All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A delightful Easter gift from me to you

I have an Easter gift for you.

The following piece was written by a very special friend, David Schelhaas. Dave is a retired college English professor who now lives in Iowa. But many years ago he lived here in our part of the state, taught at Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, and was a charter member of HIS MEN…a singing group that I founded in 1972.

He’s not only a fine singer, but an excellent writer. I invite you to savor this little gem on Easter Sunday, 2018:

Thinking He Was the Gardener

Thinking he was the gardener
she did not recognize him,
eyes blurred with tears, the weight
of grief breaking her heart.

Now, all these centuries later, we find
her misidentification of him as gardener
happily apt.
For he is the gardener
of our lives and our salvation---
planter, waterer, weeder, feeder, completer.

He is the gardener
of all green and growing things, of
grasses, flowers and trees. The great sequoias,
redwoods, and cedars of the world bow down to him
who bends to tend the almost invisible lettuce seeds
planted this morning in my garden.

He cares for all creatures, plants
the conies, those “feeble folk,”
in houses of stone to protect them, gives
water for the wild donkeys, delights
in the antics of leviathan.

Before time was, he cast stars
like seeds into the endless
furrows of space and still
charts their growth over seasons
that linger on for eons.

Dear, sad Mary, one word and she knew him,
yet all eternity may not be time enough
for her to comprehend him.

Christ, the gardener, is risen. He is risen, indeed!

Holy Saturday? Doesn't feel that way to me.

They call it Holy Saturday, but it doesn’t feel very holy.

For me, the day contains a certain numbness.

It reminds me of the day after I learned that my only sister, still in her early 20s with a longing and eagerness to be a beautiful wife and someday mother, lost her life at the hands of a drunk driver.

I’m old enough to remember what it felt like the day after John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Then came Martin Luther King. It didn’t stop there. Bobby Kennedy was next. The day after: feelings of dull resignation. History could not be changed. Death may not have had the final victory, but it certainly had sting.

I know, I know, this day is different.

But on Holy Saturday I’m still living with the trauma of watching the Christ candle depart from the presence of the congregation on Maundy Thursday. And I’m still living with the reality that yesterday, on “Good” Friday, they did, indeed, execute a wrongly-convicted itinerant preacher. In contrast to all the vicious criminals who suffered crucifixion by the Romans of that day, this guy preached love, healed the sick, raised the dead, paid special attention to prisoners and widows and kids! What the…?

I long to hear those three words tomorrow!

But on Holy Saturday, I’m still living with this confession from Johann Heerman’s classic hymn, Ah, Holy Jesus:

'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Are we angry about this week's news stories? We should be!

It’s always someone else who gets wrongly convicted, right? Wrong!

Just this week in the news came the Nevest Coleman story from Chicago. DNA testing proved that the White Sox groundskeeper was innocent. He served 23 years for a crime someone else had committed. Then today came a second story, this in Michigan: Richard Phillips was released. Innocent. He had served 45 years!

No one says “Oops.” No one says, “Sorry.” And both of these kind men smile, express gratitude for their release, and try to jump-start their lives.

I’m sorry, but I think they should be mad as hell!

And so should we!

It was Maurice Carter’s wrongful conviction that sucked me into this business.

Since that time my life has been touched by so many wrongly-convicted people. Today I started jotting down names…all are white, and most of them mid-to-upper income. Take a look,

An industrialist.
A business owner.
A financial adviser.
A housewife.
An employed laborer.
An account executive.
An independent contractor.
A teacher.
A doctor.
A general manager.

This list of fine, hard-working citizens proves that it can happen to anyone. Even you. Even me. And don’t just assume that high priced lawyers can get you off. Extensive efforts and appeals by legal experts, family and friends, were not enough to help these people. Injustice conquered.

I cannot stress enough how easy it is to get into prison, and how difficult it is to get out.

It can be as simple as a family feud, a misunderstanding, a terrible accident, a troubled relationship, a struggle with depression or some other sort of mental illness---the kind of things that we all have faced or likely will face in a lifetime.

Mix in factors such as “tunnel vision” by police investigators, and win/loss records of prosecutors who are elected to office, and you have a recipe that can change a life forever. It has happened over and over again in the past. It’s happening now. It’ll happen again.

My reason for posting still another wrongful conviction blog is to remind that the system is not always correct, not always fair, not always just. Cops, prosecutors, and judges, while serving us well in most cases, are not infallible. Some (gasp) are criminals themselves.

Good Christians; good citizens---regardless of belief---must take an interest. Some of my friends contend that 10-15% of our prisoners are innocent. And that doesn’t include those who have been over-charged or over sentenced. State officials reluctantly concede that the figure is more realistically around 3%. Over 1,000 people in our Michigan Prison system who are innocent? That’s a curse! That’s a blight!

