Sunday, September 30, 2012

Blessed are the dreamers

Two men unknowingly gave hope to prisoners over the weekend. I saw it in person.

I have never met Mark Carpenter and Bob Johnson, but they had a dream and they refused to be defeated by the naysayers. Their idea was to create an entry in the ARTWALK competition in Grand Rapids, called LIGHTS IN THE NIGHT GR. They wanted to release thousands of real Chinese lanterns, lifted aloft by the heat from actual flames, over the river in downtown Grand Rapids.

The fire chief didn't like the idea, the Mayor wasn't pleased, others said this wasn't genuine art, some said it had been done elsewhere so it wasn't even original, and then on the night of the scheduled release came rain.

Undaunted, the pair rescheduled the release for last Friday night and this time conditions were perfect. The moon was shining and winds were calm when thousands upon thousands of Chinese lanterns were released. It was an amazing site. Marcia and I watched from the lounge of the Marriott Hotel downtown.

The heavens sparkled, light from the lanterns reflected in the waters of the Grand River and off the shiny glass buildings in the heart of the city. People cheered, wept, oohed and aahed, and hugged...some dedicating the released lanterns to loved ones. It was a magical moment never to be duplicated.

It was as if Carpenter and Johnson had read Shannon Wolf's delightful poem, Blessed are the Dreamers.

It made me think of prisoners. Sometimes all they have is a dream. Yes, realism is important. But so are dreams. As an eternal optimist, I can attest to that.

Let the naysayers claim the charming evening was not art. First prize is no longer important. The dreamers won. It was in the sighs and cheers, especially from the dozens of mentally and physically handicapped who watched from their wheelchairs.

Blessed are the dreamers, Who see the world another way. Who have seen fairies come out at night, And know where unicorns play.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bad news, good news

As the assigned organist for our Sunday morning worship service, I was sitting right under Pastor Nate's nose when he informed the congregation, "I have bad news and good news for you today. The bad news is that you're not in control. The good news is that you're not in control." Boy, did the President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS ever have to hear that message this week.

On day one of the business week, I was startled by a telephone call from a prominent attorney who has agreed to help us with James, who had been promised a deal by the state for critical testimony in a murder trial. The state is now hesitating, and our case is not being helped by a judge who is refusing to discuss the matter. The frustrated attorney finally headed out of town in his car, hoping to catch the judge unawares. Whoa!

On day two, I received a disturbing message from the sister of a prisoner. Harry has been informed that there's a contract on his life. He's afraid of being stabbed and killed. Harry is the second friend of ours in Chippewa now living under a death threat. It's easy to just dismiss this and say that these are the things that happen in prison. But stop to think about it for a minute. These guys are human beings, and have feelings and emotions no different than yours and mine. You are able to go about your business today. Harry and Lester don't dare go for a walk outside their room. They're living in the private hell of fear for their lives.

On day three, a fine criminal defense attorney and I will be planning our strategy to present the case of David to an Innocence Project. David has exhausted every avenue available through the courts, and even though I believe in his innocence, the judicial system hasn't seen it that way. This is critical. If we don't do it right, and an innocence team rejects this request, David's hopes will be dashed. That's heavy!

I've never lost the faith in my 75 years of existence.

But Nate's timing could not have been better with the reminder that if God is for me, who can be against me?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Going to the dogs

My friend Dodie doesn't belong in prison. She should have been out long ago. She hasn't been treated fairly, and there's no guarantee that things will ever change. But rather than sit and whine about it, she is involved in the most amazing program. it's called MI-PAWS (Michigan Inmates Providing Assistance Work & Service). It involves dogs. It's a program operated jointly by the Humane Society of Huron Valley and the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Dodie is one of the inmates hand-selected to participate in the program. She is expecting a new dog any day now...it will be her 12th! Each dog lives around the clock with inmate handlers for eight weeks. The women work with the animals on different aspects of training which will make them highly adoptable at the end of their stay.

It's important to point out that these weren't choice dogs to begin with. Some have been abandoned by their owners, or just surrendered. Some have been injured by fights. Some are very afraid, either of people or of other dogs.

It's an around-the-clock assignment, starting at 6:30 AM for a potty break, and ending at night sleeping on a state mattress on the floor of the cell. Each dog learns basic commands such as sit, down, come, etc. They will be house-trained, be able to walk on a leash, and most likely will know some tricks that will make them proud.

Dodie points out that this does more than benefit the dogs. She said, "It softens prisoners hearts, teaches us patience, communication with other team members, conflict resolution, and to be held accountable for our actions." She said, "you really need people skills," and points out that it has been especially helpful for prisoners who did not like dogs or who were afraid of animals. "Gentleness and compassion is a must on all ends," she states.

