Showing posts from 2016

Will you join us for the ride?

My Bible reading took on an interesting assignment at year’s end.  In the final days of 2016, I was assigned to read from Proverbs 13, where I was advised to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.  That very admonition is framed and on the wall in our office. As I reflected on the year 2016, I couldn’t help but take pride in the growth of HFP, the increased number of prisoners we served, our improved financial position, and all of the internal progress we made, the exciting success stories, and our enhanced reputation in advocacy circles.  But the thing that makes us so humbly proud is that we touched lives! When Maurice Carter and I put together this little outfit in 2001, we envisioned helping a few prisoners with pressing problems.  By the end of 2016, it was no longer a little outfit.  We had responded to a record number of more than 2,700 contacts by prisoners, their families or their friends!  We continued to add one new prisoner a day to the list of people

Someone behind bars is laughing at us!

I hate to tell you this, but it’s true.  Prisoners are laughing at us! I’ll tell you why. Many of us are in a panic these days.  We’re afraid of what might happen to our country when the new president takes over.  After all, issues like a nuclear arms race, foreign relations, gun control, immigration, and global warming---just to name a few---aren’t insignificant.  We may have had similar concerns in the past, but we always trusted in experienced leaders and the checks and balance system to help our nation wade through these matters.  But suddenly there’s a new uncertainty in the air, as someone of questionable experience and integrity takes the helm.  Yes indeed, lots of people feel like they’ve completely lost control. And that makes prisoners chuckle, because they’ve felt that way for years, but nobody paid any attention to their plight.  Now the shoe is on the other foot. Some inmates lost control the minute their situation fell into the hands of a flawed judicial

Holiday obits, especially painful for prisoners!

The loss of family members and loved ones seems more painful when death occurs in holiday seasons.  My only sister was killed by a drunk driver at Thanksgiving time.  Marcia’s dad died at Christmas time.  My father died when we were welcoming a New Year.  In my humble opinion, though, the pain seems worse when it must be suffered alone.  I’m mindful of that during this week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, because people are hurting as the result of two recent deaths in my circle of friends.  I invite you to note the dramatic differences between these two stories. My good friend Fred Groen died on December 17.  He was a charter member of HIS MEN, the Christian male chorus that I founded in 1972, and that I directed for 21 years.  Fred was one of only three charter members still actively involved in the ensemble.  He failed to recover from critical heart surgery, after struggling in the hospital for three months.  BUT, he and his wife Bev were able to discuss all possi

For some, not very merry

I’m not here to lay a guilt trip on you today.  Christmas Day is the perfect time to enjoy family and friends.  That’s what I’ll be doing, and I hope that’s what you’ll be doing.  All I’m asking is that, as we think of the real meaning for this Christ Child to have made an appearance on our planet, we think beyond our tight little circle. From where I am, here’s what I can tell you. Today There’s a little boy opening gifts who wishes his incarcerated mommy could be there. There’s a remorseful daughter wishing she hadn’t been manipulated by an angry, divorced mother, to fabricate testimony that put her dad in prison. There’s a wife wondering whether she should hang on…her husband may never get out. There’s a husband, trying to be dad and mom, praying for his wife’s early parole. There’s a set of aging parents hoping they can make a prison visit, if the weather’s good, the driving’s OK, the arthritis isn’t too bad, and there’s money for gas. There are gra

My Christmas gift to you: A Parable. You'll love it!

I have a favorite Christmas Eve story, and I’m going to share it.  Actually, I’ve been sharing it for years. Back in the 1970s, when I was in the radio business, I had an opportunity to meet and chat with a national UPI reporter whom I greatly respected.  Louis Cassels had been writing commentaries from Washington DC for years, and then he was named National Religion Editor for UPI. This kind, soft-spoken reporter/writer, who knew how to deliver a punch when he felt it was necessary, chose to write this tender parable one year.  Until the day I left radio broadcasting, I personally read this story to our listeners on Christmas Eve.  I still have the tattered teletype copy, and I invite you to savor the story with me now. A Christmas Parable by Louis Cassels "Once upon a time there was a man who looked upon Christmas as a lot of humbug. He wasn’t a Scrooge. He was a kind and decent person, generous to his family, upright in all his dealings with other men. But he d

Is there a "reason for the season" when you're in prison?

