All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Matt: An award winner!

Some years ago a very nice person with ties to a major university insisted that she was going to see to it that I received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree.

I tried to be kind and polite about this, but the effort was doomed before it even started. I tried to explain that showing compassion to prisoners isn’t something that attracts praise and recognition in our society. Nevertheless, she insisted. She had connections, she loved what HFP does, and she wanted the founder to get recognition. Of course, she never saw the little things that we experience daily: the subtle frowns of disapproval, the silence from those whose religious and/or patriotic beliefs supposedly involve support for those less fortunate, the lack of financial support from churches and civic organizations. Society doesn’t really like to think about prisoners.

I’m not complaining…merely explaining. After all, I and those people who work with me, receive amazing awards like they don’t offer at the university:

The prisoners in one of Michigan’s facilities voted to make a $500 donation to HFP from their Prisoner Benefit Fund (What a compliment!)

A prisoner just sent us a $10 check, which he called a “tithe,” because he believes in what we’re doing (His prison salary amounts to less than $20 a month!)

And, a long-time friend just emailed to inform me of positive results from a biopsy. He’s starting to call me “Dad,” because I care and listen to him! (He doesn’t have one of his own.)

I’m thinking about this right now, because son Matt is taking over the helm of HFP. Matt, like his father, is a broadcaster. He’s in sports…I was in news. Broadcasters can and do receive awards. They covet awards. And award publicity attracts listeners and viewers…it can also result in pay raises.

With six years of experience at HFP under his belt, Matt gets the picture. He’s likely to receive some awards in the broadcasting business, but there ain’t gonna be none here.

One of my dearest, bestest, most favorite and most precious friends of all time---a friend that I connected with late in life---was Rev. Al Hoksbergen. How I loved that man! How I miss that man!

As we sipped a little whiskey, he would say, “Doug, you’ll get your reward in heaven.”

And that’s the best advice I can give Matt today, as he capably assumes the role of CEO and President of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS.

HFP’s hero and leader happens to be a rag-tag preacher who told his followers, “He has sent me to tell the captives and the prisoners that they have been set free!”

For showing kindness to the prisoners he loved, Matt, and I, our staff and our volunteers, could receive no greater reward than to hear that same preacher, the Master, utter these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Are you in good hands? Yep!

A guy with a big, deep, bass voice asks that question in TV commercials. At this moment of transition for HFP, the question deserves an answer.

Some time ago I sent out this popular quote as Father’s Day approached:

"Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a Dad."

I bring it up today as a footnote to the public announcement that our son Matt has been appointed President and CEO of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. At first glance, that announcement smacks of nepotism. But, in truth, it’s far from that.

It’s no secret that I’ve had some serious health issues since HFP was founded in 2001. Some friends tease me about having nine lives.

In situations when my future is in question, two things happen. Number one, some people see a possible opportunity to replace me. And number two, our Directors take a hard look at a possible replacement.

-One highly qualified guy really wanted my job, and let our directors know that he was available. They soon learned, however, that while the man apparently had a big heart for prisoners, his past record of treating employees was dismal.

-A seemingly very religious person seemed to have the right qualifications until the discussion of transgender prisoners arose. There was little empathy for those potential clients.

-Then there was the gay/lesbian issue. This person had room for plenty of love and compassion of prisoners, as long as they’re “straight.”

-Religious belief was another hot-button. Some found it difficult to extend love and compassion to Muslims and Buddhists. Some even insisted that Bible study be included in our in-prison efforts.

And so, when it got right down to it, Matt was the obvious choice. Not because he’s my son, but because his track record over the past six years revealed a genuine compassion for the incarcerated. In this office, ALL prisoners are deemed worthy to receive fair, kind and equal treatment. He gets the picture.

It took 18 years to create this atmosphere. So, to paraphrase that old Father’s Day saying, a whole lot of people might seem to have the credentials to serve as CEO of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. But, for someone to take charge of our unique program, it takes a leader with a mind as open as Matt’s, and a heart as big as Matt’s. I proudly pass the mantle, without reservation.

