I don’t feel good,” Mitch* gasped, pale-faced. Cold sweat glazed his forehead. “I feel as though I’m going to faint.”
A belt around his waist held the bottom of an orange jumpsuit in place; electrodes ran from his bare chest to the electrocardiograph. The top of the jumpsuit flapped behind him as he tried desperately to keep up with the treadmill to which his wrists were chained.
It was a losing struggle. Mitch slumped, arms stretched taut, as the relentless treadmill pulled him against the chains. Dr. James flipped off the treadmill as I hit the code blue switch to summon assigned staff to perform cardiac resuscitation. Guards rushed through the door and released Mitch from the chains as Dr. James barked orders.
Seconds later emergency staff arrived and began their individual tasks coolly, efficiently. I prayed silently and wondered whether Mitch would live.
Mitch was a murderer. He had been a schoolteacher until the day he calmly and deliberately aimed a rifle at another man and pulled the trigger. He freely admitted his crime and explained that the victim had sexually abused his daughter and made overtures to his wife. Mitch had taken the law into his own hands.
Since Mitch’s victim had not been tried, convicted, or sentenced for a crime, in the eyes of the law the man’s death was simply cold-blooded murder. Mitch was sentenced to life without parole. He had expected to pay for his deed, but was surprised that there was no recognition of the crime perpetrated by his victim.
Separated now from his family whom he had thought to protect, Mitch was frustrated, lonely, and bitter. Lately he’d been having a lot of chest pain, especially with exertion. After a wait of some time he was scheduled for an evaluation by the cardiologist at the clinic where I worked. He told me his story as I prepared him for the cardiac stress test.
Our clinic had a contract to provide certain types of medical services to prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison. Life in the prison is depersonalizing, and prisoners are extremely lonely. Prisoners came to the clinic shackled hand and feet; guards were stationed in the parking lot, in the waiting room, and just outside the procedure room.
Even though privacy was only an illusion, many of the men responded to gestures of kindness by sharing something of their lives with me as I shaved their chests and attached electrodes in preparation for the test. I often thought about how Jesus would treat these men if He were in my shoes. He reminded me that my feet and hands and voice and heart were His expression of love to the people I served. Oh, for an opportunity to actually see Jesus in action and see the look on His face when He spoke encouraging words to those who were hopeless, ones like Mitch.
Fortunately Mitch responded quickly to the emergency interventions and was soon stable enough to be transferred to a nearby hospital. I stayed by his side until an ambulance came. We had a few moments alone, and even though the clinic strongly discouraged us from speaking of anything religious with our patients, I asked Mitch if I could pray for him. “Yes, please do,” he whispered weakly as I took his hand in mine.
A few weeks later I received a thank-you note at the clinic from Mitch. For safety reasons our name tags had only first names, and he apologized that he didn’t know my complete name. He thanked me for the kindness I had shown him, and said it was the first time he had been treated as a human being for a long time. He especially appreciated the prayer. The work contract between my employer and the state prison prohibited any contact between employees and prisoners outside the workplace, so I did not write back.
Several years later I came across Mitch’s thank-you note as we sorted and packed in preparation for a move to another state. Since I no longer worked at the clinic, I decided to contact Mitch with an offer of Bible studies. He seemed delighted to hear from me, and sent for the Discover Bible studies he could do by mail.
We kept corresponding for several years, and I sent him The Desire of Ages and other literature from time to time.
Again we moved, this time half a continent away from Pelican Bay State Prison. After we corresponded for 10 years, the letters from Mitch became more sporadic. He was lonely and discouraged. He told me that he was fearful about a pending move to another prison; he did not know how soon or where he would be moved. He needed a personal visit from someone, soon, who could turn his eyes to Jesus.
I prayed that he would not be moved, and wondered who could help in this emergency.
Two months later my husband’s grandfather died, and we attended his memorial service, which was held during the worship service in the small town of Miranda, California. After the service church members provided a meal for all the guests. We struck up a conversation with those who sat across the table from us, asking if they were local church members.
“No,” the man replied. “We’re visitors too. We were on our way home from a prison ministries conference down South, and decided to stop and spend Sabbath here rather than driving all the way to Crescent City.”
My heart skipped a beat. Thinking about Mitch, I asked, “Do you do prison ministries in Pelican Bay State Prison?”
“Yes, we are volunteer clergy there.”
Eagerly I shared Mitch’s story and my correspondence with him over the years, and that he really needed someone to visit him. Lee Gordon and his wife were interested in Mitch and agreed to visit him if I would have him fill out the necessary paperwork notifying prison authorities about his desire for clergy visits from them.
I should not have been surprised that God provided the solution! After all, Jesus was the one who commissioned us to minister to those who are sick and in prison. Mitch was eager for visits, and soon Lee began visiting him regularly.
Mitch wrote that he appreciated Lee as a godly person, and said he enjoyed his visits; he was blessed by the weekly Bible study.
Mitch’s transfer to another prison facility was postponed for more than a year, permitting him to continue Bible studies with Lee, and allowing time for his faith in God to grow.
The next chapter of Mitch’s story is yet to be written. It was not a coincidence that we met the only people who could minister to Mitch, even though they were total strangers, living half a continent away while visiting a small Seventh-day Adventist church on the one Sabbath we were also visiting.
God knows every aching heart. Reaching them with a message of His love is the work we are asked to do. He will provide whatever we need to accomplish it.
* All names have been changed.