All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, January 26, 2015

Guest Post from HFP Board Chair Dan Rooks

On Saturday, January 24, Dr. Dan Rooks, chairman of our Board of Directors, traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan with me, to make presentations for women in prison. The local chapter of the National Lifers Association had invited both of us to speak at the prison officially known as WHV, the Women’s prison at Huron Valley. I invite you to read Dan’s guest piece which follows…and then continue reading my entry of the 25th. As usual, our session with the women was a memorable and moving experience.

Dr. Rooks:

"You also helped Linda," a woman near the front interjected. Doug was sharing the stories of two other women HFP had more recently helped through the challenging and too often demeaning parole and public hearing process. His personal and experienced presence at these hearings is often a great source of support and strength. Linda was assisted 8 years ago or more. Until the woman near the front spoke, Doug hadn't remembered. She had never forgotten. "It gives us all hope. You have no idea the difference that makes."

Compassionate release, too infrequently granted, allows a fortunate few dying inmates to spend their final days free, cared for and surrounded by loved ones. The image of that possibility offered unimaginable comfort and hope for this middle aged woman serving a life sentence.

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE, spoke powerfully on matters of incarceration at a recent Calvin College January Series gathering. He challenged all who listened to accept the inevitable discomfort, to see beyond the politics of fear and anger and get close to the matters and people impacted by our incarceration policies. "Proximity," Bryan said, changes your perceptions. "Proximity" brings new understandings. "Proximity" will better inform the policies we seek to establish. And, "proximity" will change you.

Amen and Amen Mr. Stevenson!

That was true, again, for me on Saturday.

My hope and prayer is that it can also be true for the incarcerated women longing for hope, even if that hope comes in the midst of their dying. Compassionate release for the elderly and the sick and the dying. Would that really be too unreasonable? Would that really be too "soft on crime?"  Or, would that simply be responding naturally to a recognition of our shared humanity? Might we not strive to extend a small, yet profound, measure of mercy, dignity and grace. Would any one of us wish for less!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Turning a frown into a smile

I remembered her face and her frown.

This prisoner wasn’t touched by any of our songs or any of our words when HFP’s musical group SWEET FREEDOM presented a gospel concert at the Michigan prison for women.  I was playing keyboard, facing the audience, so my eyes kept getting drawn to this one person who obviously wasn’t having a good time.  Perhaps she had come with a friend, just as a favor.  She remained for the entire program but she didn’t seem to like it.

That was last June, and I had completely forgotten about her until yesterday.

Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I were in the same auditorium in the same prison, as guest speakers for a public assembly sponsored by the local chapter of the National Lifers Association.  I spoke first.

I so enjoy meeting with the women at this prison, because it’s a love affair, in the honorable sense of the word.  HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS loves and works hard for these women, and they are most grateful for our compassion and assistance.

The same girl, with the same frown, was in the very same seat.  As I discussed our successes and our failures, our services and our goals, it was just like the concert.  Nothing phased her.

Then it was Dan’s turn.  A clinical psychologist, Dan’s presentation style is in stark contrast to my effervescence.  I’m sure it resembles his quiet, confident manner in a personal counseling session.  He chose the life and the problems of a patient as his primary example.  The parallels became obvious in a hurry.  The woman had made bad decision after bad decision, and by the time she came to Dan her life was a disaster, and so was her self-esteem.

As he calmly explained what negative feelings and actions had to be abandoned, what positive feelings and actions can do to turn a life around and restore self-esteem, the girl with the frown sat up and took notice.  As he discussed handling feelings in time of grief and anger, quoting from excellent resource material, Miss Frowning Face leaned forward, obviously eager to catch the next word.

Dan’s message was one of hope.  His example of the disciple who betrayed Jesus seemed to resonate.  Jesus was not only Peter’s Lord, but his best friend, and yet in a sad moment, he made a bad decision.  But when his eyes connected with Jesus following the three incidents, Peter saw not only hurt, but love and compassion.  This powerful servant of our Lord was not only forgiven, but went on to become the founder of the Christian church.

