Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Preaching without words

I've been looking at the mailers from major prison ministries...those with international programs. The materials come in full color with beautiful photographs, touching testimonies, and strong appeals for funds to help support their multi-million dollar budgets.

Compare that to the HFP monthly newsletter. On occasion it shows up in color, thanks to a generous donor...but for the most part it's black and white, just one sheet with printing on both sides.

If we could provide photographs, they wouldn't be very pretty.

A prisoner with a leaky ileostomy bag begging for assistance in getting a replacement. A prisoner dying of cancer in the infirmary, begging to be home with family and friends in her final hours. A sex offender scared to death by threats from gang members, who doesn't dare leave his cell. A woman begging for extra toilet tissue and sanitary pads because of a medical problem. An inmate doubling over in pain from a hernia that prison doctors refused to treat. A bi-polar inmate experiencing a melt-down because his meds were suddenly discontinued for no reason. Do you see what I'm talking about?

And if we could and did publish such pictures, I cannot imagine that it would help our cause. These are the things we really don't want to hear about. In fact, we don't want to know about them...then we don't have to fret about them.

So HFP is not in prison cells teaching the Bible, and seeking conversion to Christianity.

Our M.O. is different. We're fighting to help prisoners one-on-one with problems that may seem small to us, but that are huge to prisoners. Our ministry may not be as popular among those people who make major gifts, and those foundations that award major grants. But it's vital. Just ask the 150 prisoners who contact us each month.

And so we'll keep holding auctions, selling Christmas wreaths, and sponsoring musical events just to make ends meet.

And we'll keep following the admonition of St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel every day. Use words if necessary.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

On letting Him do the rest

Pastor Nate straightened out my thinking today.

He was talking about Jesus feeding the 5,000. He pointed out that the disciples were not expected to perform a miracle. Jesus went about doing just that: blessing the 5 loaves and 2 little fishes, and turning them into a feast for the crowd. He merely expected the disciples to do what they knew how to do: distribute and serve the food to the people. "That's all he expects of us," explained Pastor Nate. Just do what you know how to do in your ministry. Jesus will do the rest."

I needed to hear that.

I get so frustrated as we work with prisoners.

I want to change the hearts of cruel prison doctors who with-hold treatment or cancel prescriptions.
I want to find a way to train guards better so they don't abuse the mentally ill.
I want to persuade Parole Board members that dying prisoners are not a threat to society, and should be permitted to die at home surrounded by loved ones, rather than in the cold infirmary of a dark and dank prison.
I want to change the opinion of legislators who believe that there's nothing wrong with placing a young teenager in prison for life with no chance of parole.
I want to explain to prison officials that there's a whole group of older sex offenders behind bars who are scared to death of gang-bangers who prey on them while officers look the other way.

I could go on and on.

But as Nate explains it, Matt and I don't have to fret about all of those things, as we handle the day to day prisoner issues in the HFP office. All Jesus expects of us is to do what we know how to do, and that is to reach out to these prisoners in his name, showing kindness to them, and helping them with all the resources at our disposal.

It's the best we can do. It's the only thing we can do.

He'll do the rest. Just as he has in the past.

Thanks be to God.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Keeping it in perspective

The mood was somber as son Matt and I discussed the annual HFP auction/fundraiser held this week.

"If we were raising money for puppies and kitties we'd have packed the place," grumbled Matthew. Indeed. Fact of the matter is that we drew about 50 people at best. Fortunately for us they were generous friends, and we still raised about $5,000.00. We had hoped to raise at least double that.

We deal with these serious prisoner issues on a daily basis, and somehow we think that everyone else is on the same page. We forget that we reside in an all-white, affluent society, and prisoners are not at the top of the popularity list. We're doing our best to educate and inform, but this simply pointed out that we have a long way to go.

But back to the title of this little entry.

When Matt and I opened the mail, our grumbling turned to gratitude. In two separate envelopes there were two checks from the State of Michigan. The first was a check from a female inmate who probably earns less than 80 cents a day at her prison job. The check was in the amount of 25 dollars...a huge gift from a prisoner whom we have not helped all that much personally. She just wanted to demonstrate her appreciation for all that we do for women in the Michigan prison system. The second check was for $200, and it came as a donation from the National Lifers Association chapter of the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. Board chairman Dan Rooks and I made a guest appearance at their meeting more than a year ago, and they never forgot our kindness or our message. They had to cut through miles of red tape to make a donation from their club to our agency...but they made it happen. God bless 'em!

Thank you, Lord, for helping us to keep this in perspective.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The highs and lows

When it comes to working with prisoners, I must confess that the lows usually win. It has certainly been that way for the past few months.

First Otto died...an ailing inmate who should have been home with his wife.

Then Joey died, after a harrowing few days when the prison system refused to keep his wife apprised of daily issues at the end of his life.

Then Linda died, a cancer patient who had no business dying in a prison infirmary, when she could have been surrounded by family and loved ones.

