“Prayin’ for ya, kid.”
Those are the words with which James would end every phone call. He’s gone now, but I can still hear his voice.
I was in my 40s, so it felt good to be called “kid.”
James was a “resident” of a State Hospital in California. He’d been there since the 70s, when, in his early 20s, he committed a crime worthy of a life sentence in a hospital for the criminally insane.
I have no clue what he did to get there. If you know anything about prison ministry, you know not to ask. Sometimes they tell ya, sometimes they don’t.
I never asked and James never told.
I’m the Prison Ministries Representative for a fully-accredited, correspondence university based out of Springfield, Missouri. When I first started working here in 2006, I was told by the former Prisoner Rep that James would be “trouble.” I was told he was a bit of a pest, and that he’d call me at least once a week, many times for nothing specific.
As is typical when working with inmates, I steeled myself to do the typical “personable but not PERSONAL, cordial but not too FRIENDLY.”
This was tough, however, since I pretty much liked James from the first time I talked to him. He would always ask me if we “had any new courses on the horizon.” I believe James has the record for greatest number of courses taken, but he wasn’t content to sit still. He needed to be moving forward at all times. His primary reason for calling, however, was simply to talk to someone “normal.” Someone in the “real world,” away from the madness around him 24 hours a day.
One Google review of the hospital in which James inhabited states, “This place is inhuman. It is like the insane asylums of the 1800s.” Another says, “No one deserves the ‘treatment’ they give the patients here.” An article about the hospital stated it was an amalgam of hospital and prison, with razor wire around high fences, filled with men in uniforms, complete with daily headcounts, referring to the residents as “Mr.”
When he would call, the background noises were other residents screaming obscenities, laughing, making noises of all kinds, or staff barking orders in an attempt to maintain control. It sounded like a zoo behind his voice, and I could tell he grew weary of it at times.
The irritating thing for me is I never got to meet him before he died. He described himself as having hair half-way down his back, pulled into a tight pony-tail, slightly balding on top, with glasses, and tipping the scales around 400 pounds. He was also in a wheelchair, and had all kinds of health issues in the years before his passing.
Now, before I go on, I would like to state I’m not what some would call a “bleeding heart liberal.” I feel the majority of people in prison deserve to be there. That doesn’t mean, though, we have to treat them like animals, even if their crime was horrendous. As a Christian, Jesus didn’t tell me to treat them like animals. In Matthew 25:36, He said, “I was naked, and you gave Me clothes to wear; I was sick, and you tended to My needs; I was in prison, and you comforted Me.”
So that’s what it means to be in prison ministry. You try and comfort them, but not baby them. You treat them like a human being, every step taken in wisdom. You help them if you can, but you never let them take advantage of you.
You proceed, “Wise as serpents, harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).”
Back to James. I’m not excusing his crime, whatever it was. It might’ve been heinous, even horrendous. I hate what his actions did to his victims, and while it was over 40 years ago, I pray for them and their family. I pray they found some kind of solace.
What I do know is his hunger for knowledge astounded me. He couldn’t learn enough. He was very particular about his GPA, and was quite upset at himself for letting it slip from 3.76 to 3.75 right before he passed away.
In 2013 he developed “Progressive Bulbar Palsy,” had a stroke, and also stated his heart problems grew much worse. In the last letter he ever wrote me—and there were many letters over the years—he stated:
“I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me. In our most recent phone conversation, when I mentioned I was disappointed in my exam score, you graciously told me to not be so hard on myself. But I am. The stress here is unbelievable, and then there are my health problems. With the Palsy, I bite my tongue many times a night, and I’m losing my ability to speak. My words are beginning to slur. I get a few hours’ sleep a night, but am constantly exhausted. That test was the hardest I’ve ever taken, and I’ve taken a bunch.”
“Bunch” is an understatement: James completed 119 courses between the years of 1987 and 2014. Unbelievable.
“I was asked in 2000 if I wanted to attend a graduation ceremony,” he continued in his letter, “but with much sadness, I had to decline. I was in tears when I said I would have to take a rain check. I will never get out of here, and will never see the cap and gown I have longed to wear for many, many years. I hoped to get a doctoral degree one day, but with my disease progressing, and other limitations, I know this is a pipe dream.
“Oh, how I wish I could meet you before I die. How I wish I could work with you in helping others grow in the Lord. I wanted to live many more years and do much more work for God, as that is my calling. That is my life.
“I hope you and your family are blessed, all the days of your lives. You will never know how much I love you as a brother and a friend.
“I wish you well, and am crying as I write this. My emotions are overcoming me, and I am so tired from the stress, the disease, the heart issues and not sleeping that I am about to fall out of my chair as I type this.
“It’s time for me to close. I will let you go. Love ya, kid. Prayin’ for ya.
“Serving The Lord Forever,
James – Founder of Coming Home to Jesus Ministries and Veteran’s Group Chaplain”
James, you made a mistake, but you paid for it the rest of your life. You did the best you could with the time you had, choosing to seek God’s help in purifying your soul. You vowed to spend your days growing in the knowledge of the Lord (2nd Peter 2:18), instead of falling deeper into the darkness which once enveloped you, the same darkness which enveloped so many around you.
I miss you, man. I miss your goofy sense of humor. I miss your phone calls, and regret with all my heart the couple of times I silently sighed when I heard your voice on the other end, knowing the call would be at least 10 minutes, and that I thought I was “too busy” to talk to you. I hate myself for that.
I miss your laugh, man. I miss the mutterings under your breath as you talked to me on the phone, trying not to let the lunacy of those around you drive you crazier.
I miss you, brother. See ya soon. Enjoy your “retirement,” and know me and mine will be joining you in Heaven one sunny day.