All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Be it cancer or constipation,'tain't the same in prison!

We old folks love to talk about our physical ailments and shortcomings.

Just sit in when old codgers are gathered at your small town coffee shop in the morning, or eavesdrop at the local senior citizens center. Health issues and physical problems are sure to be part of the conversation, and not just aches and pains. You’ll hear about leg cramps, vertigo, blood pressure, cholesterol, constipation and/or its opposite malady. And it won’t stop there. There’ll be interesting discussions about pills and salves, cough syrups, tonics, laxatives and suppositories.

You’ll also do some chuckling as you listen, because the conversation will be laced with graphic descriptions and mispronunciations!

But the deal is that most of us old folks are able to get adequate medical care, and have access to medical care practitioners. We gripe and complain, but many services and treatments are available to us.

I’m so mindful of that as I listen to 20-25 medical messages a week from prisoners. Just check out these complaints:

-Needs knee surgery, but is given a wheelchair instead
-Needs a wheelchair but is given a cane
-Struggles with Celiac Disease
-Terminally ill with Huntington’s Disease
-Living with MS but struggling with rickety wheelchair issues
-Incontinence, but not enough pads available.

The problems may seem similar, but the conditions and the responses are not.

And that’s why HFP has taken major steps forward, by actually adding a Medical Consultant to our team. Thanks to Dr. Bob Bulten’s huge compassionate heart, we do our best to triage these complaints and requests as they come in. We’re proud to say that the list of medical professionals who regularly assist us includes an oncologist, an ophthalmologist, an orthopedic surgeon, a palliative care specialist, a sleep study specialist, an anesthesiologist, a cardiologist and an allergist! Think of it. Fine professionals willing to offer opinions, advice, and even medical muscle if and when necessary. Because they get it. Because they care.

It’s a challenge getting essential medical care, not only in the Michigan prison system, but in all correctional facilities, for a wide variety of reasons.

One of the aims of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS is to see to it that inadequate, inappropriate, or rudely provided medical care is not unconstitutionally added to the inmate’s punishment. Our Mission Statement says that we do this “in order to alleviate suffering beyond the just administration of their sentences.”

Here’s why. Our surgeon general is The Great Physician.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How Dr. Larry Nassar hurts our cause

We hear the news that Dr. Larry Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison, and we breathe a sigh of gratitude. Once a world-renowned sports physician, the nasty little pervert---it turns out---has been abusing young women for decades. Perhaps hundreds of them. Especially for those of us who are parents of daughters, the sentiment is sure to be, “Throw away the key!”

Also in the news is the story of Louise and David Turpin. These mean-spirited parents abused, starved and tortured all 13 kids in their home for years. They’ll never see freedom again, either. Especially for those of us with kids and grandkids, our sentiment may very well be, “Throw away the key!”

But here’s the rub.

Some prison employees will then contend that nothing is too cruel for these inmates. Beaten, tortured and abused by fellow inmates? So what…look the other way! Necessary to provide adequate medical and dental care, especially in time of pain or crisis? Hell, no…they didn’t care about others, why should we? Tolerable, edible food? Why? The needs of others was never any concern of theirs.

That train of thought also permeates our society, and sometimes even our churches. It may be subtle, but I and my team see and hear it.

But, we have no choice, really. We must take the high road, and avoid stooping to the level of Dr. Nassar and the Turpins. Simply put: Incarceration is the punishment, and we may not add to it! Something that’s actually guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Says Academic Commentator Juan Cole: We know what the Founding Fathers believed. They believed in universal rights. And they believed in basic principles of human dignity. Above all, they did not think the government had the prerogative of behaving as it pleased. It doesn’t have the prerogative to torture.

In the Bible we have the example of a man named Saul who did his best to stamp out Christianity. Beatings, stonings, whatever it took. One would think he deserved whatever kind of cruel and unusual punishment that might be inflicted in those days. Instead, he had a life-changing experience. The Apostle Paul became an avid missionary, and prolific author of New Testament books.

Modern scholars don’t seem to think that St Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, but following his early days as an evil torturer, and his latter days as an embattled and often imprisoned itinerant preacher, you can bet that he resonated with these words from Chapter 13: …remember those in prison as if you were together with them.

God’s Word; the U.S. Constitution: We have no choice.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

What we are called. Does it matter?

Last year a member of a fine, protestant church responded to my request for support of the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. That would not be happening, he explained, because his church opted to spend mission funds on those agencies actually teaching the Word of God.

Also last year, as I sought the support and assistance of a highly capable agnostic, she stubbornly insisted that unless HFP become more secularized, it was doomed to failure.

Granted, the topic is a touchy one. When we appeal to churches for support, we refer to this as a ministry. When we appeal to secular foundations that want to avoid religion, we call it an advocacy agency.

And all this gets me to thinking. Somehow, we’re missing the point. If we focus on the prisoner and his or her needs and problems, those issues fade in importance.

I’ll give you a couple examples.

