All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pope behind bars: Leading by example!

Pope Francis provided a beautiful tutorial for religious leaders last week.  And really, for all people of all faiths.  Our pastors and rabbis and faith community leaders learned that it’s OK to talk about global warming, global economy, feeding the poor, and (gasp) caring about prisoners!  Nay, not only OK…but essential!

My heart was touched when he not only paid a visit to prison (as did our President recently), but took time to shake individual hands, and then to speak to the inmates. 

His message to prisoners was a simple one:

This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society. All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation. 

His message to you and me was equally as simple, and profound:

Jesus invites us to share in his lot, his way of living and acting. He teaches us to see the world through his eyes. Eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore. He asks us to create new opportunities: for inmates, for their families, for correctional authorities, and for society as a whole.

Now it’s time for all of us, from all faiths, to follow that example. 

It’s time for church mission groups to remember that third world countries are not the only “fields ripe for harvest.”  It’s time for church prayer groups to be reminded that persons behind bars must be regularly included in the list of prayer concerns.  It’s time for church education leaders to remember to include leaders of prison ministries in their schedule of programs and speakers.  It’s time to remind deacons and finance officers that prison ministry also costs money.  It’s time to remind prison volunteer groups that only 15% of persons behind bars even receive a visit.  It’s time to remind pen pal programs that thousands of lonely inmates would appreciate a simple letter once a month. 

After all, says Pope Francis:

Life means "getting our feet dirty" from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed. All of us are being sought out by the Teacher, who wants to help us resume our journey. The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us he stretches out a helping hand. It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities. It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I held the door open!

In my car alone, returning from a brief prison visit, I reflected on the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.  It’s near the end of the month, and we still haven’t even reached 50% of our budget.  Money is tight.

And I thought:  If only our supporters could have spent the last hour with me.
It was a big day at MCF.  But only for a few people.

On the surface, it was another routine day at Muskegon Correctional Facility.

When I arrived at 8:30 AM, a friendly corrections officer at the front desk asked if he could be of service.  I announced that I was there to welcome a friend who planned to walk out on parole.  He was puzzled, and informed me that I was probably at the wrong facility.  There was no one else in the lobby…there were no prisoners in the nearby holding area. He was aware of nothing like this on the schedule.

Meanwhile, it was just another morning at the prison.

A big State of Michigan bus rolled up.  A new inmate was arriving from another facility.  Another guy, in chains, was being transferred out.

A prison trusty was pushing a broom.  He wasn’t going to be set free today. 

A couple guards were joshing as staff members arrived for the day.

Then the word came:  Two guys were getting out!  And one of them was my friend Bernard.  Just then, Bernard’s sister and her husband arrived from the Detroit area to pick him and take him home.

For the sake of background, I should explain that Bernard has been in prison for nearly 40 years, and he was not wrongly convicted.  I met him a few years ago following a speaking engagement at this facility.  I told the story about Maurice Carter, and how my 10-year fight to free Maurice led me into this work.  As it turns out, Bernard and Maurice were friends, and he contacted me to tell his story. After reviewing his situation, it was very apparent that Bernard was more than prepared to re-enter a free society.  HFP did what we could to help.  I testified on his behalf at a public hearing.  And I promised him that, on that day that he stepped out into freedom, I would be there to hold he door open.

In contrast to the day that Maurice walked free, there were no media people…just one videographer who is producing a documentary about HFP.  And there was no big crowd. The welcoming committee consisted of Michelle, her husband, and me.

With an obvious sign of relief that this day and moment had finally arrived, Bernard stepped into the prison waiting room and into the open arms of his sister.  Then hugs all around.

He picked up one cardboard box containing all of his earthly possessions.  I raced to the front door of the Muskegon Correctional Faciliy: “I’m holding the door open for you, my friend.” For the first time in 39-plus years, Bernard walked into the sunny outdoors without chains or shackles, grinning from ear to ear!  We were the only witnesses.  If only others could have seen it and felt it!

Said documentary producer Dirk Wierenga: “This was an awesome moment!”

Said an emotional Bernard:  “I want to thank HFP for being at my side all the way!”

Said a weeping Michelle as she gave me a bear hug:  “Priceless.  Just priceless, what HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has done!”

Said Doug to himself:  “This is why Matt and I do what we do!”

Despite this month’s budget shortfall, experiences like this one make us rich, indeed.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Hate to say it: Hate ain't good!

I’m so sick of hatred!

We hear and read of it every day, and it’s toxic.

Tell me, with a straight face, that nothing, absolutely nothing, on this list makes you see red:

President Obama
Donald Trump
Hillary Clinton
Gays, Lesbians and Transgenders
Gun-toting cops
Gun control proponents
Anyone of a different color
Anyone who doesn’t speak English
Welfare recipients
Corporate CEOs
Especially sex offenders
Which means

And that’s just a list off the top of my head.  I know that you can add more.

