DURING the past three years I have served as chaplain of a Federal hospital, a Federal prison, and at present writing, of a State training school for delinquent youth. I have seen hundreds admitted and discharged from these places. I have lived with men and boys who had made shipwreck of their lives, and society had judged them a peril to the lives and property of others. So they had been sent off where they would be out of sight of "decent" people, and keys were turned behind them.
After these years of observing such "awful" people, of studying and praying with them, there have come upon me some very firm convictions. One of them is this: The church should be contributing far more toward the spiritual rehabilitation of these lonely and broken outcasts, both men and women, boys and girls, than we are doing at present. I am sure that if you could have sat where I sat, and watched from where I watched, you too would share this same conviction. Though we are doing a noble work for the sick, and though we have an ever-expanding program for clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, in fulfilling that other part of the Master's injunction about visiting those who are in prison, we scarcely have a program at all.
Perhaps I do not need to take time here to dwell on the size and dimensions of this great challenge, or to point out the rapid expansion in the population of the increasing number of institutions that house these "disinherited souls." We are all aware of the fact that the increase of lawlessness and violence has filled these correctional facilities of our country far beyond their capacities. Some months ago I visited a site in southern California where a new youth training center for delinquents was in the process of construction. Piles of building material had been assembled; walls and high fences were rapidly rising above the level of the ground. A few months later I had occasion to return to this area. The institution was completed and in full operation with a population of four hundred young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty. The construction of more wings and annexes was still in progress. I was informed that by another year they expected to have here upward of sixteen hundred youth. All of this where but two years before there had been only open fields. This is but typical of the amazing growth and expansion of governmental facilities required to care for the lawless and the delinquents throughout the country.
All this constitutes a vast field of labor for the servants of Christ. The numbers of lost men and women, shipwrecks on the shoals of sin, are ever increasing. These people must be given spiritual help in connection with all the other programs of rehabilitation made available to them. Someone must point them to the only Name under heaven whereby they can be saved. While this spiritual guidance cannot always be completed during the time they are wards of an institution, it can be begun. Human guidance, the help they should have received from parents or foster parents, has failed them. They've had enough of the past, and instinctively look forward to a brighter future. And when they see the help they might receive from God, many reach out for it.
Proof of this is seen daily in the school where I now serve as Protestant chaplain. I conduct twelve Bible classes, all voluntarily attended. There are eight to fourteen boys in a class. At times we have had to compete with ball games and other attractions close to a boy's heart, yet the boys have requested to stay on and continue the lesson. Another evidence of this desire for spiritual help is found in the large number of prisoners enrolled in the Voice of Prophecy correspondence courses throughout the country. During a conversation I had with the chaplain of a State penitentiary in the South, he informed me that the midweek prayer meeting had been discontinued because so many were using their evenings to work on their Voice of Prophecy courses. I have encountered these classes in several large prisons and am informed that they are to be found in practically all the State and Federal institutions.
But what are we doing to follow up the interests? Has any plan been worked out among the conferences that assures personal visitation by workers or trained layman who are orientated in this line of approach? To my knowledge there has not. Ministers in the area of these prisons and general hospitals are like ministers elsewhere—too busy and often too inadequately prepared to take on these added responsibilities. They hesitate to enter into that which they know so little about and which would only prevent their accomplishing other duties closer at hand.
It is only natural to turn from that in which no guidance or personal supervision is given and take up the regular duties in which one is better prepared and has more experience.
Yet this Macedonian call must be answered if our labors are to please Him who called us into the vineyard. In one Federal penitentiary in the East where thirty or forty men had taken the courses, I was told that these men had frequently expressed the hope that some Adventist minister might visit them. But this