All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Family: where life begins and love never ends. Anon

Sam was 7 years of age when he was removed from his home. When his father was no longer in the picture, his mother couldn’t handle all the kids alone. He was placed in foster care. That was a long time ago. 

Many, many years later, sitting in a Michigan prison cell, Sam did a lot of thinking about his childhood, and wondered if his mother was still alive. How he’d love to talk with her! He heard rumors that an organization called HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS helps in situations like this. He called our office. 

I’m cutting the story very short to tell you that Sam’s mom contacted the HFP office the other day. She was weeping. She and her son have reconnected! 

We call it “People Search.” It’s one of the popular services of HFP, and it got off to a rocky start. To say that the Michigan Department of Corrections didn’t like the people search idea would be an understatement. Their concerns were valid. Some people don’t turn off the criminal switch when they become incarcerated. Yet, 90% of the people who go into prison get out again someday. 

The MDOC could just picture a guy trying to persuade us to find his long-lost Aunt Jennie, when the person he hopes to track down upon his release is really a retired prison warden with whom he had a sour relationship. We had to avoid that! Hoping to make this a compassionate service and working with the MDOC, we developed a solid plan. When an inmate hopes to find an a long-lost relative, we first take steps to confirm the relationship. Then, instead of giving the prisoner any information, we contact the relative. We explain the situation, and ask whether that person has any interest in reconnecting. If the answers are all positive, we take the next step. 

Our successes have been most gratifying. 

HFP staff member Ted Dimke stopped everyone from talking in the office the other day to say he’d just gotten off the phone with a prisoner who wanted to thank us. A family that had completely been out of touch with him was back in his life. Family members were coming to see him. “The guy started getting tears in his eyes, and wouldn’t hang up,” said Ted. He finally just concluded the conversation by saying to the HFP team, “I love you guys!” 

Action with Compassion! 

Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him. Ps 127:3

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

…in the same way you judge others, you will be judged. Matthew 7

She wasn’t the best singer in the choir. To the frustration of the choir director, her attendance was uncertain and irregular. Her voice of marginal quality and her dismal attendance record prompted other singers to grumble behind her back. Through it all, however, they tolerated her participation and she remained a choir member for several years. 

That was long ago, according to the choir’s librarian, with whom I recently spoke. 

Apparently, while still a member of the choir, the woman had taken some music home with her and neglected to return it. My friend was asked by the choir director to pay a visit to the former singer and get it back. 

His lack of enthusiasm for the task took a dramatic turn upon his arrival at her home. 

The former choir member promptly retrieved copies of the anthems, but wanted to chat. She couldn’t stop talking about how much that choir experience meant to her. No one realized that she was going through a most difficult time back then…loss of husband, plus family and financial problems. Even though she couldn’t attend every choir rehearsal, music---as it always does---provided immeasurable healing! 

In telling the story, my friend gets tears in his eyes. He, the choir director and the singers had gotten it all wrong. Their feelings and opinions about this singer were based on inadequate data. While they were secretly grumbling, the choir was doing exactly what it was created to do. The choral experience was a source of personal faith, restoration and encouragement…this time for the singer, not just the audience. 

And I get to thinking about just how often you and I do the very same thing! 

We have such stereotypical views and opinions about prisoners. (They’re in there for a reason! If they hadn’t done the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time!) And yet, as our team members work with the incarcerated and communicate with them, we learn so much more about their lives, and discover that there are many sides to every story. 

“We never see the full picture. We cannot know a person’s life and challenges at a glimpse.

We never hear the full story. We cannot grasp a person’s viewpoint through mere words.

We never feel the full pain. We cannot perceive a person’s heart and mind in a conversation.”

― Richelle E. Goodrich 

Let me leave the judging to you, dear Jesus. Mary Fairchild

Saturday, July 23, 2022

July 24: A special day!

College student Matt Tjapkes had a great topic for his speech class, back in the late 1990s. His father, Doug, was trying to free a Black man who claimed wrongful conviction. Matt’s opinion was correct. His professor gave him an A. 

The paths of Maurice Carter and Matt Tjapkes would continue to cross. 

After graduation, Matt would become a sports writer for the Grand Haven Tribune. When his father was able to persuade famed prize fighter Rubin Hurricane Carter to come to Michigan to raise awareness of the Maurice Carter scandal, he arranged for Matt to get a personal interview with the internationally known pugilist. That made for a great newspaper exclusive. 

