The Lifers’ Club

The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way.  When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly.  Kept our distance.

After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.

“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.

Uh.  This is why I love her.  No one else stands up to me this way.

So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee.   Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.

Hank and AJ.

Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape.  The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget.  Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.

The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.

Fast forward thirty years.

My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives.  We asked about the Fergusons.

“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said.  “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”

These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville.  He’s married and has a son in high school.

A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.

Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55
Chandler Ferguson, Freshman, #55

Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes.  That was the first of our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons.  Since then  I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.

But it’s not about me.  I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.

And one of the best local ministries now blessing my life is Kairos, an international prison ministry working in ten countries and thirty-six US states.

Texas welcomes Kairos into every one of its prisons because it drops the recidivism rate — those returning to prison after release — to 10% if the resident attends monthly Kairos sessions.

According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
According to the latest study by the US Department of Justice
Kairos Statistics
Kairos Statistics

Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates.  I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry.  Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.

Harold’s old prison name was Thumper.  Why?  If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell.  One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.

Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.

Not this Thumper.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Enterprises.

Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history.   Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.

While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.

“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said.  “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”

“Because Thumper no longer exists. “

Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.

Then he told me what they do:  a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines.  And the final plank?   Lifers' Club Charter


Lifers pool their limited resources to help others. 

They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids.  Clothed and fed the homeless.  Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school.  Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.

Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.

How to Survive Life in Prison
How to Survive Life in Prison
The Lifers' Club Course Contents
The Lifers’ Club Course Contents

I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.

One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.

Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers.  And that’s ugly.

To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive.  Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:

One man's childhood memory...

I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.

We may be free, but do we cherish it?

Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that.  There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.

We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:

Hebrews 13:1-3

We all can lift ourselves.  By simply lifting others.

While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.

Photographing Faith

Our church family now publishes amateur photographs — scenes inspired by the Holy Spirit — on its social media site.  The response has been heartwarming, and immediate.

"Through movement and stillness, the reflection of God's love is all around us. I sense the presence in the purest elements and moments. Nature, family, friendships, and our new community in this church.  -- Amy Christine Pfieffer.
“Through movement and stillness, the reflection of God’s love is all around us. I sense the presence in the purest elements and moments. Nature, family, friendships, and our new community in this church.  — Amy Christine Pfieffer.

The visual world — shared through photographs since its invention in the mid-1820’s — affords free travel for all to locations and perspectives previously unimagined.

And because we’ve been awarded an ever-changing visual display of diversity — if there’s anything God loves, it’s diversity — we need to note and share it, which is one more way to spread the peace and love of our Creator.

Watching our children grow and develop their talents is a blessing for all to see. Just an eye blink ago ...
Watching our children grow in faith and develop their talents is a blessing for all to see.

Unlike Francis Collins, the renowned American scientist who came to faith from an atheistic background, I was an early convert. A one-banana monkey.

At age seven I found myself alone in the woods where every branch was encrusted with a quarter-inch of fresh ice, the result of a slow, freezing, overnight rain.  Lying on my back upon encrusted snow, I witnessed the clouds parting, the sun arriving, the most wondrous light show appearing, the wind nudging branches in slow kaleidoscopic circles while my young brain popped with sensory overload.

A new vision every day ...
A new vision every day …

This spectacle could not have created itself, any more than all the other spectacles to follow, witnessed by seven billion different ways through seven billion different perspectives, all changing each half-second.

Francis Collins had to map the human genome to “get it”.  But this simple country boy was poleaxed by a simple ice storm.

***

My paternal grandmother put a camera in my hand when I went to college — a 60’s era Leica — and I wore it out, along with dozens of digital models over the years. Several file drawers now bulge with negatives and prints, and the safe is stacked with hard drives instead of cash.

Why?

Because there is no end to the ever-changing display of visual bounty He’s gifted the world.

One doesn’t need to be a photographer to enjoy the show, but one should notice, and share the experience — conversation works — and to feel a little gratitude for the gift.

Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting his entire life — for $50 — yet he produced a staggering amount of work, some of it now selling for millions.

What drove this creative genius who worked without reward?

The simple need to share.  When confronted with beauty, he became overcome with the desire to record and share it with his brother Theo.

When we step away from the mirror, when we turn away from ourselves, when we turn away from the noise of the man-made world to notice and share …

We remind each other how vital, how immediate, how visual, and how utterly generous The One really is.

From the macro to the micro, He is everywhere. Always new. Always fresh. Always a new perspective. If God loves anything, it's diversity.
From the macro to the micro, He is everywhere. Always new. Always fresh. Always a new perspective. If God loves anything, it’s diversity.

(Note:  Photographs will now appear on the site on a random basis, as they are revealed to the one who captures them).