Showing posts from December, 2021

He ain't heavy, Mister!

I still remember seeing a drawing in a magazine when I was a little boy. I’m sure it was a reprint, but the message stuck with me. It was a drawing of a little boy carrying a still younger lad on his back. The caption was: He ain’t heavy, Mister, he’s my brother.   That drawing and that phrase made history. Fr. Edward Flanagan of Boy’s Town spotted it in a magazine in 1941, and obtained permission to use it for promotional purposes. It also became a popular song.   As I’m reviewing the astonishing year-end figures of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, that phrase comes to mind.   We hear and read about prisoners fighting, killing each other, attacking each other, raping each other. I’m not making light of it, or denying that it happens. But there’s another very decent code that I have seen behind bars, actually reflected in this beautiful quote.   I first discovered it in 2003 when my friend Maurice Carter experienced a severe Hepatitis C episode in prison. His bunkie, Jerry Talison, was

Desmond Tutu: 1931 - 2021

  All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.   Desmond Tutu   This quote is seen by everyone who walks into the HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS office. We chose to have this powerful statement printed on the back wall for all to see as they enter our building.   Today all of us at HFP pay tribute to Archbishop Tutu. He died peacefully on December 26, 2021, in a care center in Cape Town. He was 90. I was still a practicing journalist when he came under the limelight during the 1980s apartheid movement in South Africa. His bold stance on these matters of racism and his on-going battle for the rights of the oppressed brought him many accolades. He was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Sydney Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.   What better way to honor this hero than to share his own words, uttered in his over four decades of public life?   Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different pr

HFP Holiday Series, #4, Remembering “the little guy” on Christmas Day

Comedian Flip Wilson used to have a line, when caught doing something wrong: “The devil made me do it!"   I have the flip side of that, as I reflect on 85 years of living. “Jesus of Nazareth, born on this day some 2,000 years ago, led me to do it!” I’m talking about sticking up for the “little guy.”   My mind is wandering back to Christmas morning, 1953. And I’ll get to that in a minute.   But first, some examples of how I imperfectly did my best to help the “little guy."   As a young News Director in a conservative community, I did my best to give fair coverage to unpopular groups and organizations, such as labor unions and certain political parties.   Years later, when I founded a male chorus called HIS MEN, I avoided concert halls and steered the group into jails and prisons, nursing homes and orphanages.   Years later, I met a Black man who claimed wrongful conviction, and spent the next decade proving to the world that he was right.   OK, now let’s go back

HFP Holiday Series, #3, Bah, Humbug!

Louis Cassels was one of my favorite news writers. A Washington Correspondent for UPI for many years, he later became its national religion writer. In 1959 he wrote a parable for UPI that will last forever. I was News Director of WJBL in Holland when I first tore that copy off our newsroom teletype machine and aired it. For the next 25 years my listeners, first in Holland and then in Grand Haven, heard me read this parable at Christmas time. Today, as the founder of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, I share this beautiful story on Christmas Eve as my gift to you.   Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.   “I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not

HFP Holiday Series, #2, Doing “Jesus Work!”

I was often asked, “Is your radio station a Christian station?”   I knew where these people were coming from. They were hoping that I was running a radio station that broadcasts religious programming day and night, doing its best to save souls.   And I would discreetly reply, “WGHN is not a religious station, but it is a Christian station.   I was the owner and General Manager of the only radio station serving Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg back in the 60s and 70s. People who were aware of my broadcast experience knew that I had previously worked at two religious radio stations. As the new owner and manager of our community’s only radio station, there was no way I was going to force my religious beliefs on its listeners.   I meant it when I said ours was a Christian radio station. It was Christ-like to treat employees with decency, pay them fair wages, and provide benefits. Also, a good Christian obviously does business with integrity. Furthermore, a good Christian is

HFP Holiday Series, #1, Jesus is the reason

I t was Al Hoksbergen’s first sermon in Ferrysburg Community Church.   This well-known theologian and progressive thinker in the Christian Reformed Church of North America had spent most of his career in ministries that were near campuses of 2 major Michigan universities. He was well-known and highly regarded in Reformed circles.   How did he end up in a small-town church? Well, he wanted to retire in our community. In expressing a willingness to accept a call to become our pastor, he thought it best that we experience him on the pulpit first. And so, as a guest pastor, he came to speak. And instead of giving us a heady lecture, full of scriptural truths and important doctrines, he nodded toward a gnarly old cross that our aesthetics committee had placed on the stage. Al simply stated, “That is what I preach.”   Another even more famous Calvinist theologian named Karl Barth was at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago during a lecture tour in 1962. In a

It ain’t a very Merry Christmas for David!