Then, on July 24, 2004, when that very same Maurice Carter was released from prison, having served 29 years for a crime he did not commit, Matt’s story made the front page of the Grand Haven Tribune. His photo of Maurice holding his freedom papers later appeared on the cover of a book, written by Doug, that told the Carter story. 

So, on this July 24, there are reasons to celebrate. We call it “M & M Day."

We not only celebrate that day when Governor Jennifer Granholm finally granted a medical commutation for Maurice Carter. The 24th is also Matt’s birthday. Born on July 24, 1978, Matt was the youngest of Marcia and Doug Tjapkes’ offspring. 

Yes,  on this July 24, we remember the earliest days of HFP and we proudly observe our present status. It was Maurice Carter’s idea, back around the turn of the century, that he and I should form an organization that would help prisoners with their most basic needs. Maurice lived for only 3 months following his release.  And today, Matt, is the head of HFP, now entering its 22nd year of “Action with Compassion” for Michigan’s incarcerated. 

Soli Deo Gloria!

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Ignoring the poor? Better watch out!

In my daily feed from Frederick Buechner, the famed theologian was talking about Dr. Luke’s gospel in the New Testament: 

Luke makes sure that nobody misses the point that Jesus was always stewing about the terrible needs of poor people. He is the one who tells us that when Jesus preached at Nazareth, his text was "he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor" from Isaiah (Luke 4:18), and whereas Matthew says that the first Beatitude was "Blessed are the poor in spirit," according to Luke it was just plain "Blessed are the poor" period (Luke 6:20). He also recorded some parables, like the one about the rich man and the beggar, that come right out and say that if the haves don't do their share to help the have-nots, they better watch out, and he's the only one to quote the song Mary sang that includes the words "he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent empty away" (Luke 1:53). 

I found his thoughts exceptionally meaningful, because earlier this week I had a luncheon meeting with some of the surviving charter members of HIS MEN, a male chorus that would have been 50 years old this year. I had just posted a video of my final performance with the group, in 1997, when HIS MEN sang in Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. It was an exhilarating experience! But not typical. 

In its 4+ decades of music ministry, HIS MEN focused on the poor, the disenfranchised, the elderly, the ailing, and especially the incarcerated. It was our position that the well-dressed people who attend the Crystal Cathedral shouldn’t be the only ones blessed by good music.

And so, while other music groups performed in the nice churches, our little all-white Dutch gang invited ourselves into the tiniest, poorest churches in town, including those of different races and different denominations. When booking performances for a weekend in a certain community our coordinator would also investigate possible gigs in nursing homes, hospitals, orphanages, jails and prisons. 

I credit those beautiful, meaningful experiences with helping me form the goals and functions of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS this many years later. Again, using Frederick Buechner’s message from St. Luke: 

He…recorded some parables, like the one about the rich man and the beggar, that come right out and say that if the haves don't do their share to help the have-nots, they better watch out…


Friday, July 15, 2022

What do you do? Not always a simple answer.

So, what do you guys do at HFP? 

A short answer is elusive, even for our workers and board members. 

We generally respond by saying we help residents of our state prisons with non-legal problems and issues when they don’t know where to turn. 

It’s so easy for you and me to solve a problem. We have Wikipedia, we have Google, we have cell phones, Siri and Alexa. Our incarcerated friends have none of these resources. 

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS receives about a hundred requests for assistance a day, via telephone, email and snail mail. Just for the heck of it, I grabbed ten of those today. 

Client #1 requested assistance in filing an application for commutation of his sentence.

Client #2 needed assistance in filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

Client #3 asked for some specific information from Wikipedia.

Client #4 claims actual innocence, and needed some legal suggestions and ideas.

Client #5 is having a terrible problem with staff.

Client #6 has an important question about his Social Security.

Client #7 needed help in obtaining some MDOC forms.

Client #8 has serious medical problems, issues and questions.

Client #9 is an artist, and requested a photograph.

Client #10 had no immediate problem, but asked us to assist a friend behind bars. 

There you have it. That 10% birds-eye view is typical of the pleas our staff members and volunteers receive every day. 

It may not be easy to explain exactly what we do, but it’s very easy to explain our popularity. Prisoners who contact HFP get immediate response. No long periods of silence. No run-arounds. No delays, snide comments or refusals. And all messages between HFP and residents of our state prisons end with the words, you matter! 

