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Living The Life Of A Prison Chaplain
By Harold F. Green
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Harold F. Green
All rights reserved.
A SALUTE TO A GREAT MAN
His name was Gene. And he was a volunteer in the prison where I served. I readily recall the first time I ever saw him. He was one of several concerned men from a nearby town a hundred miles west of our prison town of Susanville, who had applied for acceptance as a volunteer chaplain in our institution of confinement (and hopefully, rehabilitation).
As he gave his testimony, it seemed to our staff of employees that perhaps he was less than ideal for our program. First, he was a motorcycle man and dressed accordingly. He even had a large beard that went well with his leather jacket. And even though I didn't know at the time, he couldn't read either. That fact amazed me because he had been a long distance big-rig truck driver before he retired and began to give his testimony of his salvation experience. I often wondered how he could drive across the United States and not be able to read. After I got to know him I asked about that. He said that he would take his road map and match the words with the signs on the highway until he reached his destination. That still amazes me.
In fact, that was the beginning of his road of faith. Years before, he was down in Kansas in jail because he had made a wrong turn and that led to a personal confrontation with a State Trooper that led to a negative result that required his time before the Judge, which led to his brief incarceration. However, that time in jail resulted in his doing a lot of thinking about his life and the poor choices that brought him to his present state in life.
It was then that he turned his life over to the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour. This followed by the Lord leading him into the prison ministry and that brought him to our prison. Later, after a few years, I retired from that prison and he then became associated with the prison nearby where his ministry was greatly expanded under the leadership of the kindly and devoted chaplain of that prison. He grew spiritually and intellectually and in many other ways as well. When I last saw him he was telling me how he had learned to read with the help of his wife.
The Chaplain at the new prison welcomed his ministry. Soon he was driving that 100 mile mountain trip daily. And when the snows made it impossible he came when he could, which was more frequently than any of the other volunteers.
It was about that time that I was invited to become Chaplain at one of the several prisons in Susanville. So I left Florida and flew to Reno where I caught a ride to Susanville and reported in at the prison where Gene was not the lead volunteer, which I did not know. When I entered the prison I was delighted to see him. It had been some years since I had seen Gene. He was "a sight for sore eyes," as they say. It was a joyous meeting and greeting! I was pleased to work with him again. Soon I learned that he would be the one who would show me around, inform of the program and help me get settled in my office, introduce me to the inmate clerks, etc. He and I spent a lot of time together, which pleased me. Soon I was meeting inmates that I had known in other prisons over the years. In no time my old Chaplain friend, Dr. Jack, was greeting me and telling me of the types of programs he had underway and what my duties were and all the things I needed to know. All in all, it was a happy time for us all.
After about 3 or 4 months I began to have problems that I had to take a medical leave and was soon gone.
It was a sad time when I told Brother Gene good-bye. He and I both wept at my departure. After that time I would write and his wife would answer my letters since he was still working on his reading. I had known him for eleven years when I received a call from the prison. It seems that he had been in a bad wreck while going over the mountain road to his work at the prison when a deer suddenly ran in front of his motorcycle. The ensuing crash killed the deer and my dear friend, Gene instantly. I was heart-broken when I got the news. Now I begin to recall fond memories of that day when I saw him at High Desert State Prison the very first time. That tall, bearded stranger in motorcycle leathers would be etched in my memory bank for the rest of my life. He was the man who had little to offer, but he offered it all to God. And that is why I often refer to him as the truly great man. Now in heaven, he is surely greeting hopeless inmates who will always be free in Christ because of the man with the big beard and an even bigger heart. Surely he is no longer clad in motorcycle leathers but in robes of righteousness.
May his tribe continue to increase until Jesus comes again!
An Englishman by the name of Edson once wrote a book entitled, "Going Back to Hell." It was strangely enough about the early American West. There was, it seems, a town named "Hell." It was a place where evil of all sorts reigned supreme. A lone Texas Ranger, according to the author, was ordered by his commanding officer to go there and clean up the crime. He did, after many traditional gun fights. Then he returned to his station and resumed his regular duties.
After a period of time had passed, his commander called him in to tell him that that primitive and violent city had returned to its old ways of murder and mayhem and ordered him to "go back to Hell" and clean it up again.
