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Author Topic: Maximum Security: Attica - Part Two  (Read 3304 times)
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« on: December 22, 2006, 11:44:05 AM »

                                                                                                                 Maximum Security: Attica
                                                                                                                                Part Two
Continued from Part One

Stalling, I requested a week to consider the administration's proposal. Marie and I made it a matter of prayer. I sought her input and that of trusted friends. Most of Attica's clergy had been through the uprising. Often, at our clergy meetings conversation focused on the counseling problems it had generated. This did not incline me toward the class. Yet, despite my negative feelings, I truly desired God's will. By week's end I understood that rejecting the opportunity would be a neglect of duty.

From the beginning, the inmates were hungry for truth. Invariably, classes began with student prayers, the fervency of which is seldom equaled by "outside" congregations. They prayed for their families, the salvation of other inmates, the courage to witness, the strength to be examples, the correction officers and administrators, personal needs and - often laying hands on me - for my family and congregation, asking God to prosper us.

Afterward, choruses were sung and the study began. The format was totally Bible-centered, the first segment being given over to concentrated Bible study, verse-by-verse, questions permitted. The second segment was discussion oriented, encompassing subjects pertinent to "inside" living. Content was initiated by the students: Bible answers for avoiding temptations; Bible discussions about celibate living; the advantages of possessing the Holy Spirit; a Christian inmate's attitude toward the correctional officers (of extreme concern since the uprising); a Christian inmate's witness to his family; witnessing to Black Moslems, who were numerous at the facility; Biblical teachings on the homosexual lifestyle; and many other topics.

By efforts of the students themselves, the class grew steadily and by year's end, about thirty students were attending. In the second year, the class grew to at least forty-five members. By the end of the third year, the room was packed to overflowing and, according to the students, more wished to attend. But, the Moslems, charging discrimination, threatened to infiltrate the class to cause havoc. Asked if he recognized any in attendance, the class inmate leader responded affirmatively; however no problems occurred.

The administration, however, took the threats seriously, moving to defuse, what it considered, a potentially dangerous situation. Before the threats, all an inmate need do to join the study was to make an advance request of at least two days. Afterward, the screening process required a two-week advance notice. The practical result limited attendance almost only to students already enrolled. Newcomers ebbed to a trickle.

Our church, however, enjoyed continuous growth, requiring a new building program. With all the added demands, after nearly four years, I began to feel the weight of the class. Unless I was traveling, each Friday evening I left for the facility in time to arrive at five and did not return until almost ten. In addition to these hours, each session required preparation. Including prison visits (I recei ved numerous letters and phone calls from families of inmates requesting that I visit their incarcerated relatives) I often gave ten to fifteen hours weekly to the facility.

The security checks required for each visit were time-consuming. After a visitor passed to the waiting room, it required another long wait to locate the inmate and bring him in, especially for an unexpected visit.  To be effective, the visits could not be rushed. The need to lighten the load seemed compelling.

After prayerful consideration, reluctantly, I notified the prison administration of my decision. A minister friend from another town gladly accepted sponsorship and was

 present at my last session with the class, an emotional time. At its conclusion, the students surrounded us and, with laid-on hands, prayed so fervently that a security officer at the far end of the long corridor grew concerned and came running. Informed that the class was in prayer, he left with a smile.

I surrendered the class; but not contact with the facility. Some inmates, learning of the undefeated status of our church softball team, issued a challenge. Two young ladies were our best players and, though women normally were barred from the recreational yard, they received a special dispensation. To our team's amusement, the inmates had their own self-serving interpretation of softball rules, often instantly inventing new ones, but it was all in fun.

At times, the facility requested practical assistance as well. Late one Saturday night, I received a call from the warden asking if we could provide overnight accommodations for approximately thirty visitors from New York City, while prison mechanics repaired their bus. The fellowship area and Sunday school rooms were made available, and the facility brought food, cots and bedding. When the visitors departed early Sunday morning, their quarters were left spotless. On the pulpit, just before service, I found a note signed by each of them. It read, "Thank you for trusting us in your beautiful new church." The children made drawings for us, also with little thank you messages.

Occasionally individual visitors, including the prodigal teen-age daughter of an evangelical pastor in New York City (She had come to Attica to visit her inmate boyfriend) temporarily were stranded and slept at our home. Each received a witness, and some visited our services.

The facility responded to this openness. As its first project, its new woodwork shop presented our church with a rare gift. Using the scarce, expensive wood of a black walnut tree, the shop's inmates fashioned for the inside front of our sanctuary, an exquisitely fashioned, six-foot high cross. They were granted authorization by the facility to travel to the church, in order to mount the cross on the fieldstone wall that decorated the sanctuary, behind the pulpit and platform. When the job was completed, we thanked them for a gift unique in both material and the craftsmen who produced it.

When we first moved to Attica, I was dubious regarding the motives of inmates claiming to be Christians. Confirming this attitude were warnings I received from knowledgeable individuals to not permit the inmates to "con" me for their own purposes. The warnings were appropriate; several times inmates did try conning me; however, a believing inmate never attempted to do so.   And, when we left Attica, almost ten years later, I had learned that true Christians are found in even the most unexpected of environments.  Yes, in fearsome maximum security prisons prone to violence, too!  Even there, the Lord grants His children His own maximum security.



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