Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Blog: Thoughts on July 24

From Matt Tjapkes, Doug's son:

I always liked July 24. Of course, it’s my birthday, so that’s pretty normal.
But 2004 was a bit different. Probably for the first time in my life, my birthday wasn’t the big deal on that day. Celebration was on the agenda, but for a far better cause. It was finally the day that Maurice Carter would be free once again.
A large group of supporters headed to Jackson the night before, because Maurice would be released early in the morning. There was a lot of excitement in what was about to happen. Everyone was ready to celebrate, but after watching my dad work for 10 years to make this day happen, I don’t think anyone was truly ready until the moment we saw Maurice outside the cell.
Could you imagine what it was like on his end? Nearly 30 years of incarceration, knowing the whole time he did not deserve it. Struggling with illness, his day had finally come. And what a ride on the way out - A luxury motorhome! The last time he had really seen an automobile, it was 1976. He had clean clothes, a cell phone to talk on, hundreds of people ready to greet him. He must have been the talk of the prison that day.
While only a few people were allowed to actually go on prison grounds, a group waited outside to see him ride out in the motorhome. A mile down the road, we found a parking lot big enough to accommodate everyone. Maurice stepped out to cheers, TV cameras, hugs and tears. The celebration continued all the way back to West Michigan, where Maurice would finally hug his mom again.
It was three short months Maurice had out of prison before his body succumbed to liver disease. But he savored every waking moment. Every bite of food, every beautiful view of nature, everything we take for granted on a daily basis was a true treat to Maurice.
Eight years later, take a brief moment to think of Maurice and remember two things. First, there are others still in prison. They’re all God’s children. Pray for them, pray for HFP as we strive to make sure they are treated with fairness. Second, take a brief step back from your busy life and try to enjoy a day like Maurice did. We’re all blessed. Life is good today.
Happy July 24.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sweet freedom

To a small band of supporters, July 24 is considered something special, not unlike a holiday. This is the day that Maurice Carter walked out of prison in the year 2004.

As I reflected on that momentous occasion this morning, I concluded that this indigent African American from Gary, Indiana, wrongly convicted here in the State of Michigan, probably influenced my life more than any single individual.

I now feel certain that I wasn't placed on earth just to be a broadcast journalist, even though radio was my first love.

I wasn't placed on earth to sell church organs, even though I immensely enjoyed my second career and found it most satisfying.

I'm not here just to serve God's people with my music. I'm the first to recognize that it's not perfect. I also know that I couldn't live without music, and that it provides uniquely intimate moments for me with my Lord.

I'm here to follow the mandate of Matthew 25. My job is pure and simple: love prisoners, and care for them. And it's the last thing I had in mind for the final career of my life, when I was reporting local news, and when I was helping churches in the purchase of a new organ.

All of that changed when I met Maurice Carter.

He always said that, from the day of his arrest, "the wheels of justice ground to a halt."

And yet, he decided that anger and bitterness would get him nowhere. He was treated shamefully and with disdain by people in the judicial system, yet he responded with kindness and a gentle spirit. He was offered freedom in exchange for a confession, but he refused to compromise his integrity. His example made a profound impact on me, and would permanently change my direction.

A relatively small crowd was there to greet him in Jackson, and a nice group of people came to his freedom reception in Spring Lake...but the number of lives that this simple man touched can never be counted. It's certainly in the thousands. He and his story continue to touch lives today.

Maurice would say that because of me, he found new faith.

I'm here to say that because of him, I found a new life.

Monday, July 23, 2012

You're the only Bible

I heard a country gospel song the other day that may not make it to the top of the charts, but had a profound message. Here's the opening line, as I remember it:
"You're the only Bible a lotta folks are gonna read."

As a musician, I couldn't imagine how they were going to fit this into the metric structure of a tune and how they were going to fit the statement into lyrics that would rhyme. But I quickly abandoned those thoughts to consider those words again.

That's a pretty profound statement.

Reminds me of the old saying, "Your actions are so loud I can't hear your words."

A friend told me the other day that she was driving down the highway and apparently did something to enrage another motorist. The driver passed her and gave her the finger. As the car got ahead of her, she saw a bumper sticker that said, "Honk if you love Jesus."

Which message was loudest: the action or the words?

All of this leads me to the prison work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

I think that some evangelicals are dismayed that we do not make a specific point of trying to save souls when we go into the prisons.

Well, there are plenty of groups that do that, and we have no argument with them. In fact, we ask God to bless all efforts on behalf of prisoners. But here's the thing. I purposely do NOT carry a Bible with me when I go into the prisons, because I don't want inmates to think that we will not help them unless they have similar beliefs.

A prison chaplain recently commended us for helping all prisoners with specific needs, regardless of their religious beliefs.