Thursday, Matt got up early in the morning to make the drive to Jackson so that he could be at the side of an ailing prisoner for his Parole Board review. One might ask why Matt did this. After all, the guy had violated parole once before, and he’s known to be a bit of a con man. Well, here’s why: The man had no friends or loved ones willing to accompany him for this traumatic experience, he’s shown love and concern for dozens of other hurting prisoners, and besides all that, he’s terminally ill! Cancer will claim his life within the year. It’s where we belonged.

That same day, Volunteer Jennifer Juhasz and I went to the Muskegon Correctional Facility to meet with 12 prisoners who are hoping to file applications for commutation of their sentences. We did a free-wheeling two-hour workshop on how to fill out the forms. One might ask why we did this. After all, the Governor has shown reluctance to grant any commutations so far. Well, here’s why: The Governor will leave office by the end of the year, he may decide to show compassion to some deserving long-term inmates, and most importantly---it’s a sliver of hope for those who long for freedom! It’s where we belonged.

That's right. With 39,000 people in the state prison system, we spent all that time and effort on one inmate in Jackson, and 12 in Muskegon.

I must confess to the church man: Matt, Jen and I didn’t take a Bible with us, and didn’t mention Christianity once in those two sessions.

I must confess to the Agnostic: In both instances, we felt that this was what Jesus would do.

Ministry or agency. Does it matter?

What’s the famous line of Shakespeare? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Headliner or Heart-Warmer?

When a big story breaks, the adrenaline kicks in! As a veteran writer in the newsroom, I’ll be the first to admit this. But those who know me best will tell you that, even more than that the breaking bombshell, I loved the human interest story. The major headlines will always be there, but finding and writing the heart-warming stories…that’s where the fun and the satisfaction join hands.

So it is here in the prisoner advocacy business as well.

A big story is about to break. A prisoner is going to see freedom after decades of incarceration, and God saw fit to place HFP right in the middle of the behind-the-scenes engineering. We may not get the public credit, but our adrenaline is pumping! We know how it began, and we’re excited about how it will end.

But to me, here are the real stories.

Sonny has serious, serious eye problems. Getting appropriate glasses or contact lenses while in prison was an up-hill fight. That was only half the problem, however. Even with the new lenses, he still couldn’t read anything close up. You can only imagine how important reading is for an inmate, not only for enjoyment, but for dealing with legal matters. To make a long story short, it took nearly a year, but thanks to the persistence and determination of our team, Sonny is getting new reading glasses!

Mike’s letter to HFP dealt with legal issues, but he let slip that his elderly and physically handicapped mother nearly burned the house down recently while trying to cook. These are the kind of things that keep prisoners awake at night. Again, long story short, HFP made some contact with Meals-on-Wheels in that particular city, and arrangements are going to be made so Mike’s mom won’t have to try any dangerous maneuvers with her kitchen stove any more. Warm, prepared meals are on the way.

ACTION WITH COMPASSION! That’s not only our motto, but our goal: Putting those seemingly small human-interest stories on top of the page. To us, they’re headlines!

What’s the old gospel song? Little is Much When God Is in It!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The deafening sound of silence

Author’s note: I’m standing with many of our African American, Asian American and Latin American friends behind bars today, along with a handful of foreigners, to celebrate this national holiday. Here's my blog.

A lot of replays of MLK’s I HAVE A DREAM speech yesterday in church services, and today in holiday gatherings across our land. How we love to hear these words: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’"

Among the bigger questions that we must honestly face, however, are these: Do we really believe that? And, if so, what are we going to do about it?

Let’s face it. King got very specific in his speech. He wasn’t just pontificating. He was giving examples: I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification… .

Does that sound a lot like people in our country’s highest offices right now?

I realize that some are not of the opinion that Dr. Martin Luther King was one of America’s great heroes, let alone a prophet. But for those cynics, what about Jesus? Any argument, any debate, about where he stood?

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

The holiday is here, and I believe that Dr. King had some powerful messages about silence which we must face head-on.

For example, he said:  "There comes a time when silence is betrayal."

I interpret that to mean that if we piously sang In Christ There Is No East or West yesterday, and even though we grumblingly concede that King deserves a day in his honor…even if we do all that, but then ignore the backward steps we as a nation are taking toward people of different colors and different ethnic backgrounds, we aren’t doing enough.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

I’ll put my interpretation on that quote, also: If party still comes before country, and if we remain immobile as we cling to outdated thoughts about people of different colors and beliefs, we aren’t doing enough.

Dr. Martin Luther King, and human beings with a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, are looking at us, eyeball to eyeball right now, thinking these words: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Not taking a bold stand on racism: That silence can be deafening!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Widow's Might!

Having trouble making ends meet?

Not uncommon these days, no matter what the pols in Washington think or say. Many people in the low and even middle-income brackets are struggling. If you dig a little deeper into the numbers, you’ll see that while the stock market is breaking all records, wage increases are not.

Those of us whose parents and forefathers lived through the depression can tell major stories about how to get by with very little.

But that’s not my focus today. I’m asking, once again, that you take a look at a prisoner situation.

A very nice woman in Huron Valley emailed me a few days ago: The store list changed recently, and the prices of everything keep going up. For example, tuna was 2.25 now its 2.70! The pay rate for prisoner jobs hasn’t increased, so how can the cost of essentials and healthy food options continue to rise?

