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A REAL CHURCH
J. Austin Bennett
The holidays at a prison are a mixture of sad longing and a joyous, though fleeting, escape from the mind numbing routine of life on the inside. Almost all the residents, I like that term better than inmates, have families. The men and women who are incarcerated (warehoused) receive a flood of mail, Christmas cards and the like, and also a surge of visits from family and friends. These are the folks who are too busy with their daily lives to make the trip at other times of the year, but they do show up at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then, after an all too short time in the company of wives and children, brothers and sisters, or mothers and grandparents, the visit ends. The relatives, having done their duty, go back to the excitement of Christmas shopping and party preparations and the prisoner goes back to days and nights devoid of hope to await that distant release date. That’s where the longing comes in.
There is another group that is seen inside prison walls only at this time of the year. They are arrayed in glowing robes of satin in a myriad of vibrant colors. They are the choirs of some of the largest churches in the surrounding cities. They come in a flurry every year during the Christmas season and fill the prison chapel to overflowing. Too bad it is not better attended on Sunday mornings. The visiting choirs present to their captive audience (pardon the pun), an abbreviated version of the musical renditions provided to their own congregations. After the service they get to meet the men. Their reactions are interesting to say the least.
The choir members making their first trip to the Bastille are always polite. They stand upright and very still. You would too if you were standing two feet from a lion.
Those who have been here before are a lot more at ease and less reserved with the men.
A number of them get into some very interesting discussions about scripture and daily life on the inside. The visitors learn that there is a cadre of residents, relatively small in number to be sure, that spend about an hour each day in various Bible studies. These men are extremely knowledgeable and unusually articulate regardless of their educational backgrounds. The choir members who venture close enough to engage in conversation quickly sense that these brothers in Christ possess a vastly different attitude and outlook for the future than the others. They don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk, every day. You can’t live in a fishbowl and fool the men who see you in your underwear.
As the visiting church groups file out, if you listen closely (eavesdrop), you’ll hear their amazing revelations. Instead of the demonized, de-humanized sub-species they expected to encounter, . . “These men are real people, just like us.”
As the taillights of our visitors recede in the distance, we know that despite their half hearted proclamation of coming back frequently, we won’t see them again until the same time next year. It was at this moment that one fellow remarked to me, “I can’t wait to get out and attend a real church.”
That phrase has stuck with me for these years since my return to the world. The “church” in the prison camp compound was a fire station that had been converted into a small but serviceable chapel. It was used for all types of meetings. I deign to give the term “services” to some of them. Perhaps this is what that young man meant.
The real action took place daily in the dining hall during the evenings or in a friend’s dorm room. There, small groups, usually no more than five or six men, could be found deeply involved in Bible study. The questions that were raised would leave the Dean of most theological seminaries with a perplexed expression of puzzlement. “ Does God hear everyone’s prayers?” “Are young children who have yet to hear the name Jesus saved?” “Saved from what? What is hell?” “What is this thing called the rapture and when will it occur?” “The Book of Joel depicts an actual physical war on the plain of Megiddo. Revelation tells us that Jesus, upon his return, will enter Jerusalem through the east gate. What is the significance of that statement and which event will occur first?” I think you get the idea. No pabulum here and bring your thinking cap. You will also need to delve into genealogies to answer questions like, “Who was Ahithophel and why did he encourage Absalom in his rebellion against David?” (A great lesson there in our need to forgive others.) If you don’t know the answers, I understand. You weren’t there.
Many folks who regularly attend church pay lip service to the power of prayer and even go through the motions. The men in that prison camp had nothing else on which to depend but prayer. We learned firsthand of its power. The Bureau of Prisons gave one young man, Danny C., upon being diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gherig’s disease, an early release. Danny was down to skin and bones and was sent home to die. The more cynical among us attributed this compassionate act by the B.O.P. to be their way of avoiding the cost of hospice care. ALS is always fatal.
Danny prayed for healing and upon his miraculous return to the peak of health, the government returned him to prison. His story doesn’t end there. Danny also prayed for a family of his own. The Lord introduced him to his then future wife via a chance meeting in the visiting room. She was there to see her brother. Danny was given a brief furlough shortly afterward and they were married. Nine months later, Danny was a father.
Another young man approached me in the hall one evening, shaken and in tears. He had just spoken to his frantic wife. Their six-year-old son had wandered off and was missing. He wanted help - the quick kind! He wasn’t a Christian, but like the several hundred others in that camp, he knew where to find one when in trouble. We sat down on the nearby stoop and joined hands in prayer. Then I told George to go call his home. He was beaming with joy when he came trotting back. It seems that at the very moment we were petitioning the Lord, a stranger several blocks from George’s home chanced upon this lost child and called George’s wife. His son was safe.