The young woman was now swiping tears from her cheeks.

In the Q&A session that followed, her hand was the first up, admitting that she was moved by Dan’s presentation and asking if copies of his resource material, especially dealing with grief,  were available.  And her opinion about me and HFP had also taken a turn:  “How can my family support your organization,” she asked.

My simple point:  God didn’t use our fine gospel music or my up-beat HFP presentation to touch a life.  He used Dr. Dan to hold up a mirror, and let this troubled young woman see her own reflection. 

It was just one highlight of a beautiful session with beautiful friends.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Who's gonna take care of this kid?

OK, listen up, churches, service-oriented civic groups, activist associations.  We need a new prison ministry/program in Michigan called BETWEEN THE CRACKS!

Let me start with a story that I recently put together in brief form for the front page of our February newsletter.  It’s the story about a little boy, now in a grown man’s body, whose plight is on my heart.  To protect his identity, I’ll call him Kenny.

Kenny was born with some mental issues, and by the time he turned 13 he still had the mind of a 6-year-old.  That’s why he didn’t think it was all that unusual to be caught “playing doctor” with his 6-year-old cousin.  His mother, on the other hand, was so displeased that she felt strong disciplinary action was in order.  So she called the cops to teach him a lesson.  They bought into the program and contacted the County Prosecutor.  He joined the march toward justice by issuing a warrant, and the rest is history.  A plea deal was certainly in order, as Kenny had no idea what was going on.  A hard-line judge took it to the next step and sentenced this young lad to prison on a sex charge.

He was sent to a special facility first, as we don’t really have a lot of units for kids in their early teens.  Predictably, he was raped in no time at all.

Eventually he ended up in the Michigan prison system, notorious for its inability to handle mentally-challenged inmates.  Kenny’s little boy mentality just compounded the problem.

I first learned of Kenny’s plight when he was 15, alerted by the mother of another mentally ill teenager in the same facility.  Kenny’s mother was in another state, and chose not to visit him in prison because, we were told, there were outstanding warrants for her arrest.  There were no other friends or family members, with the exception of an elderly grandmother.  Even though she lived out-of-state and was confined to a wheelchair, she tried.  She made occasional visits.  Writing letters was almost impossible.  There was the occasional telephone call.  She loved this little boy and did her best.

I immediately made plans to visit Kenny, and we had a great time in the visitation room, eating candy bars and drinking soda.  I’ve got grand-kids, so chatting with him was easy.

I noticed a festering sore on his arm, and asked what happened.  The guards had been teasing him, holding his food tray out of reach. When he finally stuck his arm out between the bars, the guard stabbed his arm with his ball-point pen.  “Why did he do that,” I asked.  “Because he’s a jerk.”

I would like to show you the stack of papers in the HFP file on Kenny.  One atrocity after another over the years.  Guards teasing and abusing him, because of his lack of proper behavior. 

As I consulted with people familiar with corrections issues, they kept reminding me that if Kenny would just behave, things would be better for him.  But how does a little boy behave when he’s constantly teased by adults?  We heard one story from his unit that a guard showed him an orange, and laughingly told him that this was the size of the testicles of the man who was going to rape him the next morning.

Kenny responded to taunting, sometimes urinating at the officers.  At other times, we were told, he could just be seen sitting on his bunk crying.

To our credit, we tried and tried to improve conditions for this lad.  To our discredit, eventually other cases took precedence and his case faded into the past.

Then last week came the news that the one and only person who was still showing any love for the kid, his grandmother, died.

Now to the point of all this.

Kenny’s going to come up for parole in another year.  The big question is, who’s going to step up and care for him?  Even though he’s in an adult 21-year-old body now, his mind is still that of a youth.  There’s not a family member that cares for him or wants him.  There’s no support group.  Kenny is alone, and that makes me furious.

I’m angry with HFP.  I’m angry with all the other fine prisoner advocacy agencies working so hard in this state, but not quite dealing with an inmate like this.  I’m angry with Christian prison ministries doing such a great job in Michigan, conducting worship services and teaching Bible lessons, but not taking Jesus’ orders one step farther by adopting Kenny.

