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).

 

Tribal Connections

Whenever my life begins to feel too “cushy” – which is often since I’m a spoiled American Baby Booming corpulent white male with a loving/doting wife, a squared-away son, a reasonably functional family, early retirement, and a supportive church family – I sign up for a mission trip, foreign or domestic.

Which cures the spoiled-brat syndrome pronto.

If you embark on such an adventure, expect:  crushed legs on long flights, strange food clogging the septic system, strange water unplugging the septic system, flat-hard hotel beds, endless oversize bags full to maximum 49.9 pounds of cement-grade calcium carried up and down steps via human chain, sleepless nights filled with the cacophony of poultry crowing contests and spontaneous dog fights, mission beds made of burlap and two-by-fours, water-less showers until Angel Plumbers work their magic, twelve-hour days spent mostly on the feet, the ringing sound of eighty voices banging around the cement walls of the clinic, three languages bouncing in a Babel of towering intensity.

So, why do we subject ourselves to that?

Probably for the same reason soldiers return to Afghanistan seven-or-eight times.  Why firefighters rush into burning buildings.  Why doctors continue to practice medicine into their eighties, serving a network of friends they’ve made over a lifetime.

My personal physician, Paul Brown, Jr.,MD., has lead a mission team to Mexico for over thirty years.
Paul Brown, Jr., MD., leading missions for 30+ years.

They do it for the tribe.

Opinion:  we are designed by the Creator to function in small groups, say twenty-to-sixty people – all carrying different abilities (spiritual gifts) – a tribe where everyone has a job, everyone is respected for their contribution, and everyone is connected to a purpose outside their own agenda.

“In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend about a curious phenomenon in the American west. White prisoners rescued from Native American tribes were seizing the first chance they could to flee into the wilderness and rejoin their captors. There were no reports of native warriors migrating in the opposite direction. Perplexed, Franklin concluded that the errant whites must have become ‘disgusted with our manner of life’ despite being shown ‘all imaginable tenderness’ on their return.” (Source).

Sebastian Junger, author of Restrepo and The Perfect Storm, recently penned a book titled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which focuses on the War in Afghanistan and veterans’ mental health.  Junger writes:  “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”

Instead of focusing on job training and social re-conditioning, we treat vets like pariahs and load them up on drugs while ignoring the root cause of their distress and side-stepping psychiatric care, which is expensive and time consuming.  We treat veterans as if they aren’t worth our time and effort after they return with lost limbs and shattered psyches.  The suicide rates for white males over sixty-five, many of whom are Vietnam vets, bears witness to these unresolved issues.

“In 2008 active duty and veteran military personnel abused prescription drugs at a rate that was more than twice the rate for the civilian population. In 2009, the VA estimated that around 13,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from alcohol dependence syndrome and require veteran mental health treatment for this problem.” (Source)

After listening to Junger’s podcast, it occurred to me that we are indeed better beings when connected to a well-functioning small group, which is why churches, synagogues, mosques, Boy Scouts, Rotary, Lions Clubs, Crips, Bloods, and Hell Angels exist.

The last three will probably lead to harm, but the call of the tribe is embedded into our nature, and that is why making a conscious decision to serve on a positive team is a healthy choice.

Let’s take a look at contemporary suicide rates

White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016; and, the rate of suicide is highest in middle age — white men in particular (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).

Sadly, suicides in all demographics have risen dramatically since 1999, though Hispanic males are much lower than white males.


The March 2018 medical mission I joined to Ixtepec, Tatoxcac, and Xochiapulco, Mexico offered unending examples of a high-functioning tribe  than I can list (starting with the angel who swapped her airline aisle seat twice for my leg-killing window view); furthermore, this team comes together bi-annually to bring medical care to under-served residents in the rugged mountains northeast of Puebla, Mexico. Nearly half of the folks treated were indigenous, speaking Totonaca, a native language “not closely related to other native languages in Mexico.”

Which required three levels of translation:  English – Spanish – Totonaca — and back again.

This year I was the “optometrist” which meant that I helped 320 folks find workable reading glasses over four days using two Bibles (the KJV, and a Totonaca New Testament), a spool of thread, a needle, a flashlight, and a pocket knife to cut plastic.  The spectacles were donated by the generous Lion’s Club Tribe.

The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.
The will to work is unshakable in this ninety-year old.

My Spanish interpreter – Fany (pronounced Fanny), from the Methodist College in Puebla – was coming off a semester of concentrated French, so the combination of suddenly switching to English while simultaneously deciphering an unknown indigenous tongue wore on her along with all the physical challenges, yet she hung on to gain a second wind and finish the week admirably.

