Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Friends who are gone...

I'm writing this from a house in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was in Chicago for the past few days and came out here to visit Benjamin (my roommate from college, and Sam, who did the HNGR programme with me). Yesterday (and I can't believe it was only yesterday), I received a phone call as I was touring around with Sam and Benjamin which informed me that another friend of ours had committed suicide the night before. This was hard news to take. I knew this friend wasn't doing well, and had tried to take his life before, but i wasn't expecting this now. This has hit me after learning of the death, again through suicide, of another of my friend's at the begining of summer. I can't explain why these things happened. And I don't think I need to, but it's still hard. Both these guys were great people, who made me laugh and forced me to think harder about certain things. I've changed my plane ticket to fly home to Dublin a little later so that I can stay here and be here for the funeral service. Please pray for comfort for his family, who have been through hell these past few months I'm sure, and for all his friends who loved him so much, who he left behind.

Ironically, I guess, but the email I received giving me the news I put in the post below about Angola and Bishop came from this friend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

i'm alive and well

I'm alive and much has happened since I’ve last posted, and I won't try and cover it all.

Recently I received an email from a friend that has really lifted my spirits. Some of you may know that I spent time in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, LA. If you've seen my wallet, I bought it from an inmate there who made it in his free time.
I spent a week there during spring break my 2nd year of wheaton, and then went back for several days during mid-term break the autumn of that year. Both times were incredible experiences for me. When you enter this prison, in many ways you feel that you are entering a monastery rather than a prison. The prison is currently renowned for its rehabilitation of inmates and also surprisingly and what made me want to visit the prison in the first place is that the christian community among many of the inmates there is vibrant and growing. There is even a full-time seminary on the premises (not run by government funds of course) that inmates can attend (as one of different educational options). I went as part of a group from wheaton who went under the chaplaincy office. Many people I told that I was going assumed that we were going to "minister" to the inmates there, but this was far from the truth, we were going there to spend time with brothers of ours (it's an all male prison) and most of us felt as we were "ministered" to by the men there.

What we found there was truly indescribable. I've rarely seen such christian community, men serving each other and showing each other such care. It's by no means a perfect community, and has many of its own problems with personalities, prison politics and the like, but there is an undeniable work of God going on there among these men. Many of these men are the worst of the worst criminals and have no hope of ever leaving Angola. I'd previously believed that men only "found God" in prison to try and show good behaviour before they appear before parole boards, but many of these men didn't think focus on leaving too much and were desiring how to seek out and serve god there in the prison community.

Angola is partly so incredible because of it's past. It did not used to be such a shining example. It was known as one of America's deadliest and bloodiest prisons. Many people were killed while inside, often brutally. One man who lived through that time is a Man now referred to as "Bishop Tanniehil". This man of God, experienced Angola in its dark days and now in its lighter times. He is one of those old southern speakers, with a deep Louisiana accent that I must admit was often incomprehensible to me. I've rarely seen someone light up a room the way he does. He is now well into his golden years and is recognised both by inmates, guards and wardens as a man of great standing. When he preaches everyone (guards and all) listen and respond.

The email I received was a press release received by a friend who was on those trips with me. This is what it said:

"The Bishop was "Met at the Gate"!

On Tuesday, August 14th, Eugene "Bishop" Tanniehill was pardoned by the Governer of Louisiana, released from Angola Prison, and met at the gate by Terry VanDerAa and Pastor Bert DeJong. After serving 47 years of a life sentence, the Bishop is the latest to receive a warm welcome by "the Church outside the prison walls" through the Meet Me at the Gate® program.

Terry brought the Bishop to the Koinonia House® National Ministries office and together they had what Manny Mill called "the biggest ALELUYA ever!"

Manny Mill is director of Koinonia House Ministries which assists former inmates in the crazy, and extremely challenging transition from prison life to life on the outside.

As strange as all this may sound to many, and i must admit Angola is an odd place, this is some of the best news i've heard recently. If there's ever a man deserving of a pardon it's this man, although most of us never expected the governor to approve this (he has been denied countless times), this is a huge answer to many people's prayers. I'm sure Bishop Tanniehill would appreciate your prayers for him in this time as he's moving out into the "real world" where he hasn't walked in 47 years.