I'm pleased to report that a couple of our best friends and our strongest supporters in prison are Muslims.

Let me be clear. Every prisoner knows, without question, that I take my marching orders from Jesus. They respect that, and this has prompted prisoners to rethink their spiritual ideas. I'm pleased to report that some have bought into my beliefs and today are serving their Lord in beautiful ways.

But it's our job to go about doing the work of Matthew 25. Jesus didn't say "You visited me because I was white," or, "You visited me because we shared a similar faith," or, "You visited me because I was innocent."

I won't say it, either.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Making music with my friends

The Gaithers have penned a wonderful little chorus:

Loving God, loving each other,
Making music with my friends;
Loving God, loving each other,
And the story never ends.


Music has been a part of my life since I was an infant. As a musician, my life has been brightened by making music with my friends starting when I was a kid, and it has never stopped.

Most recently, my physician friend John Mulder---a professional musician in my opinion---has joined me in making music as a fund-raiser for HFP.

It all began a year ago at a funeral, when the two of us sang and played some requested old gospel songs for the memorial service of a friend and co-prison worker. A supporter of HFP suggested that we keep this going to raise support money. The rest is history.

John wholeheartedly agreed, and suggested that we include more musicians: our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll, singer and percussionist; Cal Olson, singer, whistle-blower and bassist, and David Mulder, cornetist. And so last summer we experimented with a fund-raiser called Pickin' & Grinnin' in a local church coffee house. The moment was magical, people loved it, and dollars were raised.

That led to a recording. Thanks to donations of funds and talent, the album SWEET FREEDOM was put together in record time last year, featuring many favorite gospel tunes. More dollars were raised. If you don't have a copy, you'll want one. You won't stop listening to it.

And now these wonderful people are going to gather around the piano with me again this year. The date is July 30, 6-8 PM, and again we'll be in the Coffee House of Covenant Life Church in downtown Grand Haven.

There's no cover charge, but it's no secret that we hope to raise desperately needed funds to continue our work with prisoners.

Making music with my friends. I promise you won't be disappointed.

And the story never ends.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lord, listen to your children

I'd like to introduce you to Laura.

Actually, I cannot introduce you in person. She and I have never met face to face. She's in the State of Washington. I'm in the State of Michigan.

But our friendship is a thing of beauty. Far more important than that is her beautiful contribution to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS...an ongoing, never-ending contribution.

Laura prays.

This relationship began in April of 2007, when Laura sent an email to me asking for a copy of a devotional booklet that HFP offers to all who ask, inside and outside of bars. Our conversations continued, I sent her a copy of SWEET FREEDOM, and our friendship took off from there.

But back to the valuable contribution of Laura.

In our conversations I learned that Laura could not be a financial supporter of HFP, but she could be a prayer warrior. Others have said they will keep us in their prayers, but here was a person who was making it a mission. Says Laura: "I've always believed in intercessory prayer and that anyone can be a prayer warrior, but perhaps God impressed it upon me more." Indeed.

When I travel on prison missions, I contact Laura.

When a touching story crosses our desk, I contact Laura.

When a prisoner contacts us with critical problems, I make all the necesssary contacts...and on that list of necessary contacts is Laura.

And so, when we have victories (and we get our share of them!), I contact Laura. It's important that she hears the good news, too. It's important that she gets another reminder that prayer works.

That's important for you and me, too.



Thursday, July 12, 2012

When God's people pray

I have left Parole Board interviews feeling utterly useless and totally ineffective.

The Parole Board interview, an integral part of the life of a prisoner, can strike terror in the heart of the inmate.

A woman formerly behind bars told me that the PB interview was worse than her trial.

I think some Parole Board members delight in making prisoners sweat, squirm and weep. I'm not sure why...perhaps, just because they can.

I tell you all of this as a long introduction to this blog entry.

I have been steeling myself for a ten-year Parole Board review of a lifer. This prisoner and his parents approached me some time ago to ask if I would be willing to serve as his representative. I immediately agreed, for a number of reasons. I almost always agree to do it, regardless of the prisoner, because I cannot stand the thought of an inmate going there alone. But in this case, I happen to believe that the man, in for life without parole for first degree murder, is innocent. And even if he wasn't, he has been the finest example of a model prisoner that I have ever seen. Ever. He's a gentleman. He treats his superiors and the system with respect, refusing to show his disdain for all of the shortcomings. He has love for his fellow man, and has served as a GED teacher in the prison system for years. His family believes in him. He has a strong support group.

But I warned him, and I warned his parents, that this could be an unpleasant experience. In preparation for the event, the prisoner and his family asked for prayers. And, I asked our Board of Directors and a couple special prayer partners to remember this situation.

