Do Your Own Time

Do Your Own Time
“Man, I saw the funniest thing this morning.” The young prisoner announced. “There were men down in the church saying “Praise the Lord” and “Alleluia” and raising their hands.” I gave the prisoner the “Prisoners Handbook” response, “Do your own time.” “More power to ’em.”

The courts sent me to the U. S. Medical Center for psychiatric evaluation for 90 days. I had changed my guilty plea to “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Merely a manipulative move on my part to avoid being sentenced on my birthday. Still, I wondered about my own inability to stay out of prison. “Why me?” You might say.

{I sat looking out the window of my cell at the St. Louis city jail. The moment was innocuous to any particular thing that was going on. There, leaving the adjoining courthouse, was a man wearing the garb of a janitor. In his hand was a black lunch box. “Why couldn’t I be satisfied with that?” I wondered. “A job, a wife, and family”… I stopped my thoughts and crossed them off as wishful thinking. Prison life was all I had known, and I resigned myself to the fact that I would live the rest of my life in prison and even die there.}

I hadn’t planned to go to church the following Sunday. It just happened. I was coming down the stairs from the chow hall, and there, going into the church, was a group of volunteers. One of the volunteers I recognized was Mary Lipscomb. She was a teacher in the Learning Center, where I spent a fair amount of time. I still needed to reconcile Springfield (U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners) to the many prisons I had been to. Stateville, Menard, Marion; These were no walk-in-the-park type prisons. They were mean, and mean things happened in them. Springfield had women running all over the place, it seemed. The school, the hospital, the kitchen, and even the women who worked in the administration offices were often seen traveling the halls.
The early 70s was a time of upheaval, not only in America but in its prisons, as well. Several large-scale riots had happened all across the country. One of the appeasements that came about was the authorization of ethnic culture clubs. Afro-Americans, La Causa Latina, Italian-American, American Indians, and even Irish Americans existed. For a club to be approved in Springfield, you had to have an inside and outside sponsor. These were people who would oversee the activities. And yes, more volunteers from the community came to the weekly meetings. It was going to take some getting used to.
The Medical Center was a three-ring circus, I liked to say: “Medical” for prisoners who were patients; “Psychiatric” for those who were deemed necessary for psychiatric care and “Maintenance” for prisoners who were there for the upkeep of the institution. For the most part, prisoners who were there to maintain the institution were kept in the camp quarters. Supposedly, they didn’t have a lot of time and were non-violent. Yeah, right.

I followed the small crowd going into the chapel. “God’s House of Hope,” the sign said. I made my way to the back of the church and sat down. I sat there silently. Springfield, Mo., is home to the headquarters of the Assemblies of God denomination. Most volunteers were from Assembly of God churches. As a child, I was familiar with the songs at Glenwood School for Boys, where the church was mandatory. “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Amazing Grace,” and “In the Garden” was some of the popular hymns that were sung.

I had a militant attitude toward almost everything back then. I was quick to hate and reviled do-gooders. I had come to a position that justified my anger toward religion. “We don’t choose to be born. We don’t choose who our parents will be. We don’t choose whether we’re born on the gold coast or in the ghetto, and we don’t choose whether we will be loved or rejected.” I came up on the short end almost on each count. So about the 4th week of going to church, the Bible instructor, after the service, was talking about free will. I did not have a choice. Instead, I was a product of my environment. “Now, after spending 26 years, half of them spent in prison, you tell me I have free will.” I could feel the unease that permeated this now-silent church. The instructor said he would talk to me after the class. But I had no intention of waiting to hear what he had to say.
As I exited the pew I had been sitting in, an elderly lady blocked my escape. Though I stand only 5′ 11″ at best, I towered over the slightly built, white-haired woman before me. She looked like everyone’s grandma, with a sweet smile that could melt the heart of even the angriest of persons. “Sonny,” she said, “you may not understand this, but God has a plan for your life.” If God had a plan for my life, it could only include more of the same that I already had, punishment. I knew her name to be ‘Mom Carter,” Her son-in-law and daughter, Lloyd and Nita Colbaugh, were also volunteers at the prison. I hurried out the door, vowing never to return.
The following day I entered the Learning Center and handed my pass to the young lady at the desk, Mary Lipscomb. “It was good to see you in church yesterday.” She said. “Yeah, I go every Sunday, but it’s not doing me much good.” I snarled. “Do you believe in God?” Mary asked. “I believe somebody up there is running all this,” I answered. “Have you ever prayed?” She asked. “Sure,” I responded, “I asked him once to get me out of boy’s school? He said no.” I felt awkward that I had continued the conversation and sought to end it. “Look? God and I have a perfect understanding, I’ve never done anything for him, and he has never done anything for me. We’re even.” I flippantly concluded, spun on my heels, and went to my seat.

