All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Kindness begets kindness evermore. Sophocles

HIS MEN, the male chorus that I founded in 1972, is no more. While the music has stopped, my memories continue. We liked little things!

While other Christian groups seemed to thrive on performing in prominent venues before large crowds, our most meaningful experiences were in circumstances exactly the opposite. We performed an entire concert for an ailing missionary on the Haitian Island of La Gonave. When we were traveling in the “hollers” of Kentucky, we sang for a little old lady who wasn’t well enough to come to the concert. We performed in the back of a pickup truck down her little two-track road. An audience of one.

I’m reminded of that today as we prepare for a HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS Board of Directors meeting. For these quarterly sessions, key people in our team are asked to prepare activity reports.

Our kind and caring Medical Director, Dr. Bob Bulten, reported that in addition to answering more than a couple hundred email messages related to prisoner medical issues, he personally made some visits to inmates. Said Dr. Bob: “One of whom I have seen multiple times, as he is dying of tongue cancer at Duane Waters Medical facility.” Just doing it because he cares.

As with HIS MEN, we take pride in major successes---freeing Maurice Carter, freeing Jimmy Hicks! But there’s something really special about helping a musician-prisoner to finally get permission to play his keyboard behind bars, arranging transportation to prison for an elderly and disabled mom, or helping a young, imprisoned mother to see her little girl for a birthday visit.

I can tell you this: We may be responding to 1,000 calls a month, but small acts of kindness are common here, and we intend to keep it that way! It's part of our DNA.

My dear friend and gospel singer Alma Perry, who left this earth far too early, used to sing:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he's traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Leo Buscaglia put it this way:

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.     

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Time to get your hands out of your pockets!

The late Tony Wolf, missionary to Haiti, was a guest on my radio talk show, telling about a young Haitian woman who gave birth to a child while riding in his Jeep. “I decided it was time for me to take my hands out of my pockets,” said Tony.

Still good advice today.

I’m reading Sister Helen Prejean’s life story in her new book: RIVER OF FIRE: MY SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.

I guess one might have predicted that this vivacious Roman Catholic nun, who appeared in Grand Haven as a guest of HFP last year, would go on to greatness. And that, at age 80, she hasn’t even begun to slow down. One might have guessed that just by watching her jump out of the family station wagon, as a teenager, ready to begin her new life in a convent. “I’m here,” she proclaimed. “I’m here to become a bride of Christ!”

As another active octogenarian, I’m constantly amazed at the number of my peers who are sitting around doing nothing. Many are in good physical and mental health for their age, yet they remain idle. That doesn’t seem healthy to me. Or wise. This may seem a bit judgmental, but I don’t think it’s even right, especially since there’s just so much to be done!

If you watched Lester Holt’s TV specials over the weekend, these numbers should have startled you: 2.2 million Americans behind bars; and, 2.7 million kids in American who have a parent behind bars!

Let me just add one more stat: 38,000 people in the Michigan prison system---much higher number than the averages of other Great Lakes states. And, at least 1,000 of them are innocent! Wrongly convicted! Shocking. Shameful.

Sister Prejean rather jokingly explains her naivete re social justice issues as a young nun: “I thought that all I had to do was to be charitable to those around me and maybe make a contribution to the missions. I thought that praying was enough.”

A sentiment not uncommon among the people with whom we circulate.

Regardless of your age, praying is not enough. A contribution to a mission is not enough. This is an American crisis.

It’s time for all of us to get our hands out of our pockets!

Friday, September 6, 2019

Good for Lester! Good for HFP!

I hope you’ll be watching upcoming TV specials when NBC’s Lester Holt focuses on mass incarceration. May God bless his efforts to bring public awareness to this terrible blight on our nation.

As I’m watching and listening, I’m excited and impressed all over again about the niche that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has found under this same umbrella. Because of the uniqueness of our work, I see a critical need for its expansion into all states.

As it stands right now, the HFP team is on target to respond to 1,000 calls this month! The total in August was 949. While it’s terribly important for NBC and USA Today to focus on huge incarceration issues, it’s equally as important for someone to help the individual behind bars experiencing little, daily problems that he or she just cannot resolve without outside help. This is also true for family members and loved ones.

-A senior inmate is told not to worry when his heart keeps acting up. He contends health-care doesn’t want to spend money on old-timers.

-The wife of a prisoner complains that she’s not allowed to leave the visitor room for an emergency break, and there are no sanitary napkins in the adjoining rest room. She is told by prison staff to stay home when she has her period.

