A few days ago I was given the name and address of a young man who was recently incarcerated. I had heard of his arrest and knew he would go to prison. I did not know that I would be writing to him to encourage him and assure him this series of events are not the end, they are the beginning.
A few bad choices and a wife turns away in shame, a child is caught in the middle of a mess without being aware of it, and a young man with a promising career is forever marked as a felon.
This is not my first communication with an inmate. For about 3 1/2 years, every Friday night I led a small group at the city jail in Denton, Texas. I found great satisfaction in singing with, praying with, and studying God’s word with those inmates. I met some scoundrels for sure but also met some good men who had briefly run off the track. I introduced some of them to Jesus and they got to know Him well.
They were not unlike my friend Charlie. Charlie was a childhood friend who made some poor choices, kept company with the wrong crowd, and in 1969 received a very long prison sentence. I have written to and prayed for Charlie for the long decades of his incarceration. I was able to visit him several times, the last time about 4 years ago. His prison cell and my home were about 1200 miles apart.
Charlie was a brother in the Lord, and like me, he stumbled along but he was a believer. I did what I could to encourage him. I wrote letters to governors in two states, to heads of departments of corrections in two states, and to a U.S. Senator. My attempts went unrewarded, Charlie never had a parole hearing.
The last 5 to 7 years only I and an Episcopal priest cared enough about Charlie to keep writing, keep caring, keep hoping for the best. My last two letters had gone unanswered and I became concerned. I knew he was in failing health and not receiving proper care. I wrote another letter which I mailed a few days ago. Today when I came home my wife handed me the envelope I had mailed and across the envelope was scrawled the word “deceased“.
I was surprised by the grief, sadness, and anger that gripped my soul as I read that word. Grief because I didn’t get to say good-bye, sadness because his obituary listed no family, (and fittingly so, they had long ago abandoned him), and anger because for every Charlie there are tens of thousands who are no more than human garbage to most everyone.
Not one person from the church where Charlie and his brothers attended Sunday school, and not one person from the church that baptized Charlie cared enough to visit, send a post card, or show any hint of compassion when he was imprisoned less than 20 miles from them for decades. His family, including his daughter, stopped writing long ago.
I will ever be thankful for a lone priest who loved prisoners enough to visit often, wrote volumes of letters on Charlie’s behalf, and prayed for Charlie every day for many, many years according to his testimony to me. Charlie was buried in the cemetery at the church where the priest serves the members and loves the unlovely inside. I wish him God’s best blessings for loving my friend. Perhaps he had read as I have these following passages.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
My word to those who read these words is this. If you claim Jesus as Lord you had best get busy loving the down and out and taking Jesus’ words seriously.
Who is lonely and afraid tonight? Who is convinced no one cares? Who is waiting for your letter or your visit?
Goodbye Charlie, see you in heaven.