These are the sucker-punches in this business, and they hurt.

But the God of the valley is also the God of the mountains!

This morning came the brief message from Herman: I'm going home!

Herman is a parolable lifer, 54 years of age. He has served 34 years. A Parole Board agreed to give him parole once before, but then administrations changed in our state, and the new administration vetoed the decision. Can you imagine the heart-break?

Prisoners contacted HFP and asked us to help Herman. Another public hearing was set by the Parole Board for last July. I drove to Ionia to participate, and to show our support. Here was a beautiful man whose life reflected his faith and beliefs. He chose to make his time in prison a time for improvement, taking every course possible. He gained the respect of prisoners and staff members alike, and even obtained a letter of support from a former warden. While not a major player in the crime for which he was convicted, he showed genuine remorse and sadness for his actions.

But after the public hearing, an agonizing period withg no word from the PB.

Then the good news this morning.

Today, this high wins!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When thanks isn't deserved

I received such a kind note today from the wife of a prisoner, and I honestly felt guilty.

Some background.

I have worked to help Ray, an African American, for years. He's wrongly convicted, and he has now been in prison for 40 years.

Ray is a fine, fine artist. He has painted beautiful murals in some of Michigan's prisons, and has gained the appreciation and respect of many of the prison staffers. He's a kind, gentle man who has many friends inside and outside of prison.

I have sent letters on behalf of HFP to the Parole Board.

I have featured many of his pieces of art in a prison art show.

I have a treasured piece of his, painted just for me, hanging in the office.

I drove to Detroit to attend an all-day symposium with participants from the US and Canada---attorneys, innocence people, journalists, investigators. Everyone was convinced of his innocence, and everyone pledged to work hard. But eventually everyone found other things to do, as it became apparent that this was an uphill fight all the way.

I prowled through several trailer parks in western Michigan, hoping to find a witness who could help in proving his innocence...to no avail.

I feel helpless. I'm familiar with that feeling, because it was a way of life when I was trying to help Maurice Carter.

And the guilt hit me even harder today when Ray's wife sent a message asking if I would once again write a letter on his behalf to the Parole Board. Then she said: "I hope you know we have the utmost respect for you and everything you do and have done for us. We hope you are well, have seen your picture in the newsletter and you look good. Take care of yourself, you are needed and loved by so many!"

Undeserved until Ray is a free man.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Jesus wept

The only time we read in the Bible about Jesus breaking down and weeping is over a death.

Somehow, I think he's still weeping over deaths...especially deaths of prisoners.

My heart breaks when we receive word of deaths behind bars. Our recent blog entries have discussed the deaths of Otto and Joey. We discussed those deaths in our recent newsletter.

The sadness of those deaths didn't sweep over just family and friends...it swept right into the HFP office.

And we were just recovering when two women in the Huron Valley facility---the only facility in the State of Michigan to house women---reported this weekend that Linda had died. She was in the infirmary with cancer, and for some reason, no one could persuade the Parole Board to let her go home to die. I just don't understand this stuff. I don't mean to digress, but I keep thinking of pieces I read in the newspaper about parolees who got out only to re-offend. They agree to release these people, but refuse to release the dying? There is some logic here that escapes me.

Well, we couldn't make anything happen for Linda.

But there are other women in the infirmary with cancer who are dying. Do you think the Parole Board, in its infinite wisdom, should keep them there because these ladies are threats to society?

Raise your hand if you think anyone really cares.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A special kind of doctor

I was in a meeting with officials from the Michigan Department of Corrections, Hospice of Michigan, and Corizon...the health care provider for Michigan prisons. A hospice official asked Mason Gill, VP of Michigan operations for Corizon, about prison doctors. Gill responded that it takes a very special kind of doctor to serve in the prisons.

I'll second that motion.

Let me tell you about a special kind of doctor.

Mr. D. had been complaining about severe pain from a hernia for weeks. Finally, the large lump in his abdomen started turning color and the pain became unbearable. Mr. D. doubled over in pain and started vomiting. He was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, and then transferred to one of the major hospitals in Lansing. There a surgeon discovered there was not only one, but two hernias...and that the major hernia was causing problems with the colon. He was very upset with the prison healthcare people for letting the situation get to this stage. The surgeon corrected the hernia situation, and then performed a colonoscopy to make sure everything was OK.

Mr. D. was released from the hospital with two provisions. He was given a prescription for pain medication to take him through the post-surgery days. And, he was instructed to come back in two weeks for a post-surgery exam.

Well, let me tell you how that special doctor at the prison reacted.

He was upset that Mr. D. had been sent to the hospital, and said if the decision had been up to him, Mr. D. would have remained in prison.

He refused to fill the prescription for pain meds. Mr. D. would just have to tough it out. After all, he's just a prisoner.

And, he refused to let Mr. D. go back to the surgeon for a post-op exam.

Now that's some special kind of doctor.