The title came to mind as I boarded a plane to return to my own "Hell." It had been several years since I had retired and returned to my home in Florida. As I flew west I was giving prayerful thought about being asked to return to that small northern California town where I had served for a decade as the Prison Chaplain of a notorious prison. For many, this prison had been "Hell" for thousands of inmates, all of whom were longing to get out; and here I was going back. As the plane's engines roared on, my mind began to fill with excitement, not for fear, but joy, as I pondered the possibilities of seeing God's sweet, Holy Spirit change the lives of countless men who languished in the Valley of Hopelessness. I began to really get excited and my soul surged with hope for those who were hopeless.
As we landed at the airport in Reno, snow was falling heavily and fast. I was walking with a walking cane because years before in my youth I was injured in a rodeo event. I was working a ranch in Southern Idaho at the time. When all the other cowboys entered as contestants I went along. I had ridden the rough horses before and felt confident, but in that confidence I was a trifle careless and was injured. The doctor said it would heal, and it did. But he went on to say that as I grew older, problems would arise, and they did. So now, I walked with a cane. As I waited for my ride I leaned too heavily on my cane and it broke, so when my ride finally came, I hobbled to the car—a very small one—and got in. The driver was not too pleased with the heavy snow falling and was even less pleased when I told him to stop at the baggage station to collect my small dog. So the hundred miles in heavy snow with a snow covered dog in my lap proved to be less than pleasant. Upon arriving, I found the place where I was to stay was not quite ready, so I went to a motel in Susanville and checked in. I was very pleased that my chaplain friend had made this possible in case I needed. And I did need it that night.
The next night I stayed in it again. The next day I went to the prison where I was assigned and checked in to go on duty.
It was so good to be back in prison again. That was a rare statement heard in such an atmosphere. But I loved prison work and was happy to be back in the work that I loved so much.
Soon I was back in my chaplain work. I preached too many men in their larger and lovely chapel that first Sunday where there was an excellent response. I was truly grateful for my chaplain friend who had made all of this possible.
The snow storm continued for days as I finally moved into a mobile home near the prison gate and trudged through the heavy snow drifts to the prison daily and then walked to the various yards visiting the inmates. It was then that temperature fell to 8° below zero. Then the temperature rose and the snow and ice began to melt. Now I was walking through very cold water. I had only my dress shoes and my feet were not only cold but very wet. Then there was an avalanche that further complicated everything. That did happen outside the prison, but it affected things inside. Then an earthquake came. Each night when my dog and I snuggled down I wondered what would happen next. However, each night I would thank God for the joy to be back in prison, or as some of the inmates often would say, "back in Hell."
It was then that the heavy snow on the roof of the mobile home sagged and water flowed inside, soaking all of my clothes. I could have been depressed, but I wasn't because I was in the work I loved so much. I was a man with hope in my heart, and very grateful to God for my chaplain friend who had been very instrumental in my being back in the work that I loved.
One night I returned to my mobile home and my small dog, and had a light supper before going to bed. As I undressed I was shocked to see that my feet were turning black. This was a cause for concern, so the next day I went to the prison doctor. His concern was greater than mine. Since I was in the Veteran's program back in Florida, my home state, it seemed prudent that I return home for treatment. That seemed prudent so after three months as a chaplain in prison, I prepared to do that. The next morning I put my dog and clothes in the car which I had just bought and returned to the V.A. in Florida.
The trip home was long and lonely and sad. I had followed the Lord's leadership in traveling to California to minister to prisoners in Hell and now I had a health Hell of my own. I truly felt the Lord's leadership going and in coming.
As I ponder this most important part of my life, I don't understand the entire experience. Lately, I have great joy in knowing that I followed my dear Lord's leadership.
If I could share my testimony with my inmate congregation, it would be always following the Lord's leadership—wherever and whenever He leads.
Perhaps that is the real lesson. We don't have to understand; we just have to obey Him and always follow His leadership.
THE LANGUAGE WE SPEAK
It all happened at a large prison in the Northern California desert at Susanville, California in the far north of that great state.
The prison had an arts program for the education and the entertainment for the inmate population. This was possible because of a concerned warden who worked hard to have a program-oriented concept to meet the needs of these thousands of inmates in the effort to modify their conduct.
