Michael is now living
is worshipping at
the Miller Avenue
Baptist Church. His pastor, Kent Philpott, is not only the author of
many books and articles, but is also
baseball coach for the San Quentin Prison team.
Recently Michael was
Melbourne for a
short visit. Over lunch he told me of his latest projects – writing a book
with his pastor on American Buddhism, and regular visits to San Quentin to
talk with the prisoners about his faith. I asked for some more detail about
the prison. Here is a part of his story:
I go with another man
from my church. After numerous security checks we are at last in the cell
block - five tiers of cells, just like in the movies. Two men are in each
cell, placed together according to race. There’s never a black with a white.
I’m told they’ll kill each other. There goes political correctness.
an extraordinary courtesy in the prison: “Yes sir.” “No sir.” “Excuse me,
sir.” “Thank you for coming in, sir.” I was told by a veteran visitor that
this is part of the jungle ethos, for mutual protection. But to an outsider
it seems extraordinarily civil, and a real surprise. The supermarket
checkout girl can’t compete with this.
I walk down, cell by
cell. Sometimes prisoners are asleep. I’ll say nothing and walk to the next
cell. Many of the prisoners stand at the bars, ready and willing to talk.
Some call out, “Come over here, sir”, and faithfully and earnestly engage in
conversation, reaching for that God-shaped vacuum in their hearts to be
filled. They really are a captive audience.
I’m able to tell them
why I’m there, ask them whether they’ve given any thought to spiritual life
and I give my own testimonial of coming to Christ. Sometimes it’s the less
interested cellmate who cocks his ear and comes forward with equal interest.
Even the Muslim “cellies” listen in, with seeds for the Gospel being
planted. It’s all a marvellously rewarding experience.
These men have
countless hours to reflect on their follies and the mess it has led them to.
Surprisingly, many are already Christians, some of them mighty ones, with
years of prayer and study and a close walk with God.
minister to me, and I express my gratitude for their timely words. This is
the Gospel right at the coalface. It’s real, like life on the edge.
My ministry companion
has a completely different style. I watch him with amazement. He fires
scripture after scripture at them through the bars, and they listen without
recoil. These men are hungry. The sweet milk of the Word nourishes them.
It seems to me the
sovereignty of God in providence has put so many of these men in this
situation just to get their attention, and once converted they’re renewed
and find a peace they could never find outside of the prison. It’s strange.
The ways of God are beyond tracing out.
March 11th, 2003