I did not anticipate the turmoil I had set in motion as I tried to sleep that night. Sure, I had been rude to her in my spinning away and my surly attitude. But so what? I didn’t care about anyone, at least someone who had no idea what prison was about. The grapevine had Mary pegged as someone from an affluent family in town who probably had everything in life handed to her on a silver platter. Why should I care? But I did, and that bothered me even more. I would go to the Learning Center and apologize. Eventually, sleep found me, and I retired for the night.

The following day I greeted Mary by saying, “Look,” I didn’t mean to be rude yesterday. Most men have nothing but good things to say about you, so I apologize.” And then I walked away. Well, I tried to. Mary stopped me with, “You know, God can change your life.” “God didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” I said. I rattled off one excuse after another. I had been in prison too long. I had done too much. I had seen too much. At each rejection, Mary answered me with scripture that she seemed to know endlessly.

Another night of turmoil and no sleep. She just didn’t get it. I had hurt too many people, and there was no way God was letting me off that easy. Inwardly, I knew I didn’t deserve forgiveness, and there was no way I could make amends for all that I had done. Nor did she see the pain and shame that I had endured. I’d go there one last time and tell her the drama that kept me from trusting God or anyone. If you argue with a Christian about God, make it somebody who doesn’t know scripture. Mary was well-armed with scripture after scripture, and I constantly stuttered some ill-prepared answers. Finally, it was Mary who said, “Look, I’ve told you everything that I can tell you about God and His promises. You can either accept Him or reject Him. If you accept Him, you will have all His blessings, but if you reject Him, the consequences will be your choice.” And then she walked away. This girl had spunk and spirit.

So I don’t need to tell you another sleepless night laid in store for me. I probably relived my whole life that night. I was angry with myself for allowing this to get out of hand. I was angry with Mary for always having the right scripture to respond with. I recalled my vow from 10 years previously that I would never shed another tear, no matter how awful things would get. I would never let anybody get close to me, so I would never care about anyone or anything. I do not know where it originated, but I wondered, ‘What if she is right?” What if God could change me? She said God could change me, not me. I had tried to change for my mother, for my aunt. But it never worked. And I sure wasn’t going to change for some girl I didn’t even know and who I will never see again after I leave this prison. The question persisted, however. “God can change your life.” There was no argument that my life needed changing. I could not consider what that even meant. The only rational thought I could think of was, “What do I have to lose?” If He couldn’t change me, I was in no worse shape than before all this talk began? I hadn’t prayed since I was that scared little kid going to a boy’s school for the first time.

“God, what if what that girl says is true, that You can change my life? She said you could change my life. I must tell You I have little hope and can offer no help. If I have to obey a set of rules and promises to be good, that won’t work. You have to do it all, and if what she says is true, I accept your Son as my Savior.” Shocked, tears poured from my eyes as soon as I said the word, Savior. I tried desperately to stop crying but could not. I feared others in the dorm would hear me, so I covered my head with the pillow. Still, I could not halt the flood of tears pouring from the depths of my being. An unusually loud thunderstorm mercifully prevented anyone from hearing me. Only after the torrent inside my soul and outside my cell stopped I finally fell asleep.
When I awoke the following day, I didn’t feel any different from what I usually would. Still, I was excited to know that I would tell Mary that I had accepted Christ. After signing my pass and going to a cubicle, I called Mary over. Well, I did it.” I said. “What did you do?” “John.” “I accepted Christ.” Mary never looked so beautiful; She lit up like a Christmas tree. I could see she was trying to restrain her enthusiasm because employees and prisoners were not to become that familiar with each other, and to do so could cost her her job. My vow to never shed another tear was broken, and so was that vow to never care about anyone.

The following Sunday, I returned to church. God’s House of Hope had a guest, Larry Norman. Larry Norman is and was a pioneer of Christian Rock. He also gave a verbal message and sang some of his more popular songs. “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music comes to mind. I can’t recall what he said, much less explain how I came to know that God had done something. There was much more to learn.

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