All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, February 22, 2013

Big Ben's sermon

My friend Big Ben is a lifer, a dear man who has served some 40 years all because of a foolish moment in his young life. He's a beautiful Christian, and there's really no reason to keep him and many others like him in prison. But that is another matter.

Big Ben informed me the other day that he was recently called on to preach the sermon at the church in prison. He told me about the passage that had chosen

He went on to tell the congregation about an incident that happened on the floor of the prison gymnasium. He said he was playing a pick-up game of 21 with this guy, and went in for a rebound. When he came down, he slightly brushed his fellow player across the bridge of his nose with an elbow. He said the man went down like a 50-pound sack of potatoes. "I thought he was joking," said Big Ben, "because in my mind I had hardly touched him. But when he lifted his head up, blood was gushing from his nose and his mouth. Naturally I was apologizing profusely, but understandably he didn't want to hear anything of it."

The story didn't end there.

Big Ben didn't see the guy for a few days...but one day he came running up to him, smiling, and hugging him. He was naturally taken aback, and tried to figure out why the change in attitude.

Well as it turns out, the guy's nose had been broken before, and had never healed properly. As a result, he was having a difficult time breathing, and was bothering his bunk-mates with obnoxious snoring. The act of re-breaking his nose actually resulted in the bone re-positioning itself and correcting the man's breathing problem. He was no longer miserable with breathing issues, his snoring stopped, and he was happy.

Big Ben said he concluded the sermon by pointing out that, while he had no conscious part of it, God chose that particular time and place to anoint him with the gift of a healing spirit, and used his body to help relieve the suffering of someone else.

Not bad, Big Ben.

Not bad at all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On drinking spiked coffee

I knew right away that something was wrong, when James called me today. His voice wasn't the same. James has been represented by HFP for quite a while now. You've heard me talk about him. The state promised him that an effort would be made to get him re-sentenced if he would simply testify in a murder trial. And the thing is, the state didn't have to make this promise. James would have done it anyway, because it was the right thing to do. The man had boasted to him about involvement in a killing, and James told me that by doing nothing he would be siding with the criminal. But the state DID make the promise.

And so he testified, and the man was convicted of murder. The state was elated.

Now, years later, guess who's still in prison. Yep, the state has a hard time remembering promises like that, especially after it gets what it wants.

Well since that time, as you might expect, word has leaked back into the prison system, and now James lives in fear. He's not getting protection. He's been the target of many unpleasant activities. But last weekend was the worst.

He asked his cell-mate if he would heat up a cup of water for him in the microwave so he could make some coffee Saturday night. Shortly after he drank the coffee, he blacked out. He was rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital and, you guessed it: He had been poisoned. Doctors said if he hadn't gotten to the hospital in time, he would have been dead.

That's what happened to the last guy who got poisoned in this prison. He was in a coma for a couple of weeks, but never regained consciousness.

James survived. In his typical Christian thinking, he's confident that God has important plans for him in the future.

The only thing is, he's gotta live long enough to implement those plans.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Little is much!`

My prayer for HFP support is very simple each day. It's very much like, "Give us this day our daily bread." We don't need much, but do do need enough to handle the major challenges that come our way each day.

So I say a simple prayer each morning before I open our box at the Grand Haven Post Office. Today, good news came from all over the place. It's not big news, but it's good news!

Some dear friends of HFP sent out a feeler...they'd like to donate some stock to HFP, and our accountant must figure out how that can be done.

A friend from out-of-state, an award-winning broadcast journalist, sent us a message...she thinks she may have found some foundation money, and she wants to write a grant for us.

A notification came by email that the employer of one of our supporters would be matching that person's gifts to HFP, and we should be getting a check in April.

A Grand Rapids church took an offering where I had spoken recently...that generous amount from a small crowd arrived today.

HIS MEN, wonderful male chorus from our part of the state, announced that they are giving a concert in a Holland church Sunday evening, and the offering will be for HFP.

Two members of the 100 Club sent their monthly gifts to HFP today.

None of these were major in themselves, but they constitute "our daily bread."

But here's the touching gift. A check for $25.00 arrived from a woman in prison. This isn't a woman we have helped. This isn't one who has been asking for help. This is just a friend. For all we know, an inmate who makes .65 a day. This is a major gift. A gift of love.

Thank you, Ms. D.

Thank you, Lord.

Little is much when God is in it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why some people shoot

The nation is saddened once again over gun violence. Anger apparently festered so long in the mind of a troubled individual that he finally decided to take action, snuffing innocent lives with weapons. And we sit in our nice little homes in nice little neighborhoods and wonder how anyone could do something like that.

I have a different take on this.

Some of you know that I befriended a prisoner, Maurice Carter, in 1995, and spent the next 9 years trying to prove his innocence and trying to free him. He was eventually freed due to illness, after serving 29 years for a crime he did not commit. That was just about 50% of his life. Think he should have been angry...or could have been?

