All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Monday, February 29, 2016

Then there were some who did not receive Oscars

I watched only the finale of the Oscar awards ceremony.  Hollywood not only bores me (although we continue to see production of excellent activist films), but the lifestyle that places so much emphasis on wealth, good looks and fashion, has a tendency to irritate me.  Perhaps it was because I had just come from a busy Sunday afternoon and evening in a local bakery and bistro, trying to reach others with a simple message that prisoners deserve to be treated humanely.

I awoke this morning thinking of those who didn’t receive any Oscars.

Sara and her staff at the Village Baker didn’t capture one of the awards last night.  Yet, that fine small business in the Village of Spring Lake chose to donate 15% of its proceeds yesterday to the on-going work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

Two fine musicians who provided background music for yesterday’s event didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar.  John Mulder and Lee Ingersoll are dealing with enough issues, and are far too busy to take time out for prisoners…yet they were there joining me around the piano, to make the event a shining success.

Pete and Judy VanderArk were there to help host customers…Judy is a member of our board.  If anyone deserves Oscars for compassion and generosity, it would be this couple. 

Gail Winters was there to help, and she’s not even on our board any longer.  But as a former inmate, she has a heart for what we are doing and always stands at our side.  No one has a bigger heart for prisoners.  She would be one of my nominees for an Oscar.

Our newest board member Mary Berghuis is far too busy to take time to hand out brochures at the Village Baker.  This former prison warden with a reputation of having a compassion for and bringing innovation and excellent programming behind bars to her inmates, not only received no Oscar;  she was recently removed from her position by forces who believe that prisoners are there for a reason and do not deserve compassionate treatment.  But she was there last night for us., and for Michigan prisoners. Mary would be at the top of my list!

Steve was one of the customers.  His significant other is behind bars now, and together they are not only battling the system but fighting for humane treatment of inmates.  He and Tonya didn’t receive any awards last night, but their names should have been on the list of nominees.

Tony was also there to support us, the father of a young man behind bars, even though we have been able to do nothing to help him.  The angst experienced by actors hoping to receive a small statuette in Hollywood cannot even begin to compare with the pain and frustration felt by thousands and thousands of parents like Tony and Michelle.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the presence of Barbara Lee, ordained minister, founder of Extended Grace, whose passion for justice knows no bounds, and whose efforts on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised are on-going.  She would be a candidate for numerous Oscars!

Members of two churches in particular were in attendance last night, knowing that a portion of their dollars would touch the lives of prisoners.  I find that so interesting, because on the theological scale, the two churches are at opposite ends of the spectrum:  C3 West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection, and Ferrysburg Community Church.  But these two churches get it, and their members know that prisoners deserve better.  In my opinion, both bodies deserve Oscars!

My dear friend and former pastor, the late Al Hoksbergen, was often able to persuade me to do things for which I had no desire or time, and for which I would receive no compensation.  I can still hear him say, with tongue-in-cheek, “You’ll get your reward in heaven.”

Then, again, maybe it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A prison sermon; no words

Your actions are so loud I can’t hear your words! (Anon.)

Preach the gospel every day.  Use words if necessary. (St. Francis of Assisi)

You may be the only Bible some people will ever read.  (Anon)

I heard a beautiful Lenten sermon the other day.  It was a sermon without words, and it touched me.

I was in prison to witness and participate in a wedding (see previous blog).  The elderly black pastor and I were about to be processed before entering the visiting room.  This involves walking through a metal detector, getting frisked, and having the bottoms of your bare feet checked.  The Corrections Officer at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility was a no-nonsense prison worker, paid to be there and do his job.  No one was going to sneak behind bars carrying contraband under his watch.  I passed with flying colors.

Then it was time to process the minister, the clergyman who would be presiding over the wedding ceremony.

The Rev. Charles W. Poole is 88 years old, and doesn’t stand any taller than 5 feet.  While the bride and I purposely “dressed down,” so as not to exaggerate the contrast in apparel with the groom (who was ordered to wear his ‘prison blues’ for the ceremony), Pastor Poole dressed to the hilt.  Beautiful suit, white shirt with French cuffs, tie, and lace-up dress shoes.  If he was going to be marrying a couple behind bars, he planned to make it as special as he could.  He looked great!  That is, until it came time for the check-in.

