All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Friday, December 30, 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 we serve, 7 days a week!  For the first time in history, our case file---names of actual prisoners in our email JPay account---totaled more than 1,000!  Here’s what we treasure:  Not a day goes by that we don’t receive personal thanks from someone we have helped.

We started out with a budget only covering immediate costs for things like postage and office supplies.  Our Board of Directors has just adopted a budget for the new year topping $200,000.00!

As I sat thinking about the New Year, it was apparent to me that, in order to do what we must do in Michigan, we’ve got to think bigger:  more volunteers, bigger and better methods of communication, more and better literature to explain our work, a longer list of volunteers, expanded facilities, larger staff, more speaking engagements, more church support…the list goes on and on.  Too many needs.  Too many problems. Not enough resources.

No question about it, our Board of Directors and our staff must keep these goals in mind in 2017. 

But first and foremost, we must do nothing at the expense of our vision statement, and the book of Proverbs. To think big, we must think small.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS seeks to provide personalized, problem-solving services for inmates who don’t know where to turn.

We will only be successful if we continue to respond as the writer of Proverbs advises:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
   Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.

Will you join us?  We can’t do it alone.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

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 system.  A couple of examples.

A low-paid and uncaring court-appointed lawyer persuaded his client to plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid a long sentence, when the guy didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.  He had no prior criminal history!

A comfortable and happy grand-dad thought life was pretty good until his estranged daughter-in-law decided to get even with the family, and claimed that grandpa was messing with her little girls.  He’s been in prison ever since then!

And once in prison, there is no such thing as personal control.

You’re told when to eat, exercise, pee, work, sleep.  Your life, your daily activity, almost everything is in the hands of others. 

Some inmates will tell you that the system would even like to control your thoughts and emotions, and that’s when one has to be strong.

Do you get my point?

The things that you and I take for granted on a daily basis have been deleted from the lives of people caught in the judicial system and spending time behind bars.  Prisoners will tell you that it’s like living the life of a zombie. 

I go back to a sermon my friend Nate preached early on in the election campaign.  He assured us that no matter who won the election, no matter what kind of people take office, no matter what you fear they might do, NOTHING will interfere with or interrupt God’s plan!

I need to hear that now, more than ever.  And in my relationship with inmates, it’s imperative that I communicate that message to them as well.

Quoting from one of my favorite Psalms:  You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding."

May quiet assurance replace laughter. 

On both sides of the bars.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

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 possibilities before he underwent surgery, she was able to be at his bedside during the torturous 90 day period, all family members were able to be in Holland at the time of his passing to console and comfort each other, and a beautiful memorial service was staged in his home church including three touching presentations by HIS MEN.  Beautiful.

Now for a story of contrast.

My good friend Mark lost his mother on Christmas Eve.  Mark is in prison on a wrongful conviction.  He’s from the state of New York, and that’s where his mother and step-father lived.  She was failing both mentally and physically, and the family knew that the end was near.  But no one could be near Mark at this difficult time.  And he wasn’t able to be at her bedside in her final hours. He had to hear about his mother’s passing by telephone.  The closest thing to family and friends are his classmates in a Calvin College program where he is enrolled in Ionia…a relationship that has been terribly important right now.  When we chatted today, he wanted to talk about his mom. “She was the only constant in my life,” he said.  “From the day I was born until the day she died, she was there for me, she believed in me, and even when health was failing she visited whenever possible.” 

Mark cannot attend a memorial service.  Family and friends can’t surround him with memories, hugs and condolences.  He’s behind bars.  At the very least, we’re going to do our best to see if he can get permission to watch a video of the memorial service. But even that is not a sure thing. 

Grief is no discriminator of persons.  May God grant comfort to members of both families.

As I reflect on this today, I’m so grateful that walls and bars and barbed wire cannot hinder or stall or prevent the peace that passes all understanding.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

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.


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 grandparents who are no longer able to visit, whose hearts are filled with love and yes, confusion, but who don’t want to give up on their own flesh and blood.

There’s a confused and bitter woman who can’t believe that she was able to stop her abusive husband before he killed her…and yet she’s spending the rest of her life in prison.