No wonder we’re receiving over 2,000 calls a month! 

No wonder prisoner contributions are at an all-time high! 

No wonder we swell with pride when we state that we’re a member of the HFP team! 

There’s a church a few miles north of here that won’t support HFP because we don’t tell stories about Jesus to prisoners. There are wonderful ministries already doing that. I think THIS is what Jesus meant when he said, “I was in prison and you visited me.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

On planting seeds, and who makes them grow

St. Paul said: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 

I’m reminded of that verse in First Corinthians as I’m preparing remarks for a luncheon meeting. I’ll be enjoying lunch with the surviving members, and/or their spouses, of the original HIS MEN male chorus. The tiny Christian male chorus was organized exactly 50 years ago. 

About a decade after we started singing, world hunger hit a terrible peak. Ethiopia's food shortages and hunger crisis from 1983 to 1985 led to an estimated 1 million famine deaths. 

That’s when 2 little guys got together to plant a seed. 

I was the founder of HIS MEN. Jim Franks, who attended our church, was the founder of a world relief agency called INTERNATIONAL AID. Our minds were on world hunger one Sunday morning. Jim came to me and said, “I need an idea for a world relief benefit.” And I said, “I’ve got an idea for a benefit concert.” We sat down a talked. 

From that conversation came an amazing concert featuring a group of male choruses, performing individually and as a mass choir. We called the event WE CARE, and it was presented in a major Grand Rapids venue. All musicians donated time and expense. Incredible response. Heart-warming success! What was meant to be a one-time program turned into an annual event that ran for the next 10 years. At least a dozen, in western Michigan and in greater Chicago. 

Now about God making stuff grow. 

I just came across some startling statistics, prepared by Jim’s successor at International Aid, Ralph Plumb.  The WE CARE concerts, organized by HIS MEN, had raised some $218,000 for world hunger. When converted to such things as food and blankets and medicine, the dollar value went up to $2 million! 

All because a little group of 13 singers not only cared, but chose to do something about it! 

It all reminds me of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. 

HFP started on a shoe-string 21 years ago, trying to help a few prisoners with their needs and problems. Today, a team of 7 staffers, a couple dozen volunteers and a dedicated board, serve thousands of Michigan prisoners from their own office building in Spring Lake! Because they care. 

Talk about making a seed grow!



Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Why “You Matter” matters!

In his new best-seller, Sparring Partners, John Grisham tells the story of Cody, who committed a crime at the age of 14 and was handed a death sentence. During his many years on death row he never had one visitor. BUT, something very interesting happened. 

A dear old lady in another state, as part of a mission project in her Lutheran church, chose his name to establish a pen-pal relationship. Not only did she send letters and cards, but she sent the inmate a book every week! 

Fast forward to the day of his execution. She paid him a visit in her wheelchair. 

Remembering that first letter, a tearful Cody said to her:  I read your name and I couldn’t believe it. Somebody out there knew my name, knew that I was on death row, and wanted to do something nice for me. Keep in mind, Miss Iris…I have no family anywhere. And no friends. Not a single friend until you came along. 

Last year, HFP President Matt Tjapkes implemented a new policy. Every email message to a Michigan prisoner (averaging about 100 a day!) would end with the words, “you matter!” 

It’s hard to imagine having no one…no friend, no mom or dad, no relatives. But you’d be surprised how many “Codys” there are behind bars! We hear it time and time again. 

Back in the early days of HFP, when it was still a one-man show, I was contacted by a group of inmates in Jackson. Their buddy, known as “Old Bill,” was dying, and he really didn’t want to die in prison. The problem: He had no one. No friends. No family. No place to go. Could I help? 

HFP could and did! We pulled strings here and there, and got Old Bill situated in a luxurious hospice facility that was nicer than most hotels I’ve stayed in. I stopped in to see him before he died. Weeping, he threw his arms around me. Someone cared! He mattered! That’s the way we do things here. 

It’s amazing how those two simple words touch the hearts of the incarcerated. Members of our team hear words like this every day: No one has ever said that to me! 

21 years ago, this agency got its start because a couple guys felt that people behind bars mattered. 

Today, all those on our board, our staff and our panel of volunteers, do what they do because of these words to Michigan prisoners: YOU MATTER!