Shameful, shameful, shameful!

Not acceptable.

Neither is sitting in our easy chair, clucking our teeth.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

March 29: Maundy Thursday; Maurice's birthday!

March 29, 1944: Birthdate of Maurice Henry Carter.

Interesting that this comes up during Holy Week. That Maurice’s birthday actually falls on Maundy Thursday.

These days I think so much about the mother of Jesus. Just a few decades earlier she had given birth to this child under the most mysterious of circumstances. And now, to have it all come to an end under the most cruel of circumstances. Heart-breaking!

Maurice Carter’s death was heart-breaking for his mother, as well.

Little black boy, born to a kind, Christian woman in Gary, Indiana, whose husband wasn’t around any longer.

A nice little boy, always soft-spoken. Son of a single mom in an inner city neighborhood, their home next to a red-light-house, he managed to endear himself to the “ladies of the night.” He was the polite young man who took their apparel to the dry cleaners for their generous tips and grateful words.

As with most young black man of that day and that area, he got into his share of scrapes and problems.

But he took pride in himself. Always dressed properly. Pleasant demeanor. No unkind words. Didn’t descend into the pit of drugs, thievery, sex and debauchery.

Then came that fateful day in the Christmas season, 1973, when an off-duty police officer was shot and injured in downtown Benton Harbor. Maurice just happened to be in town that day with an acquaintance. One year later, that same “friend” turned into the jail-house snitch who told police that Maurice was the shooter.

The rest is history. The snitch recanted, but too late. Maurice was found guilty of assault with intent to commit murder and sentenced to life in prison: no weapon, no motive, no fingerprints, no evidence. A white cop was shot, and a black man was going to pay. Maurice paid with 29 years!

Back to his mom. When I came aboard, adopted Maurice as my brother and member of my family, and committed myself to obtaining his freedom, I also became a member of his family. I made certain that every Mother’s Day and every Christmas I paid her a visit in Gary. How she would laugh when I reminded her that if Maurice was my brother, she was my mother!

I’m thinking of Jesus’ mother this week.

I’m thinking of Maurice’s mom, too.

Two mothers who dealt with more than their share of pain. Two mothers who knew their sons were not guilty.

Maurice Henry Carter: March 29, 1944-October 25, 2004.

RIP, Maurice.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Monday emails---a mixed bag: A Lenten message

Monday morning. What will the prisoner email inbox show this morning? As I open it, I’m thinking of Lynda Randle’s delightful song, GOD ON THE MOUNTAIN IS STILL GOD IN THE VALLEY.

Prisoner #1, in the valley:

Times haven't been the easiest lately. After my last request for commutation was denied, I've tried moving on. My mother was my rock and gave me all of my strength, now she's gone. I'm trying hard to still be strong. My dad is all that I have left in this world and I'm trying to be there as best as I can for him. It sure isn't easy though. This place makes everything so complicated and hard. I hope that, when this nightmare ends, I'll be able to make her proud.

Prisoner #2, in the valley:

My ankle is so bad! The doctor gave cream for Psoriasis and I had an allergic reaction to it. After weeks had gone by and it got worse, he gave me a different cream. That's what led up to me going to the hospital on Monday because I just started bleeding very bad. I lost about 2 pints of blood. I'm on blood thinner. I have a medical detail for support hose for my leg and the doctor keeps giving me the wrong size that I can't wear. I'm in so much pain and they won't give me anything for it. It's so bad that I cannot put on a shoe.

The next message, Prisoner #3, on the mountain:

I’m floating right now, upon getting the news that my parole is May 31! This is such an overwhelming feeling, and I’m humbled by the trust the Parole Board is placing in me. I would love having the opportunity to work for HFP. My freedom after 48 years demands that I share my experiences. Your support and words of encouragement can’t be measured.

Needless to say, the task, the assignment, for our wonderful, caring and compassionate HFP team is to help when and where we can. But, at the very least, to respond to all in kindness, for as Linda’s song reminds:

The God of the good times
Is still God in the bad times
The God of the day is still God in the night.

I’m especially mindful of this during Holy Week.

Recognizing His gift to us, it’s our turn.

We don’t have a choice.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

That church sign saying ALL ARE WELCOME---is it true?

“Over and over again, when people exit the prison system, they say to the churches who visited them behind bars, ‘I’m out. I’m here!’ And those churches then explain that prison ministry is something they do ‘in there,’ and ‘we don’t really want ex-offenders in our building.’”

The words of Fr. Jared Cramer in our HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS video.

It’s a sad reality.