There’s a man hurting with shame who finds it hard to believe that he screwed up this badly, and who wonders if he’ll ever be free again.

It’s Christmas day.  A day that you and I will worship, laugh, play games, enjoy food and drink with the people we love, and go to bed at the end of the day filled and satisfied.

It ain’t that way for all.

Let’s pray that Jesus’ birth might bring happy conclusions to these and so many other sad stories, starting with a little touch of happiness today.

Friday, December 23, 2016

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 didn’t believe all that stuff about Incarnation which churches proclaim at Christmas. And he was too honest to pretend that he did. "I am truly sorry to distress you," he told his wife, who was a faithful churchgoer. "But I simply cannot understand this claim that God becomes man. It doesn’t make any sense to me."

“On Christmas Eve his wife and children went to church for the midnight service. He declined to accompany them. "I’d feel like a hypocrite," he explained. "I’d rather stay at home. But I’ll wait up for you."

“Shortly after his family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window and watched the flurries getting heavier and heavier. "If we must have Christmas," he thought, "it’s nice to have a white one." He went back to his chair by the fireside and began to read his newspaper. A few minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. It was quickly followed by another, then another.

“He thought that someone must be throwing snowballs at his living room window. When he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the storm. They had been caught in the storm and in a desperate search for shelter had tried to fly through his window. "I can’t let these poor creatures lie there and freeze," he thought. "But how can I help them?" Then he remembered the barn where the children’s pony was stabled. It would provide a warm shelter.

“He put on his coat and galoshes and tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the door wide and turned on a light. But the birds didn’t come in. "Food will lure them in," he thought. So he hurried back to the house for bread crumbs, which he sprinkled on the snow to make a trail into the barn. To his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs and continued to flop around helplessly in the snow. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around and waving his arms. They scattered in every direction - except into the warm lighted barn.

"They find me a strange and terrifying creature," he said to himself, "and I can’t seem to think of any way to let them know they can trust me. If only I could be a bird myself for a few minutes, perhaps I could lead them to safety ..."

“Just at that moment the church bells began to ring. He stood silent for a while, listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. Then he sank to his knees in the snow. "Now I understand," he whispered. “Now I see why You had to do it."

Thursday, December 22, 2016

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


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’m saddened that you must exist under these conditions.

But this Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in December, has empathy for you because he can personally identify with all of your issues, all of your struggles.  To quote an overused and overworked statement, he’s “been there and done that.”

Think you were born under unpleasant conditions?  His parents were virtually homeless when it came time for Mary to give birth.  Someone finally made space in what, today, would probably be considered a garage.

Have family and friends pretty much abandoned you since your incarceration?  He was despised and rejected by his own people.

Did the so-called “justice system” treat you unfairly?  His trial was a mockery.

Were you wrongly convicted?  He was not only wrongly convicted, but wrongly executed.

Having trouble forgiving yourself for the crime that put you there?  That’s why he came.

Thinking that this might be the last chapter in your life, and you didn’t want it to end this way?  That’s why he came.

That’s Jesus, whose birthday I encourage you to join with me in celebrating.  Yep, actually celebrating!  It may seem like no one else cares for those behind bars, (although I do!), but we have every assurance that he cares!

His words:  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

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 free…?  The one who, when telling a parable, actually put himself behind bars when he said:  I was in prison and you visited me.   That Christ?

It seems to me that if you mean what you say, it might be time to

  -befriend a prisoner, with visits, letters and cards (unconditionally, no strings attached)
  -do what you can to help a prisoner’s family during this difficult time
  -offer your support to a prison ministry not only with prayers, but with dollars
  -persuade your church that mission fields are not only in foreign lands
  -personally communicate with your state and federal legislators regarding such subjects as prison reform and mass incarceration.

Walking the walk, that’s the key.  Not just talking the talk.

