California Here I Come

I walked through the twin, imposing iron gates and paused at the massive steel doors where I punched a red button. A loud buzz sounded, the doors opened and I entered. Then I heard those doors crash loudly behind me. I was was momentarily taken aback. It was at that point that I thought to my self, “How on God’s green earth did I wind up in San Quentin Prison ?”

That is a question I asked myself then and it is one which, to this day, gives me great pause. The short answer is God but to see how the Almighty brought this into fruition, when we trace the steps that take us anywhere… to where we have been and to where we are going it is truly amazing… grace.

My commitment to campus ministry at SUNY Albany was, initially, for those two years. But two years became three and we had to ask ourselves how much longer we should ask people to honor their TWO year commitment in supporting us on this journey.

This was early in 1986. Ten years earlier a close friend had told me that a wise old pastor shared with him, before he embarked on his journey to seminary, to “Stay until you get what you’re after. I stayed ten years.” I have followed that advice throughout my pilgrimage since my friend shared it with me. That advice was instrumental in leading us to leave seminary in Ft. Worth when I was ten hours shy of receiving my Master of Divinity. It seemed that God was nudging us toward returning home to Alabama. We did that after the spring semester in June of 1980 when we returned to our native state. That is when we took the call to Shady Grove Baptist Church that was mentioned in my last blog, “New York, New York.”

The lingering question was… Why ?

That question was answered when my father was diagnosed with a number of issues relating to his heart immediately after we accepted the call to Shady Grove. He had a leak in his aortic valve, an aneurism and four blocked arteries. He, obviously, was going to need extensive surgery and that took place in September of 1980.

Long story short is, he died from complications of all of this on April 2,1982 after another heart surgery. Had we not returned to Alabama we would not have spent his last 22 months with him. I thank God for that time. And I thank God that she did “nudge” us to go against the grain of conventional “wisdom” and urge us to take that step. God is like that. But that is an entire book unto itself.

Back to the Golden State.

I applied and was accepted to Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. Why Golden Gate?

I attended a conference for campus minsters in the Mission Service program, in which we were involved, in November of 1984. It was held in Nashville. It was there that I met the director of campus ministry for the Bay Area of California, John Woodfill. Circumstances through all of this put us in touch with John and, his wife, Teresa in early 1986. This led to continue in the Mission Service Corps ministry on the left coast as we were looking to return to that next stint in seminary.

And sooooooooo…

“California here I come… ”

To say we hit it off with John and Teresa would be an understatement. They remain dear friends until this day. Many of you have prayed for them throughout John’s kidney and liver transplants. That is one absolutely incredible story and material for an amazing book unto itself.

Anyway, John assigned me to the University of California-Berkeley as a campus minister. Hand meet glove. As a teenager I had watched with wide eyes at the goings on at this institution of higher learning and my hippie “sensibilities” were ideally suited for me to set up shop there.

An aside here. When we shared the news of our impending trip with Melodye’s family, her brother, Jon Vergeson, incredulously retorted, “Bird ! They don’t anything about getting in a pile out there.” LOL ! You gotta love it !

I told this story on my first day of class in a course, Christian Ethics and the Kingdom of God, at Golden Gate. My fellow students appeared to be as amused by it as I was and as I am until this very day. Yes, California is… well… California and, no, we did not “get in a pile” during our time out there.

BUT we did get involved in a program out there which matched concerned/caring community members with prisoners, at San Quentin, who received virtually NO calls, cards or visits. It was called M-2, or Match 2, people… the community member and the prisoner. I began as a volunteer with a commitment to visit my “match” at least once a month but I wound up going once a week. It was powerful and it worked.

The mind-boggling fact is, the majority of prisoners ARE going to be put back on the street. The question is… In what state do we want them to return to those streets ? Also, the great majority (80%) of inmates WILL return to prison. It is a most vicious cycle or crime, punishment, incarceration, release, return to prison.

M-2 cut deeply into that recidivism rate.

It also happened when I got involved in the program that M-2 was in need of someone to head up the position of doing the matching. They needed a person to do the “M-2 ing”, to match up the inmates with the community members. One did this by doing mass media presentations throughout the Bay Area. I was hired to do this. I was blessed. It was, yet another, life changing experience.

That brings us baaaaaack to the beginning of this tale and my first day on the job as director of the M-2 program at San Quentin, USA. Me, my manager Mike Ensch, along with several others were given a tour of the prison and its grounds. Before the day was over I had to sign an agreement that I understood that prison officials would not bargain for my life if I was taken hostage (I would later have to explain that to “Paul”). Mike insured me that this was a good thing. He also told me that inmates would consider me one of the “good guys.” I understood all of this but I also understood that God had led me here and all was well. I was, again, where I was supposed to be and I could not wait to begin my duties !

Now, to say that is an ominous sound, when you enter that prison for the first time and those doors slam shut behind you, would be understating it a bit. The ungodly reality of it all. But the true reality of it all is… God is there as well. He was/is very much alive in San Quentin and I was a witness to that fact.

Now just a quick quick story before we close another chapter in the beautiful journey that I refer to as, “Me and Paul.”

On that first day, as an employee of M-2, I would begin the routine of entering the prison (after a thorough check), getting a printout of the “movement” sheet, and locating the inmates that had applied to M-2 so that I could interview them.

I had time to interview a small handful of prisoners on each visit and would search the printout to see where each person was located… in what block, tier and cell number they resided. On that bright and sunny April morning, while scanning the list for my guys, I came across a name, NOT on my list, that startled me somewhat… Manson, Charles… east block, tier 1, cell number 43.

And we were off and running !!!

1/15/17 Addendum. Charlie, as he was known “inside,” was not eligible for the M-2 program. He was not a part of the mainline population and was in lockdown 23 hours a day. That did not stop him from filling out an application, my supervisor informed me.

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