Says our friend: "Joy and further growth in us is in saving a dog's life."

Methinks it's doing a good job of saving prisoner's lives as well.

All creatures great and small...the Lord God made them all.






Thursday, September 13, 2012

HIS MEN---still singing

A fine Christian ensemble is quietly observing a milestone of exemplary kingdom work.

Exactly 40 years ago, a few friends and I focused on the hope of forming a small male chorus. We invited 13 singers and a pianist. In that the other guys were better singers, we agreed that I should be the director. Our base was in Holland, but our members also came from the Muskegon, Grand Haven and Grand Rapids areas.

Some would think there should be a constitution with the formation of a group, but nothing was that formal. There were no bylaws or organization goals. A few simple goals included love of music, love of God, and a desire to use our music to help others. As director, my personal goal was to present simple, familiar gospel music in good taste.

There was the issue of choosing a name...but the suggestion from a singer's mom quickly won approval: HIS MEN.

The members bore proud ownership of that name, as they immediately began raising funds for worthy organizations. Instead of heading down a path seeking fame and fortune, traveling in buses and carrying fancy equipment, the guys just drove to wherever they would sing. The rag tag band of 13 men would simply stand up and sing their hearts out. The music from day one was beautiful. Some would say anointed. And it never stopped.

The group traveled overseas and over land, singing for a crowd as small as one 80 year old woman in Appalachia, to millions in the television audience of the Crystal Cathedral. The compassion for the disenfranchised led HIS MEN to hospitals, orphanages, VA facilities, rest homes and prisons. Especially prisons.

The group numbers at least 18 now. John Mattson succeeded me as director after the first 21 years, and has done an outstanding job of carrying on the HIS MEN tradition. My dear friend Sherry Merz serves as accompanist, and I'm proud to say that our son-in-law Lee Ingersoll represents our family in the group.

All past singers have been invited to the Tri-Cities for an anniversary observance in October. Past and present singers will present an anniversary concert in the SECOND CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH of Grand Haven on Sunday, October 14. at 6 PM. If you're in the area, it's a musical event you won't want to miss.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Politics no, justice yes

HFP stays out of politics. Our support comes from a broad spectrum of wonderful people from just about every political persuasion, and we respect all of their opinions.

With that disclaimer comes this information, about a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court.

I must confess that I usually know very little about the Supreme Court candidates whose names appear on the Michigan ballot. But some months ago a good friend, Professor Keith Findley---co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project---called our attention to the fact that a colleague was running for Supreme Court here in Michigan.

Bridget McCormack is a professor at the University of Michigan. But here's the information that caught our attention: She is the founder and co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the U of M Law School. This is the only Innocence Project in the State of Michigan that handles non-DNA cases, and this was the first exclusively non-DNA innocence clinic in the country. This clinic does a splendid job and has an amazing track record in its short history.

The legal people with whom HFP deals on a regular basis highly recommend Ms. McCormack. It's a rare opportunity, indeed, to place someone with a heart for wrongful convictions in the state's highest court. Please check her credentials. We think you'll be impressed.

Please remember the name, and please tell others.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

I have a secret

I get my Bible lessons in the most unusual places. As a church musician, I am often busy practicing at the time of adult Sunday School or Bible study sessions on Sunday morning. But I do not go without Bible study. My good friend and retired pastor Al Hoksbergen and I set aside an hour a week for a little libation and discussion, and this invariably turns into a meaningful lesson for me. This week, I got a bonus. Al and I were asked to do a funeral service. A 90-year-old charter member of our church had died.

I know of no one who does a memorial service better than Al. He doesn't have a "canned sermon" on file for funerals. He not only meets with the families, but then relies on his many years of ministry, preaching, teaching and counseling, to find a perfect match of scripture and the current situation.

The title of the message was "I Have a Secret," and the scripture passage was from Philippians. The Apostle Paul, writing from a prison where he was actually on death row, said "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." But he didn't stop there. He said, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want."

And that sent my mind in another direction. I didn't listen very well for a few minutes. I was thinking of my prisoner friends. I have a few friends who, like Paul, have learned this secret, and I am astounded every time I hear them speak. I know of two men and a woman who know they don't belong behind bars, know they were treated wrongly, and yet they have the same testimony as St. Paul.

Then I thought about so many others who cannot find that contentment, and it reminded me that we must pray for many, many, many prisoners who are upset, sad, disturbed, angry, and distraught because the system hasn't been fair with them. Those prayers must also be extended to the family and friends of these prisoners...people who are equally angry and upset.

Their day will come. Perhaps not on this earth, but their day will come.

Until then, let's pray that they learn Paul's secret.