Then, I believe, the Christ, who we put back into Christmas, will say, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

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 colorful, it won’t tell “heart-string” stories, and it won’t be filled with testimonials.  It’ll contain actual letters and messages from prisoners who struggle with a multitude of issues and have nowhere else to turn.  Stark realism…the stuff we deal with every day.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not downplaying the many, many wonderful causes that need and deserve our support.  It just so happens that within 10 miles of my desk, where I sit writing this blog, there are a couple thousand men behind bars whose only reminder that it is Christmas time will be a calendar.  There’ll be no cards.  No gifts.  Not even a visit.  That's where my heart is this season of the year...and all year.

I think I recently came out at the short end of a discussion with a former donor, because I couldn’t show product.  I couldn’t show specific results of money invested.  Father Greg Boyle talks about this very subject in his book TATOOS ON THE HEART, because his work with gangs is not that much different than our work with prisoners.  In both situations it’s not easy to provide statistical results.  After relating stories like we’ll be doing in the January newsletter, Father Boyle said this: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”  

I was heartened in recent days by the contributions of two people who realize that ALL lives matter.  The wife of a prisoner, a single mom who struggles with budget problems, sent in three $5 bills.  And an actual Michigan prisoner, who probably earns $8 a week, sent in a year-end gift of $7.00.

Jesus watched a poor lady drop two coins in the gift box and said this: “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

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 with us for help;
The wives of inmates who regularly call or email our office;
The many women who complained this past year about overcrowded conditions at Huron Valley;
The women we’ve helped in getting compassionate releases so they might live the final chapter of their lives with family and loved ones;
The women we didn’t help, and who died alone in the cold, prison infirmary;
The battered women who, thanks to aggressive prosecutors, are locked behind bars simply for ending an abusive relationship;
The unsung heroes---women behind bars---who assume a role of servant-hood to help their friends who are mentally and/or physically challenged on a daily basis, despite mockery and scorn.

That list could be much longer.

And so, in conclusion, the male writer of today’s blog ends the piece with a plea for the female. In this season of Advent, let us not just remember Mary, Mother of Jesus; in this time of political unrest when rights and reputations of women are being trod upon, let us not just remember Rosa Parks.  Please---in thought, word and deed---don’t forget the incredible number of women affected by incarceration and an imperfect judicial system.  Keep them in your prayers.

Jesus will like that.  I know he will! 

Friday, December 2, 2016

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 for release failed her, and denied freedom because she refused to admit guilt.

And even after her release, two years later due to serious health concerns, a private adult care facility, charged with caring for such individuals, failed her.  Staff members in the cockroach-infested facility mistreated and abused her.

Lest I make this sound too dismal, there were a few rays of sunshine.  Anne came into the prison system and the two women formed a meaningful, lasting friendship.  HFP came on the scene a couple years ago at Anne’s request, trying to help where possible.  And her daughter Dawn came to her side, and for the past several years became a tireless advocate for her mom.

Even when finally releasing Vivian this fall, the prison system couldn’t seem to do it right. I’ll not forget Dawn’s note to me:  I am so angry right now that the staff couldn’t be bothered to make sure she wasn't cleaned enough to not cause her whole bottom and back and private area to be bright purple and sore. Almost like she wasn’t a person, so it wasn’t a big deal to let it get that bad.    I know she was sick.  But damn.  I can't believe what I saw on her today.  She shouldn’t have been neglected like this.

She finally got appropriate care in an appropriate facility, but death followed shortly. We lost Vivian on Tuesday. She was 63.

The problem is, there are many more behind bars in similar situations, and they may not have a friend or a daughter to help them bear the burden.  That’s why it’s so very important for HFP to remain strong and healthy.  That’s why it’s so important to tell this story.  Says Dawn:  There is nothing fair for her in this story. I could have kept her out of hospice and treated the symptoms she had, and she would have ended up back in that shit hole of a nursing home.  People who go to prison do their time and are still punished afterwards.  It’s not right!  I will do whatever I can so another family doesn’t have to go through this.

In a day when we are seeing so much division, scorn and hatred, we must be people of faith and compassion, willing to speak up and insisting on humane treatment and care for those behind bars…willing to support people and agencies who carry on in this field.  It’s not up to those guys. It’s up to us!

It’s what Dawn wants.

It’s what Jesus demanded.

May the story of Vivian serve as a constant reminder:  There, but for the grace of God….