As the elderly preacher walked through the metal detector, the buzzer sounded.

“Take off your belt,” ordered the officer.

The buzzer sounded again.

“Maybe it’s your cuff links!”  Feeble fingers removed them from the dress shirt.

The buzzer sounded again.

“Probably your shoes.”

By this time the old gent expressed some reservation, explaining that he had metal rods in his back as the result of surgery earlier in his life.  Officers routinely deal with metal replacement parts in knees, hips and backs, by using a portable metal detector wand.  But this guy wasn’t going to rush into that.

My question to the officer:  “Can’t you just wand him?”  A head shake.  A similar question from the prison chaplain, also in the room with us, who was obviously frustrated but knew better than to ruffle the feathers of a guy with whom he must continue to work.  No response.

Pastor Poole walked through the metal detector sans belt, cuff links and shoes, and the buzzer sounded.  A frustrated CO finally grabbed the wand, and sure enough, it sounded by the poor man’s back where surgeons had plied their trade years earlier.

Then the dear old man had to put himself together again, as time allowed for the wedding  ceremony continued to run out. 

You’ve got to keep in mind, here, that this is all happening in front of short-tempered Douger, who doesn’t really appreciate this kind of bull, but who decided that moments before a wedding was not the appropriate time to raise issues.  What was the matter with this officer?  Did he honestly believe this 88-year-old little wisp of a preacher, giving of his own time to brighten the dark room of an in-prison wedding, was up to no good?  Was there really a chance that he might smuggle in drugs, even though there was no one on the other end to receive them?  Gimme a break!

I learned later that Pastor Poole was a personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King.  His grandfather and Dr. King’s father were friends.  He and King dated back to their teenage years, and I can report, first hand, that the King apple didn’t fall far from the Poole tree.  Perhaps he could still hear Dr. King’s words:  "At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love."

Perhaps that’s what he heard, but I know what I heard!

This kind little man with the precious smile didn’t have to utter one word.

Lord, grant that I may learn from that powerful sermon!

Friday, February 19, 2016

A wedding behind bars, and I loved it!

I participated in a wedding ceremony today.  I was the best man, the maid of honor, the ring bearer, and the official witness!  In other words, there were only three of us standing before the presiding pastor.  But I’m pleased to report that, as of 10:20 this morning, Jeff and Lena are husband and wife.  He is a resident of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon; she is a citizen of Australia. 

Matthew and I were brought into their lives by Jeff’s prison roommate, a long-time friend, last November.  Lena was coming to America and was hoping to find some legal assistance to pursue Jeff’s claim of wrongful conviction.  I met with her, viewed the network broadcast of 48 Hours that focused on this case, and put her in touch with Attorney Marla Mitchell-Cichon, Director of the Cooley Law School/WMU Innocence Project.  Two things happened.  The Innocence Project took the case, and we became very good friends with Jeff and Lena.  So, it was no surprise when I was asked to witness the wedding.  I readily accepted.

As one might expect, the State of Michigan and more specifically the Michigan Department of Corrections didn’t make it easy for the love-struck couple.

May we choose the pastor who will marry us?  No, the Chaplain will make that choice.

May we have the wedding ceremony at noon?  No, the pastor we have chosen has a conflicting funeral service, so the wedding must take place at 10 AM.

That’s very close to the 10:30 count time.  Could we have it at 9 o’clock, so that there will be a brief time for pictures?  No, the 10 o’clock time is firm.  The pictures will have to be taken later in the day during visiting hours.

As a simple act of kindness, would the department waive the cost for one wedding picture as a gift?  No.  You must pay for all photographs.

We have asked our friend Doug Tjapkes to be a witness.  He’s not on Jeff’s visitor list but he has clergy status.  The warden has approved his presence, but only for the ceremony. 

May we have our picture taken with him?  No.  The warden has not granted him permission for a photograph. 