And if you haven’t had pay raises to match inflation over the years, imagine the plight of Michigan prisoners who’ve had no pay raises. In years! And the going rate? Well, maybe 84 cents a day, or, if they have a good job, $3.34 a day. Not an hour, a day!

The reason Laura was concerned about the price of tuna is because the prison cuisine is so unpleasant and so inadequate that innovative inmates have learned to create delicious dishes with items from the store and from vending machines. Dan emailed us the other day: Gilberto made pizzas using saltine crackers as the crust. Surprisingly, it worked out quite well. G once had his own taco shop, so his cooking skills are unrivaled.

Many of these innovative people behind bars are blessed with a delightful spirit not only of survival, but of converting negatives into positives.

And that’s not just true of their menu planning. It also applies to their budget planning.

This week HFP received a check from Mike’s prison account, through the State of Michigan, for $5.00. It’s not much, but it was all I could afford right now!

Not much! Not much when you earn a buck a day? A 5-dollar gift from a prisoner to support the work of HFP is, to quote a major newsmaker, HUGE! We’ve received some beautiful gifts over the holidays. None tops this one.

The title I’ve given this blog is THE WIDOW’S MIGHT. Correctly spelled. Mike’s tithe, supporting our work among prisoners, makes a mighty statement. His generosity is a mighty example.

And it makes us mighty proud!

Monday, January 8, 2018

And the award goes to...

I have such misgivings about awards.

As I viewed bits and pieces of the Golden Globe Awards last night, I was reminded of those days when I coveted an award so much. I was a young radio News Director, I had pride in my news operation, and I just wanted to be able boast about our “Award-Winning News Department.”

It took years for me to realize the reason we didn’t win high profile citations was because we didn’t have the time to try. We were too busy serving our community.

Actually, there were many small-market radio news departments back in those days that were doing a great job in their home town. They weren’t seeking, nor did they receive, recognition and awards. They were doing their very best to serve.

And isn’t that true in many situations?

We don’t often hear or read about awards for good cops, county snow plow operators, caring providers in nursing homes, minimum wage personnel in service businesses, mail carriers…people who make our lives more pleasant on a daily basis. The truth is, they don’t do it for awards. They care. They take pride in their efforts. They love to serve.

That’s pretty much the way I see our work in HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. You’ll see and hear the names of some very well-known prison ministries and agencies throughout the year. I have no doubt that the accolades are well-deserved. HFP’s recognition level, on the other hand, is very low. What’s that name again?

In the long run, that feisty little small-town radio news director got up early every morning, covered school board meetings into the night, and crawled out of bed during the night when the local bar was burning down, not because of his excellent pay check. No, because of his strong belief in the public’s right to know, he was there for his listeners. He loved it, because it was the right thing to do.

By the same token, that little prisoner advocacy agency which quietly responds to 15 calls a day, 7 days a week, gets up early in the morning to speak at an inmate’s Public Hearing, and emails doctors and lawyers into the night for assistance to Michigan inmates, does so, not for the money. The HFP team loves what we do, loves those whom we serve, and attempts to walk in the footsteps of our leader Jesus. It’s the right thing to do.

My favorite preacher of all times, the late Al Hoksbergen, used to kid me about doing church work without pay. “You’ll get your reward in heaven.”

Teasing or not, I think that’s a pretty good payoff!

"Well done, thou good and faithful servant:" The top award!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Douger: They don't know what they're missing!

I was taken aback a couple of years ago when a consultant for HFP said, no one is doing what you do. And then he went on to say, No one wants to do what you do!

In retrospect, I don’t know why that surprised me.

One time I was doing a review of my book SWEET FREEDOM with members of a Christian book club, and a couple of the people actually became hostile. I’m still not quite sure why that happened. Perhaps they just didn’t like to hear about a white man trying to help a wrongly convicted black man.

I was invited to tell about our ministry to an adult class of a Christian Church one time, and only a handful showed up. Little to no interest in helping the “least of these,” from those who, in my opinion, should have had the most interest.

Matt and I traveled to a lily-white city one day to speak to a group of businessmen in that city’s major service club. Polite applause. Everyone made a quick exit. No words of thanks.

We recently put out an appeal hoping to find housing for an elderly black man battling cancer, who has no friends or relatives left, and who would like to die outside of prison. Very little response.

I had forgotten those words of our consultant until we received a neat message, including holiday greetings, from one of our friends behind bars: You folks do a job that nobody else even wants to think about!  For that I thank you all.

One thing that’s missing in all this narrative is how beautiful it is to work with the marginalized. Fr Greg Boyle: “Compassion isn't just about feeling the pain of others; it's about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. 'Be compassionate as God is compassionate,' means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”

As we sit on the threshold of 2018, all of us at HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS---staff, directors, volunteers---boldly proclaim that we not only want to do this work. We love it! We love the people with whom we work! Our lives are brighter because of these relationships!

We must not sit idly by as injustices abound around us. We have a voice and we must use it. We must advocate for those who no longer have a voice. We must love greatly. Dr. Christina Hibbert