My friend David was one of the orneriest prisoners I’ve ever met.   Maybe it was because his ex-wife ruined his life by accusing him of molesting their babies, in a “get-even” divorce dispute.   Maybe it was because he was convicted of these uncommitted sex crimes in a kangaroo court setting.   Maybe it was because he served every day of his 18-year sentence because he refused to admit guilt, and refused to get treatment for a non-existent problem.   Nevertheless, all this unfairness resonated with me over the years and I stuck with him. I visited him in prison. I was at his side for a contentious meeting with the Parole Board. We still stay in touch. Friends are friends through thick and thin.   David and I chatted this week, and he’s still ornery.   Maybe it’s because undercover cops who, seeing his name on the sex offender registry, keep treating him as a predator and won’t leave him alone.   Maybe it’s because he got evicted from his little camper trailer in the woods

Eyewitness testimony? Don’t trust it!

There’s a powerful story in the New York Times today. It’s not about terrible tornadoes, it’s not about January 6’s about eyewitness inaccuracy. And it’s a very important read.   Writers Corina Knoll, Karen Zraick and Alexandra Alter tell this sad story in-depth. In 1981, Anthony Broadwater was wrongly convicted of raping Alice Sebold, who is now a best-selling author. He served his full sentence. Today’s story explains how he was cleared, after decades of living in the shadow of a crime he didn’t commit.   It’ll remind you of two speakers we had in our HFP lecture series, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, who co-authored the best seller Picking Cotton. Our audience was captivated by Jennifer’s riveting account of being raped as a college student, and sending Ronald Cotton to prison as the rapist whom she incorrectly identified.   These two stories raise an incredibly important issue: Eyewitness error is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwi

What's in the brown paper bag?

I have often shared this story during the holidays. In a year that has been so difficult, in so many ways, this poignant letter seems more important than ever. I feel certain that the author, Luis Ramirez, would be honored to have us pass along what he has written, but I can't ask him.   He's dead.   This message came to me from Death Row in Texas. We hear a lot of negative descriptions of prisoners. As the Founder of HFP, though, I think it's important for all of us to be reminded that prisoners are people, they have feelings and emotions, and, in our opinion, they matter!   Anyway, here’s my gift to you today...a story from the late Luiz Ramirez:  (In all caps, just the way he sent it)   I CAME HERE IN MAY OF 1999...A TSUNAMI OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS WERE GOING THROUGH MY MIND.   I REMEMBER THE ONLY THINGS IN THE CELL WERE A MATTRESS, PILLOW, A COUPLE SHEETS, A PILLOW CASE, A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER AND A BLANKET.   I REMEMBER SITTING THERE, UTTERLY LOST.   THE FIRST

Jake Terpstra, 1927 - 2021. What a fighter!

I have fought the good fight!  If Jake Terpstra didn’t say that when he strolled through the pearly gates last week, I’ll bet St. Peter said it for him!   Matt’s short email message to me: “We lost Jake.”   That really hit me hard. He was referring to the death of Jacob Terpstra of Grand Rapids, a fighter and crusader for all that is right and just until the very day he stopped breathing. He was 94.   In earlier life, Jake Terpstra’s focus was on the welfare of kids. Holding an MSW, he worked for many years for the state, and then for the feds. On the national level, he was particularly focused on humanizing detention programs for children. He was the author of a book that can still be purchased, BECAUSE KIDS ARE WORTH IT.   In later life, detention at all levels was of concern to him. That’s when he and I connected.   He used to say, “No one does more for Michigan prisoners than Doug Tjapkes!” In all fairness, he wasn’t referring to me...he meant HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS. Back

Black prisoners facing a White world

When in prison, chances are your roommate will be Black. But, chances are, the warden, the chaplain, your social worker and your health-care professional will be White.   I really never gave much thought to the plight of a Black person in our criminal justice system until I met Maurice Carter. As I began to try to help my wrongly convicted friend, I discovered just how “white” his world was.   Maurice was charged and prosecuted by a white prosecutor. He was convicted by an all-white jury. He was tried and sentenced by a white judge. Yes, there were some Black cops involved in the investigation and actual arrest, but I’m convinced at least some were dirty. His Parole Board review was conducted by a white PB chairman. He was questioned in the public hearing by a white Assistant Attorney General. And, in the end, his sentence was commuted by a white Governor who dragged her heels for a year.   Our readers know I’ve grumbled a lot about this. While the population of African Americ