To counter that, as we come to the end of this week, I offer two suggestions.

First, regardless of your feelings about the Christian faith, grab a Bible, or if you don’t have one just Google I Corinthians 13.  It’s time to re-read the words from St. Paul, a man who---prior to a dramatic change in his life---hated Christians so much that he supervised, participated in and witnessed their killings. 

I was taught to love this passage by an itinerant black preacher named Cy Young.  In his big voice, I can still hear him say:  “Douglas, I want to be able to give a good answer when my life is over and Jesus asks me what I did to improve our relations with white people.”  Cy had the gift of recitation, and his words from this passage have more relevance today than ever:

Love is patient
Love is kind
It does not envy
It does not boast
It is not proud
It is not rude
It is not self-seeking
It is not easily angered
It keeps no record of wrong-doing.

And second, if you’re within driving distance, make your plans now to attend a community discussion next Thursday, September 24, at 7 PM in Grand Haven’s Lakeshore Middle School.  Two beautiful people, Jennifer Thompson-Canino and Ronald Cotton will personally share their moving story, as told in their best-seller PICKING COTTON.  It’s a story that we need today more than ever---a story of love, and redemption, and forgiveness.

And please don’t grumble about the $25 ticket price.  All program expenses have been covered by a group of generous sponsors, so this money actually amounts to on-going support of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, which I am proud to say, extends compassion to a segment of society that feels hated and unwanted.  If you honestly cannot afford it, I’ll buy you a ticket.

I’ll plan to see you there.

…the greatest of these is love.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Who's gonna help these women?

In California, they’re reducing the number of prisoners.  But it took a Federal Court order to get the ball rolling.  Is that what it’s going to take in Michigan?  Nothing else has worked so far.

Michigan’s terribly overcrowded prison for women has been a best-kept secret by government and corrections officials.  We’re going to do our part to change that.

All female state inmates are housed in one prison:  Women’s Huron Valley Facility, in Ypsilanti.  There are actually two facilities in one, and together they currently hold approximately 2,200 inmates, and corrections officials told me last week that the number is going up. 

The reasons why the women’s prison population is increasing are worthy of a story, but we’ll save that for another time.  For now, we want to discuss the many ways women’s rights are being violated by the state prison system due to this overcrowded situation.

Our office is being inundated by complaints from prisoners, and we’ve been in this business long enough to know that these aren’t the “whiney-complainey” type people who always have a bitch.  These are our friends---nice, common-sense people who are trying to make the best of their situation.

The American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker organization, has a fine chapter here in Michigan.  After a lengthy investigation into this overcrowding business in Ypsilanti, the Michigan office last summer sent a strong four-page letter to the corrections department, state legislators, and even a copy to Governor Snyder.  I don’t know whether they ever received a reply, but I do know that the letter did no good.  Zilch! 

One year later, and reports are flooding into our office---

          -women have no place to sit
          -women have no room in their crowded cells
          -women have absolutely no privacy---ever
          -bunks moved into closets
          -bunks moved into TV rooms
          -bunks moved into activity rooms
          -some of these rooms have no windows
          -many of these rooms have poor circulation
          -some are infested with ants
          -some have leaky roofs
          -overcrowding problems make staff irritable
          -irritated staff members write more tickets
          -visitation by friends and family is affected.

In other words, it’s a living hell in there.  It’s to the women’s credit that they haven’t revolted, not that anyone would listen or care.

I’m in the process of preparing a front page for our October newsletter with actual quotes from prisoners and family members at Huron Valley.  I hope it gets widely distributed.  I pray that it gets some action.

It appears the new prison administration, our Governor and our state legislature have no plans to bring about change.  And if that is the case, perhaps it’s time to go to the courts.  I wonder which civil rights attorney would have the guts to start a class action suit for these deserving women? 

God’s children, created in his image, shamefully stacked like cord-wood in Pure Michigan.

It’s time for action.


Monday, September 7, 2015

You're not here just to play golf!

On this Labor Day, 2015, I’m thinking about the life of former President Jimmy Carter.

We didn’t much like Jimmy Carter in this part of the world.  He was from the other political party.  Former President Jerry Ford was our man.  He had roots right here in western Michigan, and he was from the party where all Christians belonged, the GOP.

I’m thinking about Jimmy because, after serving in public office, he didn’t stop working.  When Jerry Ford got out, he played golf.  When Jimmy Carter got out, he picked up a hammer and helped to build houses for the homeless…that is, when he was not traveling around the world as our ambassador for peace.  He obviously sensed a calling, and age wasn’t going to get in the way.