One distraught young man interrupted the Monday evening chapel service to inform us that his nephew, a little boy of eight, had been hit in the head by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. The tyke was without brain function and on a respirator. The doctors were going to pull the plug the next morning. We immediately joined in a prayer circle and referred the case to the Great Physician. Our friend’s brother telephoned a couple of days later with the news. When they disconnected the respirator the boy continued to breathe on his own. The next afternoon, the little guy walked out of the hospital, apparently fully recovered. The staff at the hospital was amazed. They had never seen anything like it. We just smiled. We knew a better doctor, and Jesus still makes house calls.
Do you tithe? (You can take the 5th on this one). The suggestion was made by one of the Christian brothers that we should, but with incomes ranging from $5.40 to a whopping $80.00 per month, it hardly seemed worthwhile to anyone on the outside. We were willing. After some thought, we found the answer. Terre Haute is a way station for prisoners in transit. They stay for anywhere from seven to thirty days and, without commissary privileges and no funds in an inmate account, they have none of the few accouterments that help make life bearable. These men are unable to buy cokes, candy or a can of chicken and a package of soup for a late night snack. Also, since they will be taken away soon to a distant facility, it is obvious they cannot repay anyone.
It began with seven men pledging 10% of their income each month to provide these strangers with some of those little things we all take for granted. The group quickly swelled to over a dozen as word spread throughout the camp. We then encountered a storage problem. We accumulated more cases of Coke, potato chips, candy bars, etc. than we could fit into our small lockers. One of the staff, which shall go unnamed, quietly provided us with a large locker to store everything. You see, it’s a violation of the Bureau of Prison rules for one inmate to give anything to another. That’s a rule that screamed to be broken.
The Christians at Terre Haute supplied every inmate in transit without regard to race or faith, or for that matter, the lack of it. I still have the small cross, fashioned of hardened paper and hung on a braided string, that one of these men gave me to show his appreciation. I know he spent many hours creating it and it is more valuable to me than any solid gold icon.
The brothers in Christ at the prison camp in Terre Haute, Indiana shared a common bond that crossed all racial, social and economic lines. We worked together, played together, sometimes argued with each other, but always prayed together. If bad news arrived from home, we comforted each other. We were indeed a band of brothers.
The night before my release was one of tearful goodbyes to men I knew I would likely never see again on this side of the river. I also eagerly anticipated attending the next
Sunday’s services in the church in which I was baptized. It is a large colonial style
building, complete with a Christian school and day care center. The sanctuary is huge, comfortably accommodating over a thousand parishioners at each of the three Sunday services. The clergy consists of four full time ministers and they preach a strong Biblical message. This church also sends missionaries to some very distant parts of the globe.
It was here that I was offered a good paying job by one of the lay leaders in his business, a payday loan and check cashing company. I gratefully accepted and was working the next day. My new boss and friend (or so I thought at the time) had a very profitable operation. I quickly cleaned up the bulk of his recent past due accounts and saved him from a major loss on a fraudulent check. When Fred became aware of my legal skills, he developed a delightful use for them. His plan was to seize the automobiles of all the working people who had old overdue accounts. These individuals had, at one time, taken out a payday loan. Unable to repay it immediately, they simply rolled it over every two weeks at a mere 782% annual interest. Of course, at some point, they defaulted and Fred obtained a judgment against them. This left these folks, many of whom had already paid $500 to $1500 on a one hundred dollar loan (That’s right. It’s not a misprint!) a $549 balance due. My employer wanted to take their cars and sell them. Then, by charging phony attorney fees and storage costs, create a deficiency judgment so that he could do it again and again, ad infinitum. Usury at this level would make John Gotti and Lucky Luciano blush with embarrassment. I quit!
I also could have gone to work for a major car dealer who was a member and, like Fred, a substantial supporter of this church. I had the good sense to ask a few questions before I leaped again. It seems that this car dealer is known in the local auto industry as “the rollback king”, as in odometers.
What is disillusioning about this is that the men who run this church are aware of these activities. They are also aware of the significant contributions these men make to that church, and not only turn a blind eye but actively support these businessmen with graphics design, printing and other assistance.
A newspaper ad attracted me to another church on the north side of Indianapolis. They were hosting an ongoing study of the Book of Revelation. If my home church was big, this one was gigantic. It is a gothic structure of immense proportions and can claim as its former Pastor, the only man ever elected to serve four terms as the Mayor of Indianapolis. Opulent beyond measure, this is without doubt the most affluent church in the city. The congregation arriving in their BMW’s, Mercedes and an occasional Rolls Royce did nothing to dispel that image.
The study of Revelation took place after the Sunday morning services (all three of them). I was confused when it became evident that the study taught by one their several Pastors was examining the Bible to determine if it was truthful. The yardstick used to gauge the veracity of God’s word was a recently published book authored by a Dr. Metzger. I never went back!
That brother’s words still ring in my ears as he looked forward to attending a real church. As much as I prize my freedom, I remember that day and fondly recall that, at one time in my life, I did attend a very real church.
J. Austin Bennett Copyright © 2006 Use with credit.
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