I guess we might expect the world to reject ex-offenders. “Go ahead and release them, but I don’t want them in my neighborhood.” But, it must hurt Jesus, who loved to quote from the Old Testament about his reason for being here (He has sent me here to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…) to see his church shy away from that very element of society.

Many years ago when we lost our first office space in downtown Muskegon, I met with the trustees of a well-known inner city church thinking they might give me a little closet space in which to do our business. I was nearly shamed out of the meeting by a board member who was convinced I wanted to put dangerous criminals back on the street

In another situation, as our needs for expanded office space became urgent, I met with a church that had room to spare. We were quickly shunned because the church has a children’s day care center on the same campus. Unsavory people might be entering our doors.

In a similar discussion with still another church, it was explained that a deciding factor would be whether “clients of the ministry - former inmates – would be meeting in our offices on a regular basis?” 

Sad to say, our answer would have to be, “Yes.” We have an ex-offender volunteer who works in our office weekly. We’re hoping to hire another ex-offender, upon his release, as a full-time employee. We love to have former prisoners speak on our behalf in public meetings. We consider them family.

I’m not pointing fingers. Heck, I’m a part of that body. Maybe if the church were aware of all of the skeletons in my closet, and the demons that still chase me after four-score years, I might not be welcome either.

But, thank God, the message of Easter is that ALL are welcome!

Dr. Luke quoted Jesus as saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…”

In this season of Lent, it's the perfect time to soften our thoughts about those bearing a stigma, and who are perceived to be “different.”

We’re all in this together.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

On rethinking Corizon: It's time!

A giant company is supposed to be taking care of the physical and mental needs of Michigan inmates. We contend that it’s not happening properly.

Corizon Health is one of the largest for-profit medical providers for jails and prisons in the United States. In 2016, the Tennessee-based Corizon signed a 5-year contract worth $715.7 million to provide both physical and mental health services in Michigan prisons, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Here’s our story.

We are blessed to have a panel of excellent, dedicated physicians, representing a variety of specialties, on the HFP advisory team. We call on them regularly to help us answer a variety of questions from prisoners regarding symptoms, aches and pains, injuries, treatment or lack thereof, and just general medical care. 

It seldom goes well, and invariably our doctors throw up their hands and say, “In the free world, you or I would demand and receive proper treatment. It’s anybody’s guess what he or she will get behind bars.”

Corizon, which has proven time and again that the bottom line is most important, is forever crowding the constitutional guarantees of the 8th Amendment. Perhaps that’s why Matt Clarke reported, in Prison Legal News last summer, Recent lawsuits against the company…call into question the quality, and even the availability, of the healthcare services it is supposed to provide. In addition to the lawsuits, Clarke reported a trend of non-renewal of Corizon contracts in Georgia, New Mexico, Indiana and New York.

I bring all of this to your attention after being contacted on a Sunday morning by our medical director. A 52-year-old client has a rare genetic disease. The diagnosis is unquestioned. Its treatment is not always terribly effective, but it is always very expensive. The inmate was promised treatment four months ago. Corizon admits it has the medicine. Yet, as of today, no treatment. Maddening!

I wouldn’t bother writing about it if this were the exception. But it’s the rule. It’s an uphill climb! It’s swimming upstream! It’s ridiculous!

To its credit, the Michigan Department of Corrections recently chose to break a contract with an outside provider for food service after an abysmal record of shortcomings. We think it’s time to take another look at Corizon. Based on our experience, we can honestly state that Michigan prisoners are not receiving adequate, appropriate medical care. The state doesn’t have the right to allow that. Incarceration is the punishment. We may not add to it!

In his Prison Legal News report Matt Clark concluded: Perhaps, if Corizon focused on providing competent and adequate care to prisoners, it would not be the subject of so many lawsuits and at risk of losing its lucrative contracts. 


Monday, March 12, 2018

WWJD? More thoughts for Lent

What would Jesus do?

Years ago, people wore wristbands with the letters WWJD in bold print, serving to remind them how to handle matters in their daily routines. The fad didn’t last very long. I suspect that reason, in part, was that we didn’t like the answers.

I’m thinking of that during the season of Lent, an insightful period for those of us who follow Jesus. It started when I received a message from a transgender inmate last week. She’s in the body of a man, and residing in one of Michigan’s prison for men. I’ve known her for years and had sort of lost track of her.

If you think life is challenging for a person struggling with sexual identity, just imagine how much worse it is behind bars. Hell on earth!

And yet, when I approached a Christian professional in the field of psychology for some input, she sniffed, “Lots of luck with that!” End of discussion.

It’s no surprise to me that the life of Jesus was cut so short by dissidents, many of them a part of organized religion. I can’t say that he’d survive all that much better if he were here today.

