Thursday, August 30, 2012

When two or three are gathered

That simple little promise in scripture has deep meaning for me. In my 75 years on this earth, I have had some rich experiences in small groups of worship.

I participated in a worship service for Viet Cong prisoners in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

Two singers and I took communion in a storefront church in a San Juan ghetto where the only music was the pastor, singing unaccompanied and on perfect pitch, The Lord's Prayer.

As the director of HIS MEN, I took the concert to an audience of one person in the hollers of Appalachia, when an 80 year old woman wasn't well enough to get to our program.

The same male chorus went down into the bowels of the giant San Juan Penitentiary to sing for prisoners living in conditions not acceptable for most of mankind.

I learned early in my life that a large audience was not a necessary ingredient for something spiritually meaningful.

All of these experiences, and many more, came to my mind this week when I read a letter from a Michigan inmate: "We are in the 4th year of our daily evening sharing table for Christians and non-Christians who live in our unit. We have 5 regular attendees, and 6 others who often show up. God is blessing men in this daily support group regularly. We first pray, then read a daily devotion and discuss its meaning for us personally. We share what's doing in each of our lives, then pray for each of our needs. HE shows up regularly and blesses all who are there. We're doing discipling by example, showing the men around us that not all Christians are hypocrites as so many of the men here believe they are. Please remember our little group in your prayers."

Tom gets it...he sees the depth of God's promise.

Join me in remembering this group in our prayers.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Welcome home, Bobby

For today's blog entry, I'm going to write an obituary. As a news writer, I've penned my share of obits over the years, but never for these reasons. I'm writing this obit because I'm sure no one else will do it. I'm writing it because Bobby deserves it. And I'm writing it because this glimpse of prison life must also be seen on the other side of the bars.

Robert McKinney: 04/07/1952 - 08/26/2012.

Mr. McKinney died less than five hours ago at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan. Liver disease claimed his life at the age of 60.

His health had been failing, and the prison doctor suggested a transfer to the Duane Waters Health Center for McKinney, where he might receive better pain control medication. McKinney refused, saying that he would prefer to remain among his friends and endure the pain. And endure the pain he did: the methadone he was given wasn't adequate. He was in such pain, according to his friends, he was unable to keep food down. His weight was down dramatically.

Prisoners shared McKinney's frustration just two weeks ago when the Governor refused to commute his sentence, per recommendation of the doctor, for health reasons. It's supposition on my part, but I've learned that when rejection comes, someone still considers the victim a threat to society.

Bobby wasn't a threat to anyone. Quite the contrary: He was a friend to many. He had been in prison 39 years.

"He was a God-loving man," said his long-time friend James. "He liked to get together with a few of us to sing gospel songs with the guitar."

There'll be no funeral service. No one knows of any family or friends on the outside.

On the inside, life goes on. Without Bobby.

"I'm going to keep his Bible," said James.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Being alone makes it worse

When as a little boy, I stumbled and skinned my knee, my loving mother was there to wipe my tears and tend to my pain.

Even when I was in high school, and had to stay home from school with the flu, Mom was there with chicken soup.

Many years later, when a stubborn staph infection tried to introduce me to the grim reaper, Marcia---my partner for life---was there to fight off the demons and ride out the storm with me.

I cite these examples to show the stark contrast with my friends in prison.

Mark has been struggling for years to get appropriate surgery after a prison injury, and an even simpler matter: he wants something for the pain. We're doing our best to try to help, but we're on the outside; he's on the inside. He's alone. He said to me today: "I am in so much daily pain and finding it hard to even walk around or sit still without complaining about pain."

I'm sorry. He has no mother, no wife, not even a friend to help him through this.

Ben has MS, and is in prison. His mother says that, after a severe episode, he couldn't walk and they just made him crawl on the floor to get anywhere. He overheard a guard say, "Don't help him after what he did." He's alone. His mom is on the outside.

Mary is recovering from surgery in prison. Alone. And she gets no empathy in the infirmary. Her friend in prison says, "There is no compassion in that unit unless it comes from the inmates themselves." And then she asks: "Do health care professionals lose the 'do no harm' oath when it comes to the care of prisoners?"

St. Teresa of Avila said, "Pain is never permanent."

Maybe so, but I don't think there's any question that being alone makes it worse.

Somehow I believe that Jesus is there, holding the hand of each one of these hurting prisoners.

Pray for them.

Monday, August 20, 2012

On losing a loved one

I played the piano and the organ in a memorial service for a dear aunt last week. Aunt Clara was almost 95 years old, and the last of all of the brothers and sisters in my father's family. It sounds rather bizarre, but I really love a service like this. No one was really sad that she died. She was in misery, and had lived a full and complete life. It was time to move on. I'm family, and it felt important to me to be a part of that service.

Today I received a short message from a prisoner: "I would like to ask you for prayers for me and my sister. Our father passed away last Thursday, and it has really taken a toll on our lives."

George couldn't be at the memorial service for his father. His sister had to go alone.

It's one of the little things we don't think about when we think about incarceration.

My friend Kenny Wyniemko gets very emotional about this very subject. Kenny served nearly 9 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He was finally proven innocent by DNA testing. But during the time he was in prison, his father died. He wasn't allowed to go to the funeral service.

I've said it so many times, but it's important for us to remember that a prisoner is not a Department of Corrections ID number. A prisoner is not just a statistic. Jesus claimed to be one of them. He said, "I was in prison and you visited me.

Remember when a friend of Jesus died? He wept.

The same grief that overwhelms you and me over the loss of a loved one is felt, probably even to a greater degree, by a person behind bars. A real human being with real feelings. Not just a number.