One night we had a team of beautiful women from Russia present a musical program. As a student of the Russian language, I was called upon to M.C. the program. I had no idea what to say as I started talking to them in French, since I had read that the higher class tended to speak French, marking their class standing. And since they were from the opera house in Moscow, I assumed they would understand, but soon I realized that was not the case. It was soon obvious to all that I must use English or Russian. In short, they were not of the class that I expected.
I learned in short order that night that the language that we speak reveals our true identity. Many Christians often reveal their true identity by the language we speak.
We often tell people about what our Christian experience means to us, all the while not being able to speak from our hearts. And the world of the prison inmate makes them detect the insincerity of our own heart.
They want to hear of our own experience of Grace in our lives. They want the real thing. We need to speak from our hearts in love to a lost and dying world.
I received a letter recently from an inmate, now released, who is out in the free, living a productive life for Jesus. He is working with regular income and living the Christian life, and is active in his local church where he is happy in the Lord. In his letter he stated that his life began when I spoke with him about Jesus. He said no one had ever told him about Jesus, as if he knew Him personally. He went on to say that even though I was a bit harsh in my talk about his life, God became real to his life as I talked of his sinfulness and God's love. It was years ago the Catholic Chaplain came to talk with me about preaching to his chapel crowd. He said I want to have your preach to my people in your "hell fire" sermons and do for my men what you do for yours. They must know of God's love, but they must also know of Hell fire and damnation. So for three months I preached to his men and God sent all of us a real spiritual awakening. From that day on, we enjoyed a Christian fraternity that blessed us all.
People must hear of the awfulness of sin and the joy of God's grace in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. They must hear the good and bad so they can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and His power to save.
We live in a real world—a world of sin and evil—and of God's love and mercy.
From my brief experience with the Russian opera singers I learned that the language we speak tells who we are and what we believe. It is the language of the Bible and the language of God's love and mercy.
The language we speak tells who we are and what we are as well as to the reality of our commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ.
"A NEW APPROACH"
My world of reading began when I was quite small, maybe before I started school. But I do remember who taught me, my mother, and what I read, The Jacksonville Journal. It was the evening paper in Jacksonville, Florida. A neighbor would often bring it by to us since he worked in town.
I first looked at the pictures and tried to coordinate the words with the pictures. About that time I recall mother reading the Bible to we three children. In the winter time she often had all of us sit before the old fireplace as she read us Bible stories from a large book that contained pictures that went with each story.
In fact, I recall with great fondness those days when we sat before a comfortable fire in the old fireplace as Mother read stories that once me I became of age would change my life forever, and, forever for the good.
She also read stories from children's books. My favorite was 'The Ugly Duckling'. This was a story about a very ugly little duckling who suffered greatly at the disgracing of his peers only to turn into a beautiful swan upon reaching maturity. This engendered a thrilling thought of expectation for my life and as a result, life, for me, has always been a thrilling adventure filled life with a great sense of expectations.
Since knowledge is like money, it must circulate, if it is to have value. This fact alone was learned at my Mother's knee when I was yet a small child. And it has motivated most of my reading habits down through the years.
Once Professor Thomas Davidson of another generation wrote, "Associate with the noblest people you can find, but always read the best books ..."
The best book of course, is the Bible. The Bible is the one book that must be—read and re-read for a life time. And, even then, it is never exhausted. It is that never ending story which is forever fresh as the morning dew. As of this date I have read the Bible from cover to cover fifty times. It has been a fountain of strength and knowledge for me.
As a prison chaplain I constantly seek better ways to aid the inmates in their struggle for every day survival and their efforts to climb out of that deep hole of self-pity. I do this through preaching, counseling, prayer and various facets of educational options. However recently it has occurred to me that I must continue to search for, and expand my vision to prepare these men to survive long after our association has ended. And now I feel that if I can engender a sincere love for reading, this noble goal can be greatly enhanced.
Therefore, I have engaged the services of a retired College professor, who is also a Christian minister, to conduct classes on learning to read, as well as improving their reading skills.
Since I was in my thirty second time reading through the Bible in both Spanish and in English I constantly challenge the men to read it through. Then, long after our association has been terminated the habit of reading will remain. I incessantly refer to great books, great stories, and great philosophical thoughts as I seek to guide their minds to the Cross. In doing so, it is my prayer that many should come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Books are wonderful! The Book is more wonderful! The Psalmist once wrote, "The Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee."
Excerpted from PRISON STORIES by Harold F. Green. Copyright © 2013 Harold F. Green. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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