And so I’m proposing a new program called BETWEEN THE CRACKS.  Because, I can assure you, Kenny’s not the only one who has fallen there.

May God help us to catch the next one.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The work of two heroes: affirming what we do

I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that Matt and I need some “attaboys” once in a while.  For the most part, we’re working in a dark atmosphere.  In the first month of the new year, I found strong affirmation for our particular ministry in two different places:  a public lecture, and a book. 

The title of the lecture was WHY MASS INCARCERATION DEFINES US AS A SOCIETY.  The speaker was Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of an organization called Equal Justice Initiative.  His particular niche in dealing with the “least of these” as discussed by Jesus in Matthew 25 is providing legal service at no charge to death row prisoners in Alabama.   

I identify with Mr. Stevenson when he says:  Somebody has to stand when other people are sitting. Somebody has to speak when other people are quiet. 

The title of the book is TATTOOS ON THE HEART:  THE POWER OF BOUNDLESS COMPASSION, and the author is Father Gregory Boyle.  His niche in following Jesus’ Matthew 25 requirements is working with gangs and kids on the street.  It’s a powerful, yet delightful book, and I highly recommend it. 

I identify with Fr. Boyle when he says:  If you aren’t offering these kids concrete help, Jesus doesn’t care about your prayer meeting. 

I can easily substitute Bryan Stevenson’s kindness on death row with the compassion we extend daily to lonely and needy Michigan prisoners.  I can easily substitute the word “prisoner” for Father Boyle’s term “gang-banger.”  

Together, we’re laboring among “the least of these.”  And just like these guys, HFP is doing “Jesus work!”  No question about it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Think we could release half of them?

Bryan Stevenson makes an amazing claim!  He says that a million people in our jails and prisons are in for non-violent crimes and could be released today!  He didn’t develop the point in his lecture in the Calvin January Series, but the implications were clear:  the release would not make a negative impact on society, and it would save us a ton of money.

He said this after pointing out that the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but shamefully claims 25% of the world’s incarcerated individuals.  We have 2.2 million people behind bars!

That statement started my thought processes.  Right here in Michigan, where we have more than 40,000 people in our state prison system alone, Matt and I see numerous categories of prisoners who could and should be released. 

I’ll not go into a lot of detail, but here are some that we believe could be let out today:

The Parole Board just keeps hanging onto a bunch of these people for no apparent reason.  They’re eligible for parole, they’re not causing problems, and they’re getting older.

We have a geriatric division in Coldwater not unlike your neighborhood nursing home.  Old folks in beds and wheelchairs, demanding intensive care and posing a threat to no one.  The cost to care for these inmates is exceptionally high.

True, they need help.  Prison isn’t the right place.

Ditto.  25-50% of Michigan prisoners are mentally challenged.  Our prisons have taken the place of psychiatric hospitals.

In our effort to be tough on crime, we have imposed exceptionally stiff sentences on persons arrested for minor drug violations.  In many cases, the kingpins never got arrested.

Stop to think about it.  These people are not going to re-offend.  In many situations it is inhumane to deny family care.  And, in our opinion, it is NOT being insensitive to victims to show compassion here.

We don’t have accurate statistics reflecting just how many prisoners we’re talking about, and we can’t prove that it amounts to 50% of the Michigan prison population.

It doesn’t take an expert, however, to conclude that prison is not the proper environment for many people in these categories.  Our prison population would be dramatically reduced!

The challenge is to get our elected officials on the same page.

That’s up to you and me.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Loving prisoners: the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker

In this case it’s not the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.  It’s a doctor, a preacher, a social worker and a broadcaster.  And they’re all giving of their valuable time simply to show love to prisoners.

Dr. John Mulder, Rev. David Mulder, Lee Ingersoll and Cal Olson join me around the piano to form a musical group called SWEET FREEDOM.  Along with their fine voices, they bring a variety of instruments including but not limited to guitar, ukulele, bass, cornet, flugelhorn, whistles, djembe and tambourine.  And the category of music is limited to one:  gospel.

