By Jeff Ferris |
The radio broadcast beamed from a low-powered AM station, and the words were well traveled by the time they reached my auditory nerve, but they have played in my mind for over twenty years. The words I heard that day came from the pen of a lonely prison inmate.
The content of the letter was simple. Its verbiage was unsophisticated; yet strong enough to penetrate my soul. From the Arizona State Prison Complex, to the syndicated radio ministry in Texas, the haunting words came flowing over my dashboard as I drove in southern Michigan.
I was a newlywed at the time. My lovely, brown-eyed bride of just a few months was working on her job at a local hospital. That clear Sunday afternoon was too quiet without her at my side as I drove home from church, so I turned on the radio and dialed up the voice of Chaplain Ray of the International Prison Ministry in Dallas, Texas. He had my complete attention.
Several months prior, during prayer, I felt a strong burden for those who were incarcerated. I knew I was being called to someday minister to jail or prison inmates.
Chaplain Ray began to read a letter from inmate number 39732, Shelton Ray Thomas.
Though my hands gripped the steering wheel, I was hanging on every word coming through my stereo speakers. It was more than just the words. It was the feeling behind them. I saw him in my mind’s eye, a broken young black man, barely a year older than myself, sitting in a sweltering prison cell.
His letter went out as if on a reconnaissance mission, searching for a friend. Is there anyone in the free world who would care enough about a convicted felon to correspond with him? Would anyone make time for a former teenaged gang member who had grown up on the streets and now bears the stigma of a criminal? Yes, for reasons not fully understood, I cared. I could write. I could be a friend.
It is unknown how many listeners heard that syndicated radio broadcast, but I knew I was the intended audience; an audience of one. No one else had responded to Shelton’s letter. God was doing something unique and I was privileged to be a part of it.
It was not long before a firm long-distance friendship developed between Shelton and me. We corresponded two or three times a month, and I discovered something special about Inmate number 39732. He was honest about his crimes, repentant, and humble. He was not the angry, bitter, coldhearted brute by which so many would define a convict. He was a genuine human being.
While it is true that many prison inmates are hardened and unreachable, I came to believe there are many more Shelton Thomas’s who simply need a friend.
That belief became a strong part of my life and led me to become involved in local jail ministry. As I continued to correspond with Shelton, I became a member of the Lucas County Jail Chaplaincy Committee.
For seven years, I had the privilege of conducting chapel services, bible studies and one-on-one visitations with those who were incarcerated in my own home town.
A freedom can be found in walking through the gates of a detention facility to visit those considered unfit for society. Many would find it intimidating. To me it felt natural and inviting. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40 KJV).
There is something about being locked up that brings a person to the end of themselves. It seems a decision is made and a path is chosen. For some, it is their final defeat. It is the end of any hope, if hope ever existed. For others it is a wakeup call and encourages change for the better. Hitting bottom causes them to look up.
Shelton looked up. He is someone who made the choice to accept Christ and become a new man. There are others like him in jails and prisons everywhere. Most inmates are simply misguided souls in need of a firm handshake and a tender ear.
Many letters passed from Ohio to Arizona, and back again between Shelton and me over the space of nineteen years. Then my friend was finally released from the Arizona State Prison. Inmate number 39732 was now a free citizen!
Shelton and I continued to communicate following his release. He moved to San Diego, California. After nearly two years passed following Shelton’s release from prison, I boarded flight number 813 at Detroit Metro Airport. My lovely, brown-eyed bride of almost twenty-one years was at my side. With three children in tow, ranging from eleven to nearly seventeen years in age, we flew to San Diego, and met Shelton Ray Thomas.
We were friends who had never met, but during our time together I felt as if I were visiting a family member.
This experience has taught me that one person can make a difference in another’s life. We must not think we are incapable of that. We do not have to bring a great change to the universe, if that were possible. Just reach out to someone.
The world is full of friends who have never met. We can find them and make a difference. Someone once said, “Each one, reach one”.