Local teens connected to the Ixtepec Methodist Church also saved the week by giving fully of themselves, obviously loving and cherishing their elderly by listening carefully to their needs, then translating them into Spanish, where Fany would pass it to me, and then back again.  Three hundred twenty times in four days.

Multiply that by the entire cohort of volunteers (approximately 120), and you begin to perceive the amount of coordination it takes to make this mission work.

Plus eleven months of planning and preparation up front.

Sebastian Junger claims that we need three essentials to live healthily and harmoniously: 1) we need to feel competent at what we do; 2)  we need to feel authentic in our lives; and, 3)  we need to feel connected to others.

Looking back at the suicide statistics, it must be noted that the Hispanic males take their own lives in much fewer numbers than Caucasian males.

“White men over the age of 65 commit suicide at almost triple that overall rate.  These men are also eight times more likely to kill themselves than are women of the same age group, and have almost twice the rate of all other groups of male contemporaries.

Disparities along ethnic lines for elderly males are also substantial. Compared with white males ages 65 and older, African American males (9.2 suicides per 100,000), Hispanic or Latino males (15.6), and Asian or Pacific Islander males (17.5) in the same age range had significantly lower suicide rates.”  (Source)

Research on the “why” is thin, but after spending a week in Ixtepec, casual observation of the culture exposed a deep connection to family, community, nature, and God:  all characteristics of a healthy tribe.

In contrast, the phenomenon of disconnected angry white American males sitting in dark rooms drinking alcohol and absorbing CNN or FOX is ending badly.

Imagine that.

Our Mexican patients exhibited a wide range of physical needs – missing teeth, scabies, parasites, allergies, an entire gamut of untreated ailments testing the knowledge and experience of the mission doctors, nurses, and pharmacists – but the local populations’ connectedness to the spirit, energy, patience, and genuine good nature lifted the hearts of all servants, Mexicans and Americans alike.

Pablo, a minister from another province, traveled to Ixtepec with his teenage son, both patiently washing, drying, and treating foot ailments.  Ricardo and LuLu traveled from Nicaragua to lead the translating team, and three other college students traveled with Fany from Puebla to sacrifice their free time and comfort to serve their country.

Foot Care
Foot Care via agape.

The exact ratio of Mexican-to-American servants on this mission is unknown, but it seemed like 3:1 as local teens, the church pastor’s family, and other Mexican missionaries – plus half the congregation – pitched in to make it work. Villagers lined the street to tote heavy bags down to the church the minute we arrived, and waited patiently for hours on end — often in the rain and wind – to receive their annual medical care.

We didn't ask for help, but we received it with joy.
We didn’t ask for help, but we received it with joy.

The Ixtepec-Tatoxcac-Xochiapulco clinics succeeds because everyone has a job – or three – everyone is valued for their contribution, and all are connected through Jesus Christ.

No matter where our travels take us – Johnson City, Ixtepec, Tasmania, wherever – if two-or-more are gathered in His name, we are connected. We are also connected by our willingness to serve, to share that last full measure of devotion that propels The Tribe.

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Romans 12:1 NASB

My two previous mission trips to this beautiful mountainscape northeast of Puebla occurred in the late Nineties, and I must say there is a noticeable improvement in infrastructure – the highway from Puebla to the mountains is new and modern – plus the thirty-two years of medical mission work is revealed in the faces of the people, who look much healthier. Even the dogs show fewer ribs.

Waiting for the clinic to open ...
Waiting for the clinic to open …

The visiting team stood in awe of these patient, hard-working, community-loving, God-present, spiritually connected folk – The Tribe – functioning as it’s meant to be.

Meanwhile, reality-show Americans continue to back-stab each other on social media, ignore common values, highlight differences, suck down opioids and alcohol in record volumes, endlessly eyeball the latest fear-mongering headlines slanted to feed personal preferences, and commit suicide in record numbers.

Simultaneously, church attendance in North America is dropping like a rock.

Suicide stats don’t lie. Broken lives parading past our eyes don’t lie.

"How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?"  -- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

You don’t.

Those who serve rely on the tribe:  church family, Sunday school classes, spouses, and relatives, all connected through Christ – who finance our way, who donate medicine, eyeglasses and crutches, who pray for and bless our service with their love.

We certainly relied on the tribe in Mexico who fed, housed, worked diligently beside us, and have served faithfully for over thirty years.

From desert wanderers seeking the Promised Land … to disciples sharing the Good News … to medical missions serving the needy in foreign lands … The Tribe functions with efficiency through its unselfish connection to The One.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with The Tribe.


Note:  More pictures here.