It all started several years ago when John Mulder and I, who have played music together for years, provided a few songs in the funeral service of a fellow prison worker.  From there the group expanded, continued doing fund-raisers for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, and eventually brought their talents behind bars.

Last year we presented a series of four gospel concerts in one day at the Women’s Huron Valley Facility in Ypsilanti.  We not only had a great time, but lives were touched.

Now plans been completed for an evening concert at Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon.  Those who have ever made a prison visit know that this is not some quick and easy procedure.  It’s one thing to get all names cleared through the national Law Enforcement Information Network.  That’s the easy part.  Bringing in all of the paraphernalia is another thing!  Every single item we bring in, from the largest instrument to the smallest guitar pick, must be listed on a manifest, then inspected and cleared.  This same list will be checked on our way out, to make sure that we come out with the same number of items that we brought in.  One Christian musical group just showed up at the women’s prison without all this advance preparation, and was quickly turned away.  It just isn’t easy, and nor should it be.

My reason for this lengthy piece on SWEET FREEDOM is to simply pay tribute to a beautiful group of guys, gifted musicians all, who understand the depth of meaning of Jesus’ discussion in Matthew 25 and who actually do something about it!

You can hear them, also.  They’ve prepared a fine recording…the CD is called SWEET FREEDOM.

And we’re planning a live public performance later this month that you’ll want to attend if you’re in the area:  January 22, 6-8 PM, in the Parish Hall of St. John’s Episcopal Church, 524 Washington, in the heart of Grand Haven.  We’ll have refreshments, lots of great music, and you’ll have an opportunity to show your financial support for HFP. 

We hope to see you there!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Important or nice? We choose nice!

As we begin a new year, I’m reminded of a phrase that Marcia used at one time or another with all of our kids:  It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice!

This came to mind in the past week as I learned of the deaths of two old-timers, one whom I had met only once, and one who was a dear friend.

When I met Casey in the kitchen of a downtown Grand Rapids restaurant, he showed me a stack of lunch receipts…money still owed to him by homeless people from the Heartside area.  It made no difference if they didn’t have money; he wouldn’t let them go hungry.  They could pay him later.  He assured me that sooner or later, they would pay him.  And if they didn’t, he just considered it a gift from him to that poor individual.  Casey won’t go down as one of the important restaurateurs in Grand Rapids, but it was important to him to be nice!

Doug was a diamond in the rough!  He wasn’t sure he could worship in our church because he didn’t have fancy clothes.  Upon being assured that he would be accepted, he first visited, then became a regular attender, and eventually made a public profession of his faith.  I played the organ for his funeral service just a few days ago.  He may not go down in history as perhaps the seemingly most important person to have worshiped at Ferrysburg Community Church, but he’ll certainly be remembered as one of the nicest!

And that leads me to HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  Among all the prison ministries at work right here in the State of Michigan, HFP will not be seen by many as the most important.  There are highly successful programs with large budgets and huge lists of supporters and donors.   I’m not knocking them.  We thank God for each of these programs!  Any project that touches the lives of prisoners ranks high on our popularity list. 

No, we may not seem important, but I can assure you that we are nice.  The many beautiful holiday notes and messages that came to us on home-made greeting cards, scribbled notes, and herky-jerky misspelled words of thanks via email, were so amazingly affirming!  When we extend the cup of cold water to a hurting prisoner, even though it may be only slightly cool or only half-full, we do it in the name of Jesus because he commanded that we be “nice.” Through that simple effort lives are touched, and unnamed individuals who heretofore had only a number, are no longer statistics…they are real people who now have a real friend.

And so we press on in the new year, not at all sure how we’ll find the necessary funds to survive, but still living and operating by Marcia’s words.  It certainly could be nice to be important, but for the entire gang at HFP, it’s important to be nice!

Thanks to all who will be at our side in 2015.