May God bless Matthew, our team, and our agency, as we begin the next chapter.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

If we are the "Easter People," it's time to take a stand!

Response to the tragic fire that damaged the Cathedral of Notre Dame is an excellent example of our double standards. Millions of dollars’ worth of pledges are pouring in, thus assuring restoration and reconstruction of this majestic structure. Yet, three historic churches recently burned up in Louisiana, and response hasn’t been nearly the same.

As I reflect on that during Holy Week, I can only conclude that similar things can be said, similar comparisons can be made, about our treatment of people.

While millions of dollars get committed for the cathedral, people in Puerto Rico still struggle to get hurricane relief, and Flint’s little kids still struggle to find clean drinking water.

We righteously quote the Constitution:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Except Native and African Americans.

Except gays and lesbians.

Except prisoners.

We piously quote Galatians 3:28 

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female… 

Except those struggling with sexual identity.

Except those with differing religious beliefs.

Except prisoners.

Yet, I think it’s undeniable that the Jesus, whose death and resurrection we remember this weekend, not only gave us guidelines, but also gave us personal examples insisting on fair and equal treatment for all. In his preaching: As I have loved you, so you must love one another. In his teaching: the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus. By example: dining with a tax collector, showing kindness to a prostitute.

Praying for a change of heart is a beginning. But, it’s time now for us to make an Easter resolution: From now on, equal love; equal compassion; equal treatment---equality for all people! No exceptions. Not even prisoners.

Then, as “Easter People,” we can all proudly sing with Avery and Marsh:

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning from now on! Ev'ry day's resurrection day, the past is over and gone! Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear, good riddance!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

For the season of Lent, I couldn't write a script like this!

I can’t plan Lenten experiences. But I can tell you about this one…one of the best, ever!

April 11, 2019. I was invited to the law office of John Smietanka in Grandville, Michigan, for a small, private reception for ex-offender James Hicks.

Jimmy was released two weeks ago after serving 35 years. He’s the first to admit that he was guilty of a crime. But, while in prison, he turned his life around and decided to help the authorities. In the ensuing years, he helped state and federal agencies solve at least 8 major cases.

It was 14 years ago when another prisoner introduced me to James Hicks. He explained that the state had offered to reduce Jimmy’s sentence if he would agree to testify in a murder trial. Well, he testified, the Prosecutor got a conviction, and then the state re-thought the whole matter and said, “Nah, I don’t think so.”

That’s when I jumped aboard.

Here’s what you must know about me, and about HFP: We hate injustice, we love the undesirable and unwanted, and we don’t give up.

As you might imagine, Jimmy wasn’t the most popular guy in prison. Inmates hate snitches, and when they found out he was telling on others, he had a target on his back. His testimony also exposed fraud in the prison system, there were federal arrests, and an assistant warden was sent to prison. So, the alleged good guys didn’t like him, either. Over the years, even though the state claimed it was trying to protect him, James was stabbed, beaten, poisoned, and shoved down a stairway. And whodunnit is still debatable, but we know for sure that the culprits weren’t just prisoners.

With a sentence of 50-200 years, a commutation by the Governor was James’ only hope. So, we tried. Once. Twice. Three times. All rejected.

HFP enlisted the aid of renowned criminal defense lawyer and former US Attorney John Smietanka, who finally persuaded Governor Snyder’s legal people that this man deserved freedom. State police officers agreed. FBI agents agreed. The Prosecutor who put him away agreed. And just two weeks ago, it happened!

You didn’t see this on TV, and you won’t read it in the newspaper.

But in a quiet moment, Jimmy threw his arms around me and told everyone standing around him: “If it wasn’t for HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I’d still be in there today.”

Precious memories! Shades of Maurice Carter days!

A Lenten experience. Without a doubt.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Simple problems aren't all that simple behind bars!

Under normal circumstances, it would take just a few minutes to solve problems like this.