And then the most amazing thing happened. The PB member, a retired state police officer, actually had empathy with the prisoner. He actually listened to his story in an objective way, and finally suggested that the case was so compelling that the prisoner---even though all court avenues have been exhausted---should immediately appeal to an Innocence Project for help. He concluded the interview by saying, "If you are innocent, it's a crime that you're in here."

Is that a tiny light that I see far down at the end of the tunnel?

Thank you, prayer partners.

Thank you, Lord.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

on feeling the heat

Heat is a hot subject these days.

I'm the first to admit that heat and I don't get along very well. And I've felt real heat. I've been in blistering conditions in Viet Nam, and in Haiti. People in those parts of the world really deal with heat. But right now, in our own nation, people are suffering. Because of a brutal high pressure system, and the ravages of storms, heavily populated sections of our country are not only experiencing high temperatures, but are doing so without electricity. People there have no air conditioning, and as we hear these news accounts, our hearts go out to those who must deal with this.

But I must confess that today I'm really feeling guilty. Temperatures are supposed to soar to near 100 degrees again today, and I have air conditioning, in my house and in my car. I am blessed, and I will not suffer.

But yesterday I received a telephone call from James, in the Thumb Correctional Facility. You may not have known this, but our prisons do not have air conditioning. They don't even have good air circulation. Fans are small and at a premium. I asked James how it was there. By 9 yesterday morning they had shut down all activities because the temperature had already climbed to 90. In the prison buildings, the air was stifling. He said the little fans that prisoners may have just don't cut it, and there are no big fans. In this sweltering heat, he said it felt like someone threw a damp cloth over you. Dew point was out of sight.

This is merely an update to ask you to not only remember those people suffering on the eastern seaboard, but those right here in Michigan who really deserve better. I don't know why we cannot provide better air circulation. I believe in air conditioning for prisons, but that's a stretch for many.

Prisoners are suffering today, my friends. Whether you approve of their conditions or not, please pray for them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

America: the greatest! ?

I love early-morning coffee time. I enjoy my first caffeine rush of the day in a glassed-in room surrounded by giant oak trees in the developed dune land a mile offshore from Lake Michigan. It's heavenly.

On the morning of our nation's birthday I cannot help but reflect on this country and its amazing attributes. I'm not willing to give in to the opinion expressed this week on a new cable TV show that America is not the greatest country. I love this country. I'm grateful for the opportunities I had, and I love the opportunities that lie ahead for my kids and grandkids.

But that doesn't mean I have to love everything about this great nation.

You can't be pleased about our rate of incarceration...far higher than that recorded by any other country.

You've gotta be alarmed when people involved in our Innocence Projects project that up to 10% of those persons in prison may have been wrongly convicted...especially if that person happened to be in your family.

Even more alarming are the statistics that show that prosecutorial misconduct is a major reason for wrongful convictions...misbehavior by the very people we elect to office to enforce our laws.

And then, we must also be ashamed of a flawed court-appointed attorney system that varies state by state, but can and does assign a real estate specialist to defend an alleged criminal facing a death penalty.

So on this birthday, enjoy the party. America is a great place to live for most of us.

Just don't forget the least of these.

Don't just remember them...pray for them. For their families too.

Happy fourth!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

LIFE W/O PAROLE: UNCHRISTIAN?

Christians have a difficult time agreeing on many issues. While they are certain to agree that Christ is Lord, from that point on it gets pretty difficult. We not only disagree on the weightier subjects of theology, but we have a difficult time deciding which hymnal is the best or what kind of church music pleases God the most.

And so it should come as no surprise that our opinions on the issues we deal with on a daily basis at HFP might differ sharply with those of others. There will be honest differences of opinion, for example, from victims of crime and their families, and from police officers. All may believe in the same Lord, but you can bet their opinions will vary.

Well, that's what happened in our weekly Saturday gathering of Studebaker drivers and friends over burgers and suds. This is an unusually electric group...a cross-section of many facets of society.

Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz was talking about the recent Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole, regardless of the crime. I sensed that the Prosecutor wasn't pleased with the decision. Let me stress before we continue that the Supreme Court did NOT say that juveniles must be released after a period of time, regardless of how heinous the crime. Not at all. The justices merely said that the possibility of parole must be there.

And that's when Rev. Al Hoksbergen piped up and said, "Life sentence without parole is un-Christian, regardless of the age of the offender."

Well that had the Prosector sputtering, and a few others sitting with perplexed looks on their faces.

"What's the Christian message?" asked the good reverend. "Forgiveness, pure and simple. I can't possibly win salvation by doing good. It's simply by God's amazing grace. For the secular world, sentencing people to life without parole may be acceptable. But for us, it's unacceptable. It's un-Christian."

Gulp.