Don’t misunderstand me…I don’t think it’s wrong to play golf, either before you retire or after you retire.  But if that’s all you’re going to do, I think it’s worth reconsidering.

It’s only natural that I reflect on my own occupations on this Labor Day morning, as I sip my cuppa.  I am blessed among all men and women, in that I have had three careers, and I loved all three of them!  I sometimes boast that I never worked a day in my life.  Every moment of every job was a delight.  And I say this, not boasting, because I know of many, many people who had jobs that were unpleasant to them, but they stuck with it because there were family members to clothe and feed. 

I loved the radio broadcasting business…had my first radio show when I was 12 years of age in 1949.  Those were the days when disc jockeys played 78 RPM records and the radio staff dropped everything at 2 PM to read scripts in a live soap opera.  Nearly 30 years later, when a series of circumstances brought about a change in my life, I loved selling church organs.  I had been a church musician since my early teens, and this was merely an extension of that gift.  And 20 years later, Maurice Carter made an appearance in my daily routine…an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, who was serving time in the Michigan Prison System and who claimed he was innocent.  Turns out he was, and I spent the next 10 years trying to free him.

That led to my present occupation:  speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves (see Proverbs 31).

Perhaps the most difficult time in my life was 5 years ago.  In 2010 some dangerous germs made their way into my body through a small wound on my foot.  Yes, hospital and emergency room visits were unpleasant, a 6-month stint on a feeding tube after losing my ability to swallow was unpleasant, a nearly fatal reaction to a contrary antibiotic was certainly unpleasant, and it wasn’t very helpful that I lost 65 pounds.  But the serious problem was that there were still prisoners who needed help!  It took what little mental capacity I had to forge a team that included my wife, my son and a college intern.  I’m proud to say that we may not have done it perfectly, but not a call or letter went unanswered due to that pesky staph infection
And that brings me to my Labor Day subject…the point I hope to make.  I don’t think it’s wrong for me to want to play golf…after all, I’m nearly 79 years of age.  But I do think it’s wrong if I abandon prisoners and spend all of my time on the golf course.  I don’t think it’s wrong to travel around the world when you retire, but I do think it’s wrong if you forget about refugees who are trying to travel from a war-torn country to a safe haven.  I don’t think it’s wrong for you to enjoy fine food and drink, if you have the means, but I do think it’s wrong if you forget about how many children are starving each day.  I don’t think it’s wrong for you to have a summer condo down south, but I do think it’s wrong if you forget about the homeless…not only in third world countries, but right here in our own community.

Enjoy your Labor Day…have fun with family and friends.  But then, tomorrow, let’s roll up our sleeves and remember those in need.  It’s time to work, for the night is coming!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

And remember their loved ones as well!

The oft-quoted text from Hebrews, …remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison… deserves a really broad interpretation.  In our humble view, this also refers to the loved ones of prisoners.  Many of the requests for help that come into the HFP office are from family members or spouses. 

The mother of a mentally ill prisoner begged us for assistance after she was denied personal visits for a period of time, and when she learned that her daughter was being seriously abused. 

And speaking of visitation, another mother contacted our office saying that she hadn’t even spoken with her son for over a year.  There may be some legitimate reasons for this lack of visitation and communication, but the problem is finding out what those reasons are.  Corrections people have a long way to go when it comes to treating loved ones in a civil manner, and keeping them informed.

A wife learned that her husband was transferred to a psych unit recently, but is unable to get a lot of information as to why, and how he is doing.

A 7-year-old boy is bummed because his birthday arrived this month, but his mother couldn’t be at his party.  She’s in prison.  He hasn’t seen her in two years!

We tried to help the wife of a terminally ill prisoner.  She knew he was near death.  She tried to go visit him, and they told her he was no longer there.  But they wouldn’t tell her where he went! 

The adult son of a woman behind bars contacted our office just the other day asking where he might fight legal help.  His mother was shamefully treated by the system simply because she needed a special diet for medical reasons.  He hopes to hold someone accountable for this unacceptable treatment.

The mother of a wrongly convicted special needs prisoner called me a few days ago.  The man has serious breathing problems, but for some reason known only to the Department of Corrections, they stopped giving him an inhaler.  He might be able to get the proper breathing equipment over a period of time, but he must exhaust all three levels of the grievance process.  How long will that take?  And what does he do for breath during that time?

I write this piece, in part, as a prayer suggestion.  Many of us pray for those behind bars, remembering their many needs and problems.  But those needs and problems extend to family members and loved ones as well.  And they need our prayers, too.

And when we cry for prison reform, this must include communication with and treatment of those loved ones and family members on the outside.

That, it seems to me, is the unwritten message attached to Hebrews 13.