Jesus cares. We must care, also.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A soft answer

It's Sunday, and I played hooky today. I didn't make it to the service this morning. But the most unusual thing happened. I watched commercial television, and actually had some time with God. Let me explain.

One of the things I regret about having to be in church every Sunday morning is that I must miss one of my favorite broadcast personalities---Charles Osgood. I think one of the reasons he is such a hero of mine in the industry is that he's actually a radio man. Granted, he's in TV now, but he's a radio man. And that's what I am. I haven't been in the business for 30 years now, but I'm radio man. Started at age 12, and will be until I die.

And I forgot how much I like Charles Osgood, and why, until I turned on the set this morning while staying home from church.

There was no shouting, no rancor, no bitterness. The terrible political battles were missing.

Instead, there were beautiful stories, and a very emotional story really touched me. I was reminded of the verse in Proverbs that says a soft answer turns away wrath, or as the NIV translation puts it, a "gentle answer."

I love the broadcasting business, but I don't like what I see and hear today.

I used to like to produce programs that made people laugh and cry, made them love their fellow-man, made them want to care and to do something, made them want to get involved. Granted, I did my share of controversial programming, and I made people angry. But community was at the center of our programming, and compassion was an essential ingredient.

Today, it's a different story.

A person by the name of Ambrose Pierce said, "Speak when you are angry, and you'll give the best speech you'll ever regret."

I wonder if anybody get's that any more.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Joy: it can't be stolen

Our daughter Sue tells of a delightful African American co-worker whose spirits never seem to dip. One day Sue had to ask her, "Tell me, how is it that you're always so happy, so positive, so upbeat?"

She looked at Sue, and said with conviction: "Ain't nobody gonna steal my joy."

Isn't that wonderful?

I thought of that yesterday when I opened a two-page letter from a dear friend in the Women's Correctional Facility at Ypsilanti. These women are not treated nicely. Granted, they are prisoners, but the incarceration is their punishment. They don't need or deserve such rude treatment.

HFP has been working with this prisoner in recent years to develop a wonderful knitting program for prisoners. These women knit items for shelters, hospitals, churches...they're doing good stuff for others.

We have coordinated efforts to get yarn to these knitters, sometimes as many as 100 women.

Our friend reported that the staff members do their best to disrupt this process even, although I'm not sure why. They hold up the yarn shipments, claiming the material must be closely inspected to avoid smuggling in contraband. Right!

Anyway, they stooped to a new low last week. The woman in charge of inspection not only delayed a delivery of yarn to the prisoners. Claiming that she suspected a contraband shipment, she unraveled every skein of yarn! She didn't roll it up nicely in a ball. Nope. She let it all unravel and get tangled. A massive job now for the knitters before they even get started knitting.

A complaint to the guard's superior officer fell on deaf ears.

And that's when Dianna's words came to mind.

Sorry, ornery lady on the prison staff, your actions and your attitudes ain't gonna ruin our program.

And more than that, ain't nobody gonna steal our joy.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

On prisoners' generosity

The wife of a prisoner gave me a challenging statement the other day.

She said: "I hear a lot about what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has done. But if I'm going to donate any money to your organization, I don't want to hear that. I want to hear WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO DO!"

And that started my thought processes. Maybe we're going about this fund-raising business in the wrong way. Perhaps we should offer new programs, new ideas, thoughts about what HFP will try to accomplish in the future. I won't argue that plans for the future are not only exciting, but they also are important.

There's a flip side, however.

It's also important for us to continue doing what we have been doing. And here's why.

As I write this, Marcia and I are in northern Michigan for a rare experience. We're vacationing for a few days with all of our children and all of our grand-children. This doesn't happen often, because two of our grand-kids live in Hawaii and two live in South Carolina.

But our vacation was made even more special yesterday with the arrival of a simple email message from Pen Pal. It informed us that HFP had received a donation of $1,000 cash from the Prison Benefit Fund at Kinross Correctional Facility in the U.P.
The PBF consists of profits from prison store sales. Prisoners have a say-so in how this money is to be used...for recreational purposes, etc. They may also give to charity.

The guys at Kinross got the idea from inmates of Michigan's women's facility in Ypsilanti, who earlier this year voted to donate $500 to HFP.

These people didn't decide to give money to us based on elaborate future plans. They like what we have done so far, and they're betting that we'll remain at their side if we can simply stay alive.

I cannot think of stronger praise.

I cannot think of a stronger mandate.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Haleigh's mite

Dr. Luke tells in his gospel of a poor widow who stepped up to the temple treasury and dropped in two tiny copper pennies.

A little girl named Haleigh jogged my memory of that story this week.

Our little ragtag band of musicians was performing in a downtown Grand Haven church coffeehouse, hoping to raise dollars for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. In fact, we were hoping to raise lots of dollars. HFP is usually struggling to stay afloat, and today is no exception.

A wonderful couple who support us donated ten jars of their home-prepared Michigan maple syrup, which we used to attract contributions of $100 or more. Some gave even more than that, and one generous soul donated $1,000.00!

But now to the story of Haleigh, age 8.

Haleigh came with her piggy bank. She wanted to give her pennies to HFP, and said she hoped the money could help to send Bibles to prisoners.

Her grandfather emptied the piggy bank with her, and they turned over $3.00 in coppers to HFP. He introduced her to the audience. Then he brought her over to me at the piano so I could give her a hug.

Her wish will be granted. We have an arrangement with a publisher. When a prisoner wants a Bible, he/she will get it.

Jesus watched all the rich people putting their money in the temple treasury.

"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."

Thank you, Haleigh.

I'll betcha two cents Jesus was smiling.