But, Lent may be the perfect time to look at how he dealt with those who we might consider a bit different. Religious leaders walked away in shame after Jesus challenged the one with no guilt whatsoever to throw the first stone at the Stormy Daniels of their day. He ignored an invitation to dinner with the Koch brothers to enjoy a light supper and a glass of wine with a crooked tax collector. Foreigners, women, children---all considered second-class citizens in that day---seemed to be at the top of his list. Not to mention the poor, orphans, widows and (gasp) prisoners.

If HFP claims to serve inmates with Christian compassion, this means that many unpleasant, uncomplimentary and unkind thoughts must be put aside. Contrary to the Christian psychologist's snooty attitude, it is precisely the transgender inmate who needs our love and care. Same is true for the gays and lesbians who struggle mightily in the prison system. And if Jesus’ treatment of the criminal hanging on a cross next to him is any example, we’d better revise our thinking of how we treat those convicted of the most heinous crimes.

All created in the image of God.

All deserving humane care behind bars, regardless of sexual identity, regardless of race or religion, regardless of the alleged crime.

That’s our response in answer to the question WWJD.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A prisoner at the right place at the right time: A story for Lent.

That story about the criminal on the cross next to Jesus catches me off guard every time!

I’m sure, earlier in my life, I felt a bit of envy when hearing the story about Jesus welcoming this dude into Paradise. “Not fair! We served you all our lives, and he gets the same reward?”

But that changed 20 years ago when I began working with prisoners. Just last Sunday I started getting choked up when Pastor Nate read Dr. Luke’s account of that familiar story. And that reminded me how I get choked up every time I hear Gloria Gaither read an account of the same story. And that prompted me to share her reading with you…something I encourage you to savor in this season of Lent. It’s called The Misfit, it was written by Bob Benson, and it was taken from his book LAUGHTER IN THE WALLS.

It seemed to be his lot, he was one of those unfortunate people,
With a talent always to be in the wrong place … always at the wrong time.
He was born wrong: The declining Roman Empire, the broken home.
The conquered Jewish nation, the poverty-stricken slums.
He lived wrong: When others went to school, he played hooky,
Others played ball, he stole apples.
Others learned trades, he learned to cheat.
Just a common thief … he started wrong, he lived wrong,
And it looked as if he’d finish wrong: The wrong place, and the wrong time.
A Roman cross, a painful death … A final shame.
When, from the middle cross, came words of redeeming love:
“You shall be with me in Paradise!”
In all the stream of history,
One and only One
Of all the numberless sons of Adam could have said these words
… and he hung beside Him!
In one instant his life, given to evil … thoroughly misused,
Doomed to die, was changed and ended in crowning glory,
It was the one sentence without which there is no success,
It was the one sentence which redeems all failure,
And it was said to him at life’s final flickering moment.
The one most important issue of all was gloriously solved:
At long last, he was in the right place at the right time! 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Prisoners teach me about patience

God, grant me patience. And I want it now!

Someone who knew me well gave me that little plaque which decorated my office wall many years ago. You’d think I might have improved by now, but after 80 years, I still struggle with impatience.

Patience is on my mind today, after spending an inordinate amount of time on the cases of two prisoners this week. Both are Christian men. Neither belongs in prison. Both have exhibited patience beyond human understanding. Today I can report one good outcome. Sadly, the other is questionable.

One guy has been in prison for 33 years. During this time he has worked with state and federal prosecutors to solve case after case. He has saved the State of Michigan millions of dollars, and that is no exaggeration. He possesses letters of commendation from personnel within the prison system, the Michigan State Police and the FBI. He never sought a deal. It just seemed right. If he became aware of filth and dirt, he wanted to help clean it up. And yet, the powers that be kept resisting his meritorious release from prison. He’s been praying for decades. This week it became apparent that his prayers may be getting answered. Finally. There’s light on the horizon.

Not so for the second guy. He’s been locked up for nearly 20 years for something he didn’t do. Despite his patience and the best efforts of the finest professionals, all avenues of appeal were exhausted and resulted in no success. It is so frustrating! So discouraging! He’s been praying for almost two decades. Those prayers haven’t been answered according to his desires so far. From a human standpoint, I don’t sense any indication that he’ll ever see freedom.

I cannot imagine the faith. I cannot imagine the patience to endure all of this. I cannot imagine the pain.

Henri Nowen says: “A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” 

That’s an easy thing for you and me to say, when we’re not sitting behind bars with little or no hope for freedom.

I’m praying for my two friends today, and asking you to do the same. Unless we’ve worn their shoes, we have no idea how difficult their walk has been. And still is.

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho: The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”