January 21, 2009

Snail Mail From Jail

2009 1503 page25 capT’D BEEN A NO GOOD, REALLY BAD DAY. AS I LAZILY SLOGGED MY WAY through two weeks’ worth of mail—bills, coupons, bills, and, well, more bills—I saw little chance for a change in the weather.

But stuck between the routine junk, a lone piece of mail caught my eye. Postmarked from a California state prison?
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One of the toughest things about being a writer is rarely seeing the results of your work. When I open a copy of the latest Review, the first thing I do is flip to the page showcasing readers’ letters to see if any of my columns generated a response. Upon seeing my name mentioned, I feel like an athlete amid the roar of the crowd. And whether the audience is booing or cheering, I’m always satisfied, because God used my words to make somebody think.
On this day, however, I received more than a paragraph of faceless feedback.
As I began reading the four-page letter, the writer identified himself as, sure enough, an inmate in a California penitentiary, a loyal reader of the Adventist Review.
The man, I’ll call him Ryan, had grown up in the church and attended Adventist schools. But during his young-adult years, he’d fallen away from God and been sentenced to a term in prison. It’s a set of circumstances that would make most anyone bitter—but not Ryan.
2009 1503 page25There he discovered hope. He met a group of Christian brothers who supported one another through worship, prayer, and Bible study. In hitting rock bottom, Ryan had found the Rock of Ages. And the light radiated through his every word.
In less than a year Ryan would be out of prison. And though excitement for that day was apparent, there was another emotion present: fear. Fear that no church would open its doors and hearts to an ex-convict, even a reformed one. In prison the nonjudgmental fellowship of Christian friends who’d been where he had been was comfortable and safe.
Would he have that same support out there?
It was a similar sentiment I wrote in my column “The Post-Graduation Exodus” (Aug. 14, 2008). Half a year ago, upon graduating from Union College, I immediately took a job in Bakersfield, California. And I’d experienced the same apprehension. Would I be accepted? Will I find a church family to support me?
Church family, it’s not just college grads with these kinds of fears.
After three pages, I understood completely why Ryan had written me. But he wasn’t done yet. And neither was God.
As I mentioned, it’d been a tough day. Actually, a tough couple of days. I’d acclimated well to Bakersfield, both personally and professionally. But it all still seemed so random. I’d left everything and everyone I’d ever known to come here. And lately I’d been asking the “Why, God?” question quite a bit. As Ryan closed his letter, he flipped the script.
“Jimmy,” he wrote, “God has sent you to Bakersfield for a reason. You may not know what it is yet, but you don’t need to know right now. When it is time, you’ll know.”
As I read his words, tears caused the letter’s ink to bleed and I trembled in awe at God’s timing.
For two weeks I’d been house-sitting for a friend across town and hadn’t been able to retrieve my mail. I hadn’t needed that letter a week ago when it had arrived. But God knew I needed it now.
Writing for the Review is my ministry. I write to make people think and grasp new concepts about their relationships with God and each other. I never thought it would open the door for me to be tangibly ministered to, just when I needed it.
“Ryan,” I know I’ve said this before, but I want to say it again: Thank you for letting God use you. I speak for my church when I say there’s more than enough room for you out here. But be prepared, because we need you just as much as you need us.
And, oh yeah, I’m beginning to understand why I’m here. 

A proud Nebraskan, Jimmy Phillips writes from Bakersfield, California, where he is marketing and communication coordinator for San Joaquin Community Hospital.