If he may not wear street clothes, could we make an exception to prison policy just this once, and allow Jeff to wear a regular shirt for the ceremony and the pictures?  No.  He’ll wear prison blues.

Against all odds, however, the brief ceremony was beautiful.  The setting was the visitor’s room in Brooks, and the only musical accompaniment was the hum of nearby vending machines. The Rev. Charles Poole, an elderly black pastor, presided with a smile on his face and kindness in his heart.  The couple recited the vows that they had previously written and memorized for the event.  Of all weddings in which I have participated, I have not heard more meaningful pledges of love and fidelity.  I mumbled a blessing over the rings before that particular ceremony, and Jeff and Lena were declared husband and wife.  All within 10 minutes!

I don’t ever recall getting teary-eyed at a wedding, not even those of our kids.  Today my life, my heart, my tear ducts were touched by this warm experience behind the cold bars of a Michigan prison.

My favorite theologian, Frederick Buechner, has this to say about tears:

…of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you…

May God extend his grace, peace and mercy, in abundant measure, on this couple.

They’ll need every bit of it.

Friday, February 12, 2016

In the season of Lent, think about prisoners

Marcia jokes about how I make a sandwich.

It's not difficult to make one of my favorite pulled pork barbecue specialties, for example.  I purchase a pre-cooked pork roast already packaged, heat it up, pull the meat apart, soak it in Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce, stack it onto a fresh toasted bakery hamburger bun, top it with a generous helping of deli cole slaw…and then eat the sloppy mess over the kitchen sink.  To this old man, the taste is absolutely sensational!

I tell you this, because 6 years ago I had to stop eating.  A brutal staph infection made a sinister invasion of my body through a little foot wound, and nearly claimed my life.  At the peak of the crisis I lost my ability to swallow, and when I couldn’t ingest food my weight dropped by 65 pounds.  A feeding tube saved my life, and for the next 6 months that’s the only way I received my nourishment.

I longed to taste food.  I longed for something even more simple than that:  I wanted to chug-a-lug a glass of ice water.  I would have the ICU duty nurse bring ice water to me.  I’d swish it around in my mouth, so that I could fantasize about how it might be to swallow again someday.

The reason for this example:  You don’t realize how good things are until you can’t have them!  My thoughts centered on this simple truth after I received two beautiful telephone calls this week.  A 62-year-old black man called to tell me that he was planning to enroll at Wayne State University in Detroit next month, with the goal of receiving a Master’s Degree.  Just a couple months ago I drove to Jackson to hold open the prison door as he walked out.  He had been locked up for just under 40 years.  A 47-year-old African American woman called our office to say that she was doing well, and now had a job.  I had driven to Jackson last year to speak on her behalf at a Public Hearing before the Michigan Parole Board.  Parole was subsequently granted, and she walked free two months ago after serving 28 years.  Joe and Geneva today are enjoying the little things that they had been missing for decades.

My dear friend Gail, a former inmate, explains that, until you cannot do things, you don’t realize just how much you miss them.  “You long to just hold a baby,” she says, “or to just pet a dog.  It seems so wonderful just to be able to pop open a bottle of Pepsi whenever you feel like it!”

In this season of Lent, I suggest that whatever you are fasting from---chocolate, coffee, beer---focus not only on the reason for the season, but think about those behind bars:  people Jesus loved, people to whom he insisted compassion be shown.

The prisoners with whom we work would love nothing more than to quit eating chocolate or drinking beer for 40 days.  And you have no idea what they would be willing to give up for the opportunity to just hold a baby or pet a dog!

My Lenten advice:  Enjoy what you have; take nothing for granted;  pray for those who are denied simple pleasures.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

It's time for the little guy to speak up!

I’m writing a book about my love and great respect for “the little guy.”  I’m not sure it will ever get published, and if it does, I’m not sure anyone will ever read it. 

This all came to mind as I watched the news from New Hampshire last night.  As a veteran broadcast newsman, I was touched once again by the strong voice of the little guy.  Political pundits at all levels have been flabbergasted by people turning out in support of an old Jewish man who unashamedly admits he’s a socialist, or a TV showman who has no experience in politics at all and who bad-mouths everyone who doesn’t agree with him.  I’ve seen the little guy stand tall when I was a working newsman, and I still see it now. 

