It looked like a small settlement—rows of matching buildings on one side and neat vegetable gardens on the other. In the distance was a basketball court. Further yet, a vendor sold fruit.
I walked up the dirt path behind my father, who chatted with some men as he walked. Small crowds gathered as we passed by. They stared and whispered. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I walked on, trying not to show any sign of fear.
Was I afraid? Of course! I was 15 years old, these were no ordinary men, and this was no ordinary village. This was the country’s national prison, where men were put away and forgotten.
My father and I walked until we came to a small chapel. A few men had already gathered, waiting on the benches for some kind of entertainment. It was hot, and I wished I were at home, sipping orange juice and watching TV rather than trying to escape the tension of the moment.
I listened as my father spoke with the inmates. As an ex-seaman and now a traveling counselor, my dad conversed comfortably with everyone from politicians to drug addicts, and he taught us kids to do the same. But I could not understand the passion that drove him to make these visits to the prison every week.
My father and mother were moved by the plight of others. Our large family could only afford the basics and a few small luxuries, but when they saw the need in others’ lives, they always tried to help. Dad spoke of building a Sunday school for the inmates’ children. He said he would try to organize sports tournaments and workshops. Whatever he did, he tried to do better. Wherever he worked, he could work harder—and he did.
Dad turned and motioned me toward the front. “Come help me sing,” he said.
I stood by his side, facing the crowd of prisoners. They were hushed, expectant. He pulled out his nylon-string guitar, strapped it on, and thumbed through the hymnal till he came to the song he had in mind. He wasn’t a particularly talented musician, but that didn’t matter. Dad had spirit in everything he did, and when you were around him, you felt it. A few riffs broke the silence. He began to sing:
O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed. …
His eyes signaled to me. As I joined in on the chorus, so did some of the men. They closed their eyes, as if picturing a wonderful and loving God, a God who ruled the entire universe, yet wanted to be in the heart of every man.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
And then my father read from the Bible about God and His love—a love with power great enough to forgive any sin and love any sinner.
That day I understood Dad a bit better. I saw that he felt compelled to walk among outcasts as Christ had done two thousand years before him. It made no difference that their past was reprehensible and their future bleak. When he looked at each one, he saw a human being, a unique and beloved creation of God, and he wanted to make their present world a better place.
Years passed. Many of Dad’s dreams eventually became realities. The sports league was organized; Sunday school activities were led by the inmates themselves. As a result of my dad’s efforts to raise awareness of the prisoners’ plight, sponsorships began to pour in for new initiatives. Dad’s seemingly insignificant efforts created a ripple effect that reached into thousands of hearts. My dad was granted access to any prison ward in the country, and he traveled often into those dark corners, continuing his mission of hope. If he were ever imprisoned for his faith, Dad sometimes joked, he would feel right at home.
Thinking about the lives that have been changed for the better as a result of the way my parents have continued to help others everywhere they walk, be it a high road or low, reminds me of another who walked among men, the One commissioned to bring God’s love to the world long ago.
Jesus said, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. … Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” 1
- Matthew 25:34–36,40