MEMO TO MY DEAR FRIENDS BEHIND BARS: I always struggle at this time of the year, wondering what kind of wishes I could send your way.  It seems just plain wrong to wish you “Happy Holidays,” when I’m fully aware of the conditions around you. I know you won’t receive gifts, I know you’ll receive few if any greeting cards.  If statistics are correct, there’s a good chance that you won’t get a Christmas visit. The many and varied reports that we have received over the years regarding holiday meals haven’t been good.  There’s no reason to believe your Christmas dinner will be any better this year. While I completely understand why this is possibly not a pleasant time for you, I’d like to encourage you to take a second look.  I contend “the reason for the season” has importance specifically for YOU! I got thinking about this last Sunday, when our pastor pointed out the difference between the words “sympathy” and “empathy.” You see, I can have sympathy for you, because I

Saying it on Facebook isn't enough!

So you want to put Christ back into Christmas, do you?  I keep seeing your indignant messages on Facebook, so I’m assuming you must mean it. But first, we must figure out who this Jesus Christ really is.  We can’t focus on a cute little baby in a manger, tended by a glowing mother, receiving gifts from important foreigners, and lullabied to sleep by singing angels.  The very beginning of life for Jesus was tainted by uncaring people who refused to help the homeless, and it didn’t get any better for the next 33 years.  He was ridiculed, mocked, scorned, abused---rejected by his own---and eventually wrongly convicted and executed.  That’s the Christ you want to put back into Christmas? The one who, when handed a scroll while teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, said:  The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,  to set the oppressed

Yes, there's still "a widow's mite!"

I try not to get angry.  I try to keep my voice down.  I try so hard not to sound defensive. It happens every year at this time.  Just check through the blogs.  I write a similar column every Christmas season, it seems.  It all begins when I visit our neighborhood supermarket, where a friendly volunteer braves all kinds of weather to ring a bell for the Salvation Army.  I thank him every day, and I put money in his bucket every day.  I love the Sally Ann.  But my cause is prisoners, and that cause is not popular.  I’m watching the holiday, seasonal and year-end appeals---many of them quite emotional.  An old rule-of-thumb when preparing Christmas appeals for donations is to tug on heart-strings if you want to open purse-strings.  Many agencies do it to perfection! I’ve just finished the first draft of the HFP monthly newsletter for January.  It’s going to be completely different.  It will shock the consultants who are telling us how to raise funds.  It won’t be colorfu

Mother Mary, Rosa Parks, Women Behind Bars, et al

I’m thinking about women today. Those who know me best will quickly respond, “So, what else is new?” Perhaps I should change the statement.  I’m hurting for women today. It all began during breakfast this morning.  I like to read while I’m eating alone, often checking up on what’s happening in the denomination with which our church is affiliated.  There were two fine magazine articles that caught my attention, one dealing with the history of ordaining women as pastors in our denomination, and the other discussing the lack of attention paid to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The uphill struggle for women who feel called by God to a life of ministry touched me, as did our apparent lack of interest in Mother Mary.  And that started the thought process. So much of my work, our work, the work of HFP, focuses on women.  I think of The sad eyes of a grandmother I saw in the prison visiting room, waiting to see her grandson; The many mothers of prisoners who constantly plead

Another obit. And it hurts!

We lost a former prisoner this week.  While it’s not nice, it’s not really surprising.  Some of our friends behind bars are not in good health. This death, however, was particularly troublesome for me.  Could we have done more, or should we have done more?  Not the kind of thing our consultant would want me publicly sharing in a week when we’re encouraging year-end gifts.    Yes, I’m struggling. You see, the world wasn’t supposed to be this way for Vivian. Family and friendship structures that should have been there for her failed, and lies and hatred resulted in false claims of sexual misconduct. A judicial system that allegedly presumes innocence and that should have been there for her failed, and she was found guilty and locked up for 28 years. A state prison system that allegedly cares for the individual failed her, and she had to fight for appropriate medical care and compassion all the way. A Parole Board that claims to be fair in considering all factors

I was in prison and you visited me

Interesting that Jesus used those specific words, as quoted in Matthew 25.  And it’s also interesting that so few prisoners actually receive visits.  Sad, really.  Former Michigan Prison Warden Mary Berghuis insists that only 12% of inmates in our state receive visits!  Yet, to our dismay, it seems that some prison staffers do their best to discourage visitation, and some treat visitors quite shabbily. I bring up the subject after hearing from my friend Jo, who went to visit her husband last week.  Here are some of her comments: Went to visit Lee on Black Friday because I figured everyone would be shopping. WRONG. There were so many visitors that they terminated about 10 visits (the first time). They named off those being terminated and gave them 2 minutes to say their goodbyes and throw away all the uneaten food. Then about a half hour later they terminated 4 or 5 more which was the group we were in. Gave us a 5 minute warning which really turned into about 3 minutes and more

What? Thankful for prisoners?

I know, I know.  It sounds terrible.  Actually, I guess it should be reworded.  I’m thankful for prisoners in my life, and for all the lessons I learn from them. I am not thankful that our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that our own state keeps people in prison longer than most others. I am not thankful that we still have over 41,000 people in the Michigan prison system, costing taxpayers $4-million a day…more than we spend on education! I am not thankful for the numerous cases of over-charging and over-sentencing felons in Michigan, bringing about the Governor’s appointment of a committee to investigate and reform our woefully inadequate indigent defense. I am not thankful for the lack of sentence alternatives, which could render such positive results in society if given the chance. I am not thankful for the lack of uniformity in sentences, as seen in the wide range of sentences received by prisoners for the same crime, committed in di


We may claim the title “Christian,” but even with our strong beliefs, it can be pretty difficult to reach agreement on redemption. We love to look back at heroes in the Bible to show how mightily God can and has worked to change lives:  Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, Rahab was a prostitute, etc.  We readily agree that in Christ there is total forgiveness, as we point to the convicted felon on the cross next to our Lord.  We affirm our belief that God can change lives, as we point to St. Paul, who, before preaching and writing New Testament books, spent his days persecuting Christians and condemning them to death. But that was back in those days.  Today, it’s a difficult proposition.  I bring all of this up as I mourn the loss of a friend, T.J. Spytma.  TJ was involved in a heinous crime, influenced in part by drugs, back in the 70s when he was 15 years of age. As he spent the next 40 years in prison, he never once forgot his terrible misdeed.  After

Post-election nausea? Not in prison!

It may surprise you to know that some prisoners aren’t really all that anxious about the state of national affairs.  The appointment of a white supremacist to a key position in the White House may seem like a national disaster to you.  But frankly, David is more concerned about his bowel movements.  He’s a paraplegic, and the only way he can go is with the assistance of personal medical care…something he doesn’t always get in the prison hospital.  Then he has accidents. A national election that is decided by the Electoral College , rather than a popular vote, may be spoiling your appetite these days, but Cary has spent more than $100,000 on attorneys to prove his innocence, and all he has to show for it is receipts.  They didn’t give him what he paid for.  No more money.  No freedom. Words of hatred and bigotry not only dominate our TV shows, but are even showing up in our social and religious circles.  But I must tell you that all of this disgusting behavior is not what

Birthday is no excuse! It's time to get to work!

I’ve never been 80 before. November 11 is perhaps best known for the historic signing of documents bringing World War One fighting to an end.  This all happened on the 11 th hour of the 11 th day of the 11 th month.  When I was a little boy, the nation would still pause for a moment of silence at 11 AM on my birthday, and factory whistles would blow.  Now called Veteran’s Day to widen the tribute, it’s still a very important holiday.  Let us not forget. November 11, 1936, is the date John and Mary Tjapkes welcomed Douglas into the world.  Not significant at all, but it’s a matter of public record. What to write as year 81 begins?  It’s a given that I am blessed beyond measure with loving wife, beautiful kids, delightful grandchildren, and yes, even good health after a scary year in 2010. Prior to that I was blessed with a good upbringing, by loving parents. I could reflect on my careers, my musical involvement, my church, my hobbies.  But looking backwards is simply