comfort zone when I speak about delightful personal experiences with so many friends behind bars---men and women?  Is it just easier to deal with numbers rather than names and faces?

When I tell of terrible abuse of mentally ill women in the psych unit are you secretly happy that you don’t know anyone who lives under those conditions?

It’s difficult for me to know why you don’t seem to like what you are hearing.  In open dialog you could perhaps express your reservations about granting humane treatment for prisoners, or about claims of wrongful conviction, or about whether rough treatment of the mentally ill is really abuse.  But you ask no questions following my remarks.  Silence. 


What I hope is that my comments are disturbing to you, that you’re honestly troubled by what you hear, and that you’re considering doing something about it.  Supporting a prison ministry.  Speaking to a state legislator.  Thinking about volunteer opportunities. Offering to pray for people behind bars.  Anything.

What I hope is that you’re not angry at my message, but that you’re feeling pain because you know someone behind bars.  Maybe it’s a relative or a family member.  I’m hoping you’re not ashamed.  I’m hoping you are more determined than ever to reach out to this individual.

What I hope is that my brief remarks remind you just how often the Bible prompts us to show compassion to prisoners, going right back to the words of Jesus.

What I hope is that God took just one thing that I said and planted it in your mind for further prayer.

After all, it was a prayer breakfast.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A lot of talk, not much else

It was probably the wrong day for me to attend a meeting.  I suppose the case could be made that I dislike attending most meetings most of the time.  But yesterday was different.

In just one day, our office dealt with a record number of communications from Michigan prisoners and/or their family members.  Among the 28 with whom we communicated, several needed help with seeking a commutation of their sentences, one claimed wrongful conviction, one is suing the system, one was having trouble with a bunkie (room-mate), one wants a letter written to a judge, one was just denied parole, one hoped for some re-entry information, one reported a bullying problem of older women behind bars.  And the list went on and on.  We couldn’t keep up with the requests, and by the end of the day Matt and I were catching our breath, still trying to find answers.

By evening it was time to head to Grand Rapids, where Crossroads Bible Institute was presenting a seminar on the effects of solitary confinement in our prisons.  An important topic.

As I rethink the whole meeting one day later, I am reminded of the saying that often is attributed to Mark Twain:  Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.  Substitute the word “weather” for “prisons,” and you’d have my thoughts exactly.

Lois DeMott of Michigan’s Family Participation Program gave first-hand accounts of the horrors of solitary confinement when mixed with mental illness. 

Natalie Holbrook of American Friends Service Committee gave alarming statistics about the Michigan prison system, the shameful number of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) beds, and the always-present issue of racial disparity.

Pete Martel of AFSC gave a first-hand account of a typical day in solitary.

A psychologist and former prison warden agreed that solitary confinement drives people crazy.

And after more than an hour of this, Rich Rienstra of Citizens for Prison Reform finally said:  “We’re hearing all the stories.  What is anybody doing about it?” 

No good answers.

A person in the audience asked, “Can you give me the name of one Michigan legislator who gets it, and wants to make change?”

They could not.

Finally, former Calvin Seminary President James DeJong, now a Crossroad volunteer, pointed out that the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does change lives.  At last, something that all these people could hang their hats on.  This was more in their comfort zone. 

So at the end of the day, participants in CBI’s international Bible study program felt good, I’m sure, and returned to their important work with prisoners.  But the rest of us continue to struggle:  Lois DeMott trying to help prison families to negotiate through our prison system one at a time;  Natalie and Pete struggling to change the system;  Rich and Carol Rienstra banging their heads against a stubborn State of Michigan wall;  and HFP down in the trenches holding hands with needy inmates.

James, the brother of Jesus, said in frustration:  Faith without works is dead.

Yet, the Bible study programs thrive.  And the rest of us keep trying to remind the faithful that this is the other half of prison ministry, and we’re not thriving.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

My Easter thoughts for prisoners

This is one of my favorite parts of the Easter story in the Bible, as told by Dr. Luke:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:  “Aren’t you the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Here was Jesus practicing what he had preached, in Matthew 25:  showing compassion to a prisoner. 

And that’s what he offers to prisoners today.  Doesn’t make any difference whether they are guilty or not.  Doesn’t make any difference if their past is checkered.  Doesn’t make any difference if they never darkened the door of a church. 

I’d especially like to pass along this Easter message to

-the prisoner whose heart was broken when he received divorce papers
-the prisoner whose wife fled with his kids, and he can’t find any of them
-the prisoner stabbed yesterday by a group of gang-bangers
-the mentally ill prisoner who was hog-tied for punishment
-the prisoner on dialysis who is still considered a threat to society by the Parole Board
-the prisoner who took it on herself to end years of domestic abuse, and is now serving life for trying to save her own life
-the prisoner who committed shameful acts while high on drugs and now cannot forgive himself
-the elderly prisoner who keeps getting robbed by predators
-the wrongly-convicted prisoner who now cannot find it in himself to forgive cops, prosecutor and judge
(add the name of a prisoner here, and his/her plight).

Songwriters Avery and Marsh put these powerful words to a delightful tune:  EVERY MORNING IS EASTER MORNING FROM NOW ON! 

Thank you, Jesus!

May all of us who are in one prison or another claim the message of the resurrection today.

Friday, April 3, 2015

From God's unending bag of surprises

Things like this continue to surprise me, even though, by now, I should be getting used to the most unusual ways God works.

This is the story of two wrongly convicted prisoners, from two different worlds.

Ed is 70, black, and not highly educated.

Mark is 20 years younger, white, and highly educated.

I met them both in the year 2009.  Edward was in a remote location in the Upper Peninsula.  Mark was in a Muskegon prison, right near our home.  Both had compelling stories, and neither belonged behind bars.

Ed was blessed to have the assistance of Toronto-based AIDWYC, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.  (Yes, that’s the way they spell defense in Canada.)  But, due to alleged insurance issues, the AIDWYC trustees decided that the organization would no longer handle cases outside of that country.  Ed was devastated.  He had been clinging to that hope for eventual freedom.  I am not an attorney, and HFP does not take on cases of wrongful conviction.  The best I could do was to console him, pray for him, and try to find someone else to help.

Eventually, he got transferred.  You guessed it:  to Muskegon.  That was in the fall of 2012.  Now the two were in the same facility.

I put a bug in Mark’s ear:  See if you can do something to help this guy.

Mark, a recent graduate from Prison Fellowship’s fine TUMI seminary program, did more than that.  He virtually adopted the man!  He helped organize all of his legal papers.  He wrote briefs for him.  He helped Ed apply to Innocence Projects.  And now, God be praised, it appears that a fine IP is keenly interested!  There’s new hope for Ed!

Ed can wonder why he ever got transferred to Muskegon, Mark can wonder why God allowed him to go to prison in the first place, both can wonder why I ever introduced them to each other, and I can go on wondering just how many times God is going to use this 78-year-old crooked stick to make things happen in the lives of prisoners.

Isn’t this just like God?

Especially during Holy Week, we shouldn’t be all that surprised.