Last year a member of a fine, protestant church responded to my request for support of the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. That would not be happening, he explained, because his church opted to spend mission funds on those agencies actually teaching the Word of God.
Also last year, as I sought the support and assistance of a highly capable agnostic, she stubbornly insisted that unless HFP become more secularized, it was doomed to failure.
Granted, the topic is a touchy one. When we appeal to churches for support, we refer to this as a ministry. When we appeal to secular foundations that want to avoid religion, we call it an advocacy agency.
And all this gets me to thinking. Somehow, we’re missing the point. If we focus on the prisoner and his or her needs and problems, those issues fade in importance.
I’ll give you a couple examples.
Thursday, Matt got up early in the morning to make the drive to Jackson so that he could be at the side of an ailing prisoner for his Parole Board review. One might ask why Matt did this. After all, the guy had violated parole once before, and he’s known to be a bit of a con man. Well, here’s why: The man had no friends or loved ones willing to accompany him for this traumatic experience, he’s shown love and concern for dozens of other hurting prisoners, and besides all that, he’s terminally ill! Cancer will claim his life within the year. It’s where we belonged.
That same day, Volunteer Jennifer Juhasz and I went to the Muskegon Correctional Facility to meet with 12 prisoners who are hoping to file applications for commutation of their sentences. We did a free-wheeling two-hour workshop on how to fill out the forms. One might ask why we did this. After all, the Governor has shown reluctance to grant any commutations so far. Well, here’s why: The Governor will leave office by the end of the year, he may decide to show compassion to some deserving long-term inmates, and most importantly---it’s a sliver of hope for those who long for freedom! It’s where we belonged.
That's right. With 39,000 people in the state prison system, we spent all that time and effort on one inmate in Jackson, and 12 in Muskegon.
I must confess to the church man: Matt, Jen and I didn’t take a Bible with us, and didn’t mention Christianity once in those two sessions.
I must confess to the Agnostic: In both instances, we felt that this was what Jesus would do.
Ministry or agency. Does it matter?