Dad got involved with prison ministries during the 1960’s, around the same time his hand-painted signs started popping up on roadways. Designed to make you think as you were cruising on Highway 18 & 75 in northwest Iowa. I don’t have a clue why he was drawn to inmates anymore than why I gravitated to the elderly since I was 5.
After 30 years of preaching, teaching and the M2 program with inmates, Mom’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma and long term side effects from her stroke would force Dad to give up these activities. He couldn’t leave Mom for any length of time. Plus the hours needed for writing sermons, studying his Bible lessons. 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. I knew this was the right call but deep down I thought this might be a disaster because we’d never been close.
By the time Dad moved to Muskegon I had done a lot of prep work. I wanted his life to be filled with purpose again. Got him a probationary (ha-ha, some prison humor) job volunteering at one of the local prisons. The Chaplain, Brian Burrel was quite taken with Dad. (He can have that kind of affect on people). Brian gave him a slot every Wednesday afternoon for a Bible study. I never asked if these were “good behavior” guys but that didn’t make a difference with Dad. The prison did have steps in place to help insure Dad’s safety. A push button gizmo Dad carried with him. If he felt ill at ease the button would send in the guards.
A few weeks later Chaplain Burrel asked Dad if he wanted to preach on a Sunday? 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 believed in altar calls which stemmed from being a counselor at Billy Graham Crusades decades ago. Rev. Graham would beseech those who felt Jesus calling to come forward. Whenever Dad spoke, whether at the Rescue Mission or prison he’d end it by fervently asking, “is God speaking to you? 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 man who’d come forward.
About a year after Dad moved to Michigan, someone from the Muskegon Chronicle contacted him. Wanted to talk to him about his prison ministry. I think pastor Brian Burrel called Clayton Hardiman who was a writer at the paper. Dad asked if I wanted to be there when he was interviewed. Ah, no thanks. I made sure the apartment was 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 losing his only son Larry, his love for the Lord and fulfilling work at the prison.
Dad assumed his “big interview” would be in the Chronicle the next day, but it was a couple weeks before it was published. (Never asked Dad, but hope he didn’t call the Chronicle or Clayton every day) It was Saturday’s edition that had human interest-faith based articles each week. Dad didn’t get the paper because he was new in town and had no history here. I usually brought him ours the day after it came out.
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. I was surprised the article was so long and included several pictures. Dad was beyond thrilled. Had me stop at the Chronicle office and buy every single copy they had. Then cruise town to the outside newspaper box thingy’s and buy those. Holy-moly Dad, I’d be mailing copies for a month. He sent a copy and wrote everyone he knew. Honest. When the copies ran low he started to panic. There were still scads of people he thought needed a copy. I brought one of the newspapers to Office Max. They placed the complete article and pictures on a folded sheet of paper, like a brochure. The pictures weren’t in color, but we used a nice cream colored paper and they turned out great. I had to get permission from both the paper and Clayton Hardiman to have this re-printed. But Dad was back in business. More mailings.
Dad tried to convince me to be part of his ministry team since I was a teen, but this prison ministry stuff scared me. 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 he probably abided by my wishes.
Dad lived in Michigan just over 3 years. His prison ministry 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 he’d been called, was needed. Living his purpose driven life.
A couple months after Dad passed away something extraordinary happened. I received a big manila envelope, accompanied by a letter from Chaplain Burrel. How proud he was to have known and worked with 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 just loose. Most with multiple snippets written by several guys. For me. Scores of inmates moved by Dad’s Christian life. They were grieving his loss too. They wanted and needed to express their grief to me about their appreciation for Dad. They called him “Brother Rich.” How touched they were when he had an altar call, but couldn’t get back up off his knees at age 90. How he smiled and joked about it when they helped him up the last several months he spoke. They did this for someone they didn’t know. Me. Out of love and respect for my Dad. I can’t believe they did this for a complete stranger. There’s not been many instances in my life that have touched me more. I was completely overwhelmed and a mess of tears, but it felt good. When I reflect back about that ordinary day and the cards tumbling out of that big envelope, it still does my heart a world of good…