If you were finally released after 29 years of incarceration for a crime that someone else committed, might you consider taking revenge against the snake who escaped a serious drug charge by telling a lie about your involvement in a crime? How about the crooked cops that set this up so they could claim that a case was solved...would you think about getting even? And then there was the prosecutor who obviously had no case, but knew that an all-white jury could easily convict a black man of shooting a white cop. How would you feel about that? And then what about the judge...a judge who sentenced you to life in prison on an assault charge? Not murder, or rape. Assault! How would you feel about that?

Are getting my point? The system many times must assume some responsibility for pushing people over the edge.

In the Carter case, I'd like to say that things changed because I came on the scene. But I know better than that. Things changed because God intervened. Maurice saw that his anger was counter-productive, and his kindness and gentleness became exemplary. And he didn't stop there...he was instrumental in forming what is now HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS so that he could turn this negative into a positive.

But things could have been different. This could have resulted in guns and violence and mayhem. And on the day after the massacre, people would be blaming Maurice Carter.

Think about it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On God's mysterious ways

Laura stood before the congregation in our morning worship today and made a public profession of her faith. Before this emotional little segment of the service, pastor Nate Visker told an amazing story of how God works...actually, how things got started toward making a change in Laura's life. And that was 40 years ago. Here's how the sequence went:

1970s, Doug Tjapkes founded a group of singers called HIS MEN, and this male chorus chose prisons as one of its venues to present music.

1995, as a result of this interest in prisons, Doug chose to assist a prisoner named Maurice Carter who was wrongly convicted.

2001, at the encouragement of his friend Maurice, Doug formed an organization originally named INNOCENT, now doing business as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

2010, former prisoner Ron Ross, aided in his release by HFP, fell in love with a local woman, and they were married in our was the only church Ron new, and people here were kind to him.

Later that year, unable to shake some terrible demons, Ron tragically ended his own life...leaving a bride and a young son. It was heart-breaking.

The same congregation that had befriended Maurice and befriended Ron now adopted Dawn and her child, helping them in many ways, including housing and transportation.

In the same housing complex Dawn met Laura, told her of the loving people here, and over time persuaded her to visit Ferrysburg Community Church.

Happily, Dawn remarried and moved to another area. But Laura stayed, and has been worshiping here ever since.

Today we witnessed the most recent chapter in this God story.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

It could happen to you

At first blush it might seem that my ego is getting the best of me when I ask you to watch a performance about me on stage. But hang in there...this isn't about me, it's about you.

Two wonderful playwrights from Toronto, Alicia Payne and Donald Molnar, read my book SWEET FREEDOM some years ago and were touched by the story of Maurice Carter and Doug Tjapkes. In about 1995, I made a decision to try to help this black man sitting in the Michigan prison system, claiming that he was wrongly convicted. The fight was waged over the next nine years. Alicia and Don thought that the story could best be told on the stage, so they obtained some grants and over the next couple of years conducted their own research into the story. They went through my files, they traveled to Benton Harbor, they interviewed key players in the case. As a result of all that came the stage play: JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.

We are so grateful to the Calvin Theatre Company for scheduling two staged readings of this play, on February 22 and 23, 7:30 PM, in Gezon Auditorium on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Yes, someone will be playing Doug Tjapkes on the stage...a frightening thought. The actors will be aided by a gospel chorus.

I had to go through the files to find some old pictures of Maurice and me for publicity, and it revived many of the old memories.

What does all of this mean to you?

This is a story that you MUST hear, not to inform you about things I did or heroic efforts of other volunteers, but to show you how easy it is to wind up in prison, and how hard it is to get out. The system can and does make mistakes. This mistake kept Maurice Carter in prison for 29 years.

It could happen to you.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

All life is precious

There's no question that a close brush with death gives a person new appreciation for life. Perhaps that's why the casual way in which life and death are mentioned behind bars makes me so sad.

A friend wrote a short note to me recently from one of Michigan's prisons. Almost as an after-thought, he reported that "there was another murder here last week." Another day, another life.

A female inmate sent a short note via email. "I just thought I would let you know that Trina passed away last night at the hospital. She got pneumonia and her heart gave out. I don't think she had any family."

Another prisoner wrote to tell me of a terrible incident across the hall from him. An inmate jimmied the lock on his cell so the guards couldn't get in...then he tried to beat his roommate to death. They had to just about tear the cell apart to get at him and stop him. I wrote this inmate a short note, asking how the story turned out.

"As for the youngster, the latest word is that he's OK now, out of the hospital. The latest on the guy who tried to kill him is that he committed suicide a couple days ago. Being that he killed a cellie in the past, and now tried to do it again, he knew he was headed back to Level 5, so the word is that's why he hanged himself. I guess he won't be harming anyone else."

Henry Van Dyke said: "Be glad of life, because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars."

Life is cheap behind bars.

We mustn't take it for granted.

May God be near the least of these.