By request I am passing on to the readers of the Ministry some of my experiences in laboring for prisoners in State and Federal penal institutions Surely Christ died for these poor incarcerated convicts as well as for us. It is said that John Wesley, on seeing two men clothed in stripes passing by under heavy guard, said, "Save for the grace of God', yonder goes John Wesley !"
Once, at the request of their mother, I visited two brothers in the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. In an isolated room, behind cold iron bars, I waited until a guard ushered in a young man about twenty-three years of age. He told me his story. His mother was a Seventh-day Adventist, and he had been reared in the truth, as was his brother. He married a Christian girl and was the father of two small children. Gambling, bootleg whisky, and deserting his family had landed him in this dreary prison home for a period of two years. His term would be up in six months. I asked him what he would do when released, and whether his mother's training and love meant anything to him. "Brother Griffin," he said with feeling, "I give my heart to God ! And when I am freed from this place, I am going to my family to make things right; then I will live for God and be ready for the coming of my Lord."
About this time his younger brother, perhaps twenty-one years of age, was brought in through the locked doors. I appealed to him, but received no reply. He looked most dejected and stared heavily at the floor. Again and again I tried to get him to express his intentions regarding what he would do when his term of one more year was served. This young man was also married, and had been a home deserter and a gambler. It seemed that the more I tried to point out the love of God and His great pardoning grace, the more clearly despair flooded the fallen young man's face. His brother whispered to me, "Pray for him; he has lost all hope."
The contrast was painfully marked in the countenances of these two brothers—one face beaming with new hope and love, the other broken, clouded, and morose. I thought of the apostle Paul's assertion: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." I Cor. 15:19.
At Raleigh, North Carolina, I preached weekly for more than a year to the inmates of "death row." When the offer to preach to these doomed souls first came to me, I confess I shrank from the task. I felt that I was too busy to take time for so hopeless a task. But when I heard that these condemned people had requested that an Adventist conduct their regular Sunday services, and that I was merely following the work of our previous pastors there, I told the head chaplain of the State prison that I would try it for a brief time.
I had not gone many times to death row until I had a conversion. In fact, after the first sermon delivered there, I lay awake in the night with the grim faces of those doomed men haunting me. Some may think they can joke and "laugh off" anything, anywhere; but when the awful reality of death stares men in the face, they cannot lightly shake it off. It is a place of melancholy.
It occurred to me early in this sort of ministry that it would be mockery to go there merely to attempt to entertain. I determined to uplift Christ and His standard of righteousness with all the sincerity I could command, by the aid of the Holy Spirit.
At first some of the men would pace their cells while I spoke, or in other ways show their disdain for what we were trying to do. But it was only a few weeks until some of the most hardened and disinterested would cling to the bars and eagerly listen to every word that was preached.
I preached the law, the atoning sacrifice, the coming of Christ, the state of the dead, the Sabbath, health reform, etc. Sometimes I would ask how many wanted prayer for their souls. It was pathetic to see those calloused criminals stretch their arms out through the bars to say, "Remember me."
One day I asked, "How many will keep the true Sabbath?" and many raised their hands. Others promised to cease smoking and drinking, by the help of God.
One Sunday as we started out, a young man twenty years of age, near where we would be escorted out through the locked doorways by an armed guard, called me to his cell. He said, "Brother Griffin, I will not be here when you come next Sunday. My time is Friday, but I will meet you when Jesus comes !" These words, so freighted with meaning, sank deep in my heart like an arrow.
By special permission of the warden, I was permitted to go to the prison Friday at nine o'clock. The young man was to go into the gas chamber at ten o'clock. I hardly knew what to say. Such a situation makes one sense anew the importance of time and words. I began by speaking of death as being nothing to fear particularly. He took my words from me and said, "I know, Brother Griffin, for I've been reading my Bible [which he held in his hand] since coming to death row. Death is just a sleep until the coming of Christ. And I do not want you to worry about me." I asked if he wanted me to pray for him. He dropped to his knees. There we were—he was inside, and I, just outside, those cold bars.
I prayed, and then he prayed thus: "God, I thank Thee for caring for me. O God ! My whole life is just one stretch of sin and crime, and I helped murder a man. God forgive my whole life! . . . and now, Lord, bless Brother Griffin and make him happy for coming here to see us poor men."
When we arose the young Man, looking out of the bars through his tears, said, "Perhaps for me it is better that my life end as it does, for I have found Christ on death row ! Brother Griffin, you will never know what your coming here to death row has meant. And I want to leave a request with you. Please don't fail my friends on death row. Why, when you were out of the city one week, we all talked of how much we missed your coming here. Don't neglect these poor men on death row is all I have to ask !"
Later, I was at a church picnic along a lovely riverbank, and it came time for my service on death row. Friends said, "The fun is just beginning now. Let that meeting go for once and stay here." At first I was inclined to follow the suggestion, but there echoed in my ear the words, "Don't fail the men on death row," and I jumped into my car and was off to see them at the appointed time.
Sometimes we would take a choir from the church or my family would sing for these poor souls. We closed every service with "Shall We Gather at the River?" This, the inmate's especially loved to sing with us. Some were very good singers. On the last chorus of this song we would start down the steel gangplank to leave. This walkway was across a chasm from three tiers of cells, one above the other—housing some thirty-five doomed human beings.
As we started walking away many would call after us saying, "Thank you," "God bless you," "Do come again." Some wrote me letters of love with the kindest words of appreciation. May it be that when the blessed Master returns, He may be able to say to us, "I was in prison, and ye came unto Me." Matt. 25.:36.