-The grandmother of a mentally challenged inmate doesn’t know where to turn when her grandson is being extorted by gang bangers. They tell him that money must be sent to these thugs behind bars, and she sends it!

-An inmate is fully aware of the fact that the Parole Board’s copy of his record has inaccuracies, but he doesn’t know how to get it corrected.

-A prisoner wants to obtain some legal records to help his appeal, but Michigan is the only state in the country that will not permit inmates to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

-Diabetics in one facility are simply asking that their meal times be coordinated to fit the times of insulin shots.

-An inmate with sleep apnea complains that the prison won’t provide distilled water for a CPAP breathing device.

Yesterday our staff and team of professional volunteers responded to 55 calls like these. EVERY prisoner, every representative of a prisoner, every prisoner’s family member gets immediate attention and response. We may not be able to solve the problem right away, but callers talk to real people who care.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS: an incredible agency. It’s growth over 18 years has been phenomenal! I see major excitement and development in its future!

…remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Hebrews 13:3

Monday, September 2, 2019

A soft answer vs a harsh word: Prov 15:1

Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.
 -Yehuda Berg

The church music staff was a bit short-handed Sunday morning…it was Labor Day weekend. I was the organist on duty. I love the “king of instruments” and do my best to use its capabilities to enhance the worship experience for those in attendance. But I wasn’t prepared for this compliment, warmly handed to me by a guest following the service: You filled the room with the grace of God!”

Nine little words, and they made my Sunday!

That simple act of kindness served to remind me of the role our HFP team members play every day. We’re interacting with prisoners at a record pace. And when we’re so rushed responding to email messages and phone calls, it’s easy to be curt with our answers and short with our responses. Yet, it’s important for us to remember that, for incarcerated men and women, kind and gentle words are foreign. Their world is filled with oral unpleasantries, coming from all directions---their bunkies, the general population, and yes, the staff. Their waking hours are filled with orders, threats, bitches and complaints.

This means that if we’re going to show an inmate that we care, we must keep the snarky comments to ourselves, we must resist the urge to correct, and we must remember that it’s not important for us to have the last word. Instead, we do our best to try to encourage inmates. It’s meaningful to thank them when they send kind words of gratitude to us. Even when they raise their voices in frustration, we try not to respond in kind.

How does this apply to your lives, those of you who are reading this and who are not communicating with prisoners? Well, I think this kindness is important not only in how we speak with prisoners, but also how we speak about them. It’s very easy to label them “the worst-of-the-worst, losers, animals, vicious criminals, predators, derelicts, etc.” Father Greg Boyle says: “It is certainly true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a book by its first chapter—even if that chapter is twenty years long.”

And so, we covet your prayers, as we do our best to extend compassion to those behind bars today, maybe with just a kind word. And we ask that you soften your thoughts and words about the incarcerated. As Fr. Boyle stresses: there’s no us and them, only us.

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.
 -Mother Teresa

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


What a birthday! Staggering statistics! Promising progress! Amazing accomplishments!

It was August 29, 2001, when I placed my signature on the bylaws of a new organization called INNOCENT! My friend Maurice Carter, serving prison time for a crime he did not commit, had been leaning on me for months, insisting that we needed to start an organization that would help prisoners in situations similar to his. I rather reluctantly agreed. A one man show.

I manned the telephone and worked the cases on a part-time basis as I continued my occupation as a seller of church organs. By 2004, my enthusiasm was on a roll. That was the year that Maurice was freed, the year that Maurice died, and the year that I moved into our first office and began this work on a full-time basis.

Time and experience helped us fine-tune the organization, narrowing the scope to state prisons in Michigan alone and widening our services to assist more than the wrongly convicted. By 2008, it became apparent to our directors that a name change was necessary. Humanity for Prisoners much more accurately reflected our mission.

The word quickly spread among prisoners: Someone cares! Records broken, year after year: 100 calls a month, then 200, 400, early this year 700, and right now---August, 2019, our birthday month---nearly 900! Response now provided by a team of 5, several dedicated volunteers and a panel of professional advisers, with all action originating right here in our very own quarters!

On this, our 18th birthday, I can think of no higher tribute than the words and gifts of prisoners. We sent a thank you note this week to an inmate who donated $12.00. That’s probably half of his monthly salary. A check came from another guy last week: $15.00.