1.    I have ants in my bedroom.
2.    I need the copy of a report from our County Prosecutor’s Office.
3.    I have a medical condition that demands that I wear tinted eye-glasses.
4.    I need the latest info on how PTSD affects behavior

The solutions are as easy as

-Calling the exterminator
-Filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act
-Getting a prescription from your ophthalmologist
-Going online and Googling the topic.

Easy, that is, unless you’re behind bars.

I list these four simple examples in response to this question that we hear so often: Just what does HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS do? These are the types of issues our HFP team members tackle 7 days a week, as they seek to provide practical assistance to Michigan prisoners who have very real, everyday needs.

Ann’s cell was filled with ants. She wondered if she was sleeping on an ant’s nest. No one would listen. She complained to a friend. A friend contacted HFP.

Anthony is indigent and is preparing his own defense, working in the prison law library every day. There are some documents critical to his case, BUT, Michigan inmates are not allowed to file FOIA requests. It’s a service that HFP provides.

Gary has a medical condition that demands that he wear tinted glasses. The Michigan Department of Corrections doesn’t believe him, and keeps stonewalling the order for dark lenses. HFP has a noted ophthalmologist on its team of professionals to help in situations like this.

Jan is convinced that studies have provided a lot of new information on how post-traumatic stress disorder affects behavior, which could enhance her appeals. But, she’s not allowed to go on-line. HFP has volunteers willing to find material like this and print copies for prisoners.

We’re here to help, believing that all prisoners deserve to be treated with humanity, kindness and dignity. And when they or their friends or relatives contact the office of HFP, no request is ignored or denied.

In a report to our Board of Directors, a consultant flatly stated: Nobody is doing what you do. Nobody wants to do what you do!

It’s my hope that someday there can be an HFP chapter in every state.

In our office hangs a little framed needle-point Bible verse: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

That’s what we do. It’s what we want to do. It’s what we love to do!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Bullying: Never OK!

“…where is it written that we must act if we do not care, as if we are not moved?
Well, I am moved. I want a kinder and gentler nation.”
President George H.W. Bush

President Bush would be appalled!

A political rally for our current president was held in Grand Rapids last week. The event drew thousands of people, which meant waiting for hours. It so happens, the long line snaked through the heart of the downtown area and past the facilities of Mel Trotter Ministries. Back in the olden days we knew Mel Trotter as a rescue mission. Founded in 1900, it began by helping those with substance abuse. Today it’s an impressive and expansive operation that offers “rescue and restoration for anyone experiencing hunger and homelessness.” Mel Trotter has an impressive history of helping those experiencing substance abuse, as well as battered women and homeless kids. It even offers shelter space for those who identify themselves as transgender.

Anyway, the CEO of Mel Trotter issued a lengthy statement last week critical of the behavior of some people in that line. Dennis Van Kampen claims they

“Said rude things to our staff
Shouted racial slurs at our guests
Refused to get out of the way for women and children trying to get in
 Yelled political slogans at those trying to find safety, hope, refuge and help.”

Said Mr. Van Kampen: “I am heartbroken, angry and ashamed!”

Why do I bring up an issue affecting Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids? Because I’m in the prison ministry business, and those people who think it’s OK to bully men, women and children down on their luck, or of a different color, or different persuasion, or different sexual identity…those are the same people who have low regard for prisoners. We see it every day!

I’m not blaming any public figure or any political party. I’m placing the blame right where it belongs: on you and me!

We’ve let things slide, we’ve looked the other way, and we’ve ignored warning signs for too long thinking that perhaps something good can come from all of this. I’m sorry, bad behavior is never acceptable.

Another former President, Jimmy Carter, said: “I hate to see complacency prevail in our lives when it’s so directly contrary to the teaching of Christ.”

Now the ball is back in our court. It’s up to us to do something about it.

As a church musician, I occasionally like to pull up this hymn from the 50s:

Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.

Yes, Lord.