Man on a Mission…

Dad became involved with prison ministries in the 1970’s. About the same time when his hand-painted signs started popping up on roadways. Designed to make you think as you were cruising along on hi-way 18 or 75 in northwest Iowa. I don’t have a clue why he was drawn to inmates anymore than why I’ve always gravitated to the elderly since I was 5.


Dad early 1980’s. He’s on the outside-I think…

After 25 years of preaching, teaching and the M2 program with inmates, Mom’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma and the long term side effects of her stroke would force Dad to give up these activities. He just couldn’t leave Mom for that many hours at a time anymore. Plus put in the needed time writing sermons, and studying lessons for his bible study. After Mom passed away, I convinced my 88 year old father to move 750 miles east of the only place he’d ever called home. Rock Valley, Iowa. In my heart I knew this was the right thing to do, but deep down I thought this might be one big disaster. We’d never been close. He was either an absent or a too strict father after Larry was killed. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house.

So Dad moved lock, stock and barrel to Muskegon. I had done a lot of prep work ahead of time though. Wanted his move and life here to be filled with purpose again. Got him a probationary (ha-ha, some light prison humor) job volunteering at one of the prisons in town. The Chaplain, Brian Burrel was quite taken with Dad. He can have that kind of affect on people. Brian gave him a time slot every Wednesday afternoon for a bible study. I never asked if these were “good behavior” guys or the more dangerous pick of the crop. Didn’t seem to make a difference with Dad. The prison did have steps in place to help insure Dad’s safety. Some kind of gizmo Dad carried with him and just needed to push a button if he felt ill at ease, sending in the guards.

After a few weeks of bible study, Chaplain Burrel asked if Dad wanted to preach sometime on a Sunday? I think Dad said yes before Brian finished the question. Thereafter “Pastor Gerritson” would have a service once a month on Sunday afternoon. He LOVED doing this. Dad whole heartedly believed in altar calls. This probably stems from when Dad was a counselor at the Billy Graham Crusades 40 years ago. Billy would beseech those who felt Jesus was calling them to come forward after his message. There was never an instance during any of Dad’s services at the Rescue Mission or prison when he didn’t end it by standing before them, and fervently asking, “is God speaking to you? Please come forward and give your life to Christ. You won’t be sorry.” Dad would get on his knees, lay his hands on the shoulders or head and have a prayer with every single guy who had come forward.

About a year after Dad moved here, someone from the Muskegon Chronicle contacted him. Wanted to talk to him about his prison ministry. I think it was Brian Burrel who called Clayton Hardiman, a writer at the paper. Dad asked me if I wanted to be there when he was interviewed. Ah, no thanks Dad. I made sure the apartment and Dad were both spiffy. Had an apple pie and his little 4-cup coffee pot ready so Dad could be a good host. Dad assured me they had a great visit. He had talked about Larry, his love for the Lord and his fulfilling work at the prison.


Muskegon Chronicle reporter Clayton Hardiman who interviewed Dad in 2006…


I guess Dad assumed his “big interview” would be in the paper the next day, but it actually was a couple weeks before it was published. (Never asked Dad, but sure hope he didn’t call the Chronicle or Clayton Hardiman every day, or every hour) Back then, it was Saturday’s paper that had some human interest-faith based articles each week. Dad didn’t get the paper. A newcomer to town, he really had no history here. I usually brought him ours the day after it came out. He was reading it a day late, but he didn’t care and usually just skimmed it anyway.

Early in February, 2006 there it was: MAN ON A MISSION. Front page of the third section. He couldn’t stop looking at it, reading it over and over. And no, I didn’t make him wait until the next day. I was actually surprised the article was so long. Plus there were several pictures included. Dad was beyond thrilled. Had me go to the Chronicle office and buy every single copy they had. Then go around town to all the portable outside metal newspaper box thingy’s and buy all of those copies too. Holy-moly Dad. I would be mailing copies for the next month. He sent a copy and wrote everyone he knew. Honest. Everyone he knew. When the copies started running low he started to panic. There were still scads of people who (he thought) needed a copy. I brought one of the newspapers to Office Max. They placed the complete article, with pictures on a folded sheet of paper. Like a brochure. The pictures weren’t in color, but we used a nice cream colored paper. Turned out really nice. I think I had to get permission from either or both the paper and Clayton Hardiman to have this re-printed. But Dad was back in business. More mailings. Yes, he was very proud.


February 6, 2006. He was so proud of this.


Dad had always tried to convince me to be part of his ministry team. Even as far back as the 70’s he thought I should tag along. Search myself until I found some gifts to use. But this whole prison ministry gig scared me from day one. I always said, “don’t tell them my last name, where I live or that we have kids. Please Dad, I don’t want them to know anything about me.” I imagine I was mentioned a few times. I hope with a little gratitude for helping him move here, and setting him up with Chaplain Burrel. Or at least about some good suppers he enjoyed at our house. Never got any collect calls, so I think he probably abided by my wishes.


The printed brochure when he ran out of newspapers.


Dad lived in Michigan just over 3 years. I think his prison ministry here lasted a little over 2 years. A couple of hospital stays with pneumonia and a minor stroke caused small hiccups for a couple weeks at a time. I believe those 2 years were the most meaningful in Dad’s life. He felt called, was useful, needed and fulfilled. Living his purpose driven life.


The back page…


A couple months after Dad passed away something extraordinary happened. To me. I received a big manila envelope in the mail. Accompanied by a letter from Chaplain Burrel. How proud he was to have known and worked with my Dad. How much he appreciated this kind, elderly man giving his time to the men in his prison. Then out tumbled 50 cards. Some in their own envelopes, but many not enclosed at all. And many with multiple snippets written by several guys. For me. Scores of inmates moved by Dad’s extraordinary life. They were grieving his loss too. They wanted and needed to express their grief. To me. About their love and appreciation for my Dad. They all called him “Brother Rich.” How touched they were when he had an altar call, but couldn’t get back up off his knees. How he smiled and joked about it when they helped him up the last several months he was out there. They did this for someone they didn’t know who didn’t care about them. Me. Out of love and respect for my Dad. But they took the time and effort to do it. For me. I still can’t believe they would do this for a stranger. I can’t think of many instances in my life that have touched me more. I was completely overwhelmed. Just a mess of tears. But it felt wonderful. And when I think about that ordinary day and the cards tumbling out of the manila envelope, it still does my heart a world of good…


The sympathy cards from inmates who loved my Dad.



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