We’ve been trying for ages to get a Public Hearing for Joe, who has served nearly 40 years:

HFP has been a really big part of my life over the past 4 years and I am so very grateful for all that you've done for me. Now I have an opportunity to put this prison life behind me and begin to rebuild my life on the other side.

Bob has terminal cancer…we sent our compassionate physician to see him a few days ago:

I once again thank all of you at Humanity for Prisoners. You all have lifted my spirits at a time that they were really low.

Finally, a prisoner description of the HFP team:

In our world of loneliness and despair there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred.

Says the old hymn writer: Little is much when God is in it.

Amen and Amen!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Some thoughts on those who have no one to pray for them

The venue was First Congregational Church in Muskegon, Michigan.

The date was Sunday, August 25, 2019.

The occasion was the final public performance of HIS MEN, fine musical ensemble that I helped put together in 1972. After a run of 47 years, the sunset finally arrived.

I’ll never forget the date, nor the experience of actually directing the singers in their very last piece of music. Bittersweet, to say the least. It hurts.

But that’s not what’s sticking in my craw today. Instead, I’m reviewing and rethinking one little sentence recited in a prayer. Dave Wikman, well-known Muskegon musician, was offering the morning prayer. With all that was going on, I must confess that my thoughts were drifting. Then came this little petition: We pray for those who have no one to pray for them. Whoa!

The writer of the prayer couldn’t have known this, but that was the hidden message behind the entire mission of HIS MEN! For 47 years these guys went into jails and prisons, hospital rooms, nursing homes, orphanages, tiny venues and obscure mission stations, bringing sunlight into the darkened lives of the forgotten and disenfranchised.

And, the writer could not have known that the “crooked stick” who founded HIS MEN, was also the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. And that petition is also the hidden message behind our mission statement. As we daily seek to provide personal assistance to Michigan prisoners who don’t know where to turn, in actuality we are remembering those who have no one to pray for them.

I’m feeling sad today. There’s a part of me that says the echoes of the music I heard yesterday should never die away. But, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to learn that one should never try to convert a period at the end of a sentence into a comma. On the positive side, no one will ever know the impact of that ministry of music.

Perhaps HFP won’t last any longer than 47 years, either. This frail human being couldn’t control the destiny of HIS MEN, and the same holds true for our prison work.

But I can tell you this: With the exciting combination of determined directors, dedicated volunteers and committed staff members, today we are going to remember and serve those who have no one to pray for them.

There can be no higher calling.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The melody lingers on

Just a bunch of guys who loved to sing. That’s the way we described HIS MEN, tiny male chorus of 13 singers that formed in 1972.

No major goals. No lofty dreams. Out to impress no one on how well we could read notes or sing difficult anthems. Instead, we wanted to deliver a simple message, using simple and melodic songs of faith…songs people loved and wanted to hear. No expensive sound equipment and a traveling bus. From day one the group never charged a fee. If groups wanted us for fund-raising, they got all the money. We were not looking for glory in the major concert halls, but instead made a concerted effort to get into small churches and tiny venues, where good music could or would seldom be heard.

Singing for church services took second place, so that, instead, we could bring our songs to the downtrodden and disenfranchised, the elderly, the sick and injured. We went into hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, jails, prisons. Where others chose not to go, we opted to share Christ in music as HIS MEN!

We proudly embraced that name. We were singing HIS praises, doing HIS work.

Remember in the Bible when God said he’d give Solomon whatever he wanted? Solomon asked for wisdom, and God was so touched by that that he gave him riches, as well. I think in our case, God honored our lofty goals by blessing us with good sound as an added bonus. The sound of HIS MEN, from day one in the autumn of 1972, has been outstanding.

Now those sounds are coming to an end. After hundreds of performances, thousands of miles traveled, millions of dollars raised for charity, the ministry of HIS MEN is going silent. The exit will quietly take place Sunday morning, August 25, at John Mattson’s church, First Congregational in Muskegon. And I’ll admit, I’m feeling a bit emotional about this. I was the director for the first 21 years. Mattson, well-known church musician in the Greater Muskegon area, took the baton from that day on. Just two directors, both unpaid, in 47 years!

I’ve never done this on the blog site, and I hope it works. I’d like to proudly share my last performance with HIS MEN in 1993. (They sound even better today!)

Only God knows how many lives have been touched by the musical ministry of HIS MEN, especially prisoners. But not just the lives of those who heard them. That also includes the lives of the 46 men who, over the years, sang in the group. And six accompanists.

And especially two directors.

The melody lingers on.