The RACE POOL
(or. . . How We Got the Stamps)
J. Austin Bennett
This is the story of a group of inmates at a Federal Prison Camp, the FPC Terre Haute, who were a rather peculiar group with a dream. They were peculiar because they were Christians. Not the “Oh yeah, I’m a Christian. I go to church.” These were Bible totin’, scripture quotin’ hardcore believers in the redemptive, restorative and healing powers of Jesus the King with plenty of personal evidence to back it up. Evidence like the remarkable healing of a brain dead child who had been shot in the head during a drive-by and the restoration to peak physical condition of a Christian brother who was down to 130 pounds and dying of ALS, a debilitating disease that anyone will tell you is always fatal.
These guys were the real deal and, if that isn’t unusual enough, their dream was downright strange. It wasn’t the common prayer of every prisoner, “Lord, please release me from this place.” . . . . They wanted stamps! That’s right, postage stamps.
It began with a viewing in the chapel of the only videotape we had at that time. Then someone suggested, I don’t remember who it was, that if we could obtain from some of the many television ministries some of their video material, it would be a powerful way to reach many men in the camp and teach God’s word. What most folks don’t realize is that many men in our prison systems cannot read. Approximately forty percent of them struggle to pass the GED classes that they are compelled to attend, so the idea of televised material is not a frivolous luxury but a solution to a very real problem. We were training an army for the Lord and we needed those training films.
The job of constructing the letter to these ministries fell to me and after a couple of days I presented it to the other brothers for their input. But there was an obstacle in our path, a seemingly insurmountable one. I had eleven postage stamps and, between them, the other five men had only eight more. That’s nineteen and we had a list of sixty to send.
Let me explain something to all you good folks who would simply go to the Post Office and buy some more stamps. Those stamps, at the time cost 33 cents each, a book for $6.60. Prisoners earn, in many cases, $5.40 a month out of which they must purchase from the prison commissary at normal retail prices such luxury items as coffee and cokes, toothpaste, toilet paper, soap and deodorant (I hope they all buy these last two). Most people have no understanding of the level of deprivation that prisoners endure. Now, do the math. At $5.40 a month income and $6.60 per book, there would be no stamps.
Our solution was to form a prayer circle during our free time and ask the Lord to supply our need. We were not simply mouthing words to the wind. We had been here before and knew He not only heard us, but also would respond quickly. The HOW is when it really gets weird.
( 1 )
The next day, a Saturday, I was walking down the corridor on the way to my dorm room and thought I heard a voice softly saying, “Get in the race pool”. I shrugged and continued walking, thinking I had heard someone in the distance speaking to somebody else. Then, “Get in the Race Pool!” resounded in my head. There was no mistaking that I was the intended recipient. I knew that NASCAR ran its races on Saturdays but did not know anything about this race pool or who to see. I found out that there was a pool run by one of the inmates, not a Christian by the way, which amounted to a random drawing in which each participant owned one driver. If that driver won the race, the owner would receive the total prize. It cost ˝ book of stamps to enter and the payoff was 21 &1/2 books. I had just enough stamps to pay the entry with one stamp left over.
The race was about to start so I ran to my room, fetched my last postage stamps and handed them to Vic who ran the pool. He looked at me with a quizzical expression and said, “I didn’t know you were a racing fan.” I didn’t reply. It wouldn’t have made sense to Vic. I’m not sure it did to me either at the time. Vic told me to draw but since I didn’t know what he meant, he drew a driver for me. I had Terry Labonte. His brother Bobby was one of the top guns in NASCAR, but Terry had never won. He was competent but what you would call a journeyman, like the guy they bring in to pitch the last four innings when the game is out of reach.
After spending the afternoon at the library and in the recreation yard, I walked into the main TV room to see Terry Labonte surge to the lead with two laps to go, enroute to his first, and to this date only, NASCAR victory. As Vic handed me the 21-˝ books of stamps he asked, “What’s the deal? You’ve never played the race pool and win the only time out. What’s going on?” He was completely mystified.
“ You wouldn’t understand,” I replied. “Just be assured these stamps will be used well.”
As shocked as Vic was, I was even more startled by the reaction of my brothers in Christ. When I deposited the pile of stamps on the table and told them the story, Ricky and Lester looked at each other in disbelief and then at me in reproach. “You gambled?!?”
It was as if I had renounced Jesus and joined up with the Prince of Darkness. I was hurt. I patiently explained again about the voice I had heard but even these men who had personally witnessed incredible miracles were skeptical. It took a week of reading about the casting of lots by the Priests of God in ancient Israel, and I’m sure some serious rationalizing on their part, before they would mail the letters.
I wish I could tell you that we received a mountain of video material and that this story had a happy ending. Sadly, it didn’t.
The letter we sent described our impoverished circumstances and, bearing the return address of a Federal Prison Camp, there could be no doubt of the veracity of that statement. We received from sixty of the most prominent televangelists in America a total of five tapes; three from “The King Is Coming”, and one each from T.D Jakes and Dr. Charles Stanley with their assurances that they would send more upon request. Seven others replied with letters explaining that their material was for sale and demanded a fairly substantial “donation”.
( 2 )
They were all thoughtful enough to include a price list of the “love gifts” they sought and some even said they would pray for us. The other fifty apparently felt it wasn’t worth their time to reply. Ironically, we continued to receive requests for money from some of them for many months.
I was disillusioned by the response of these men who preached a powerful and insightful message on the airwaves. In the prison vernacular, “Money talks and bullshit walks.”
There are lessons to be learned here. The callous attitude of these TV preachers, shocking as it is, really isn’t so baffling. I’m sure that they rationalize their actions in their own minds as they measure the “success” of their ministry by their bank balances. Thank God, Jesus didn’t use the same standard of measurement. He told the woman at the well that He had “living water” free for the asking. He also promised that there would be a day of accounting.
The best lesson of all is the one learned by those wonderful, stalwart brothers Ricky and Lester and myself. At first, when they accepted that I really had heard a spoken voice, they attributed it to the devil. Lest anyone entertain the suspicion that this was a product of my own mind, the fact is that while I knew at the time there was gambling going on in the camp, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a race pool nor any knowledge of how it worked. As appalled, as Ricky and Lester were that the Lord used the race pool to provide the stamps, they finally realized that Satan would not contribute arms to God’s arsenal.
A prominent atheist once pronounced in Life magazine that we created God in our own image. There is a lot of truth in that. Even believers attempt to fit God into a mold of our making. The fact is that He does things pretty much as He pleases and generally doesn’t consult us for our opinion. He does work in mysterious ways. Isn’t it wonderful!