What I cannot see is why anyone is surprised!  With the terrible performance of our government at both the national and state levels in recent years, guess what?  With the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, guess what?  The little guy has had enough!  No wonder cars were still waiting in line last night to get to the polling place when the polls closed!  No wonder there have been record turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire.

My heart was touched recently when 100 poor, black people from Flint rode in buses all the way to Washington, DC, to be present for government hearings regarding the bad water situation in their city.  Water was poisoning their little kids!

In the last national election, despite efforts by some conservatives to make voting more difficult, African American citizens stood in line, sometimes for hours, to cast their ballots.  Just let someone try to deny them the right to vote.

I use all of this to preface my position on the overcrowded conditions at Michigan’s one and only prison for women:  Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, located in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  It is simply this:  It’s time to listen to the little guy!

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has tried to focus attention on our shameful treatment of women behind bars.  The same is true for the AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITEE (The Quakers).  The same is true for the ACLU.  Our state’s major newspapers have focused on the issue.  But no one is listening.  As I’ve said before, it’s no different than the Flint water crisis.  It doesn’t personally affect our Governor.  It doesn’t personally affect our state legislators.  So it gets ignored.

An 8-page letter signed by 15 of us---individuals and organizations---hasn’t had the dignity of a response yet, several weeks later. 

I say it’s time for our legislature to hold hearings in Lansing on the problem, and to demand answers.  Someone must be held accountable!

And I say it’s time for the little guy to speak:  the loved ones, the friends and family members of those women in prison whose rights are being violated on a daily basis.  Let’s bus them to Lansing if necessary.

It’s time to do more than pray.  It’s time to act.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Do you get the picture?

It was a rather strange and unique scene at one of Michigan’s prisons in Jackson yesterday.  There sat an old white man, wearing a Christian clerical collar, beside an aging black man in prison blues, a practicing Buddhist.  The occasion was a video session with a member of the Michigan Parole Board.  I was making the case for a parole for this man, who has now served 25 years behind bars. 

First, I should explain how I came to know this prisoner.

“Hey Mix, take a picture of us.”

I was in the visiting room of the Thumb Correctional Facility many years ago, visiting my dear friend Maurice Carter.  In those days, if you purchased a ticket for a couple bucks, you could have a photographer take a picture with you and your friend, standing against a wall at the end of the room where a mural had been posted.  Maurice always enjoyed having our picture taken.

Mr. Mix was another old-timer in the prison system, and he was in charge of the Polaroid Camera.  He was always polite, but seldom uttered a word.  One day, as I was leaving, he stepped up, shook my hand, and thanked me for what I was doing on behalf of Maurice. 

I forgot all about that kind gesture for years, and then, while waking up one morning, I got to wondering.  I wondered if Mix was still in prison, and I wondered if he’d still remember me.  I checked the inmate listings…he was a lifer, and still there.  I sent him an email and a letter, thanking him for those kind words years ago.  And I sent him a copy of the book SWEET FREEDOM, which tells the Maurice Carter story. 

And thus my friendship with Mr. Mix gained momentum.  We remained in contact over the years, and recently we learned that he was getting his first meeting with a member of the Michigan Parole Board.  He would become eligible for parole this spring.

The inmate, now 62, has a grown daughter in Detroit, and four grandchildren he has never seen.  He’s a good man, and deserves to get a fresh start.  Even though he was permitted to have a representative for the Parole Board interview, no friends or family members were available.  I would be there.

I explained to the Parole Board member that, at age 79, I don’t get up very early on a winter morning and make a two-hour drive in the dark just for the fun of it.  I was there to support a release for the inmate, and I believed he needed a second chance. 

I suppose there are those in the Christian community who question this style of witnessing.  No Bible study, no prayers together. 

Mr. Mix simply threw his arms around me and thanked me for this act of kindness.  A prayer for the success of this meeting came later, in my car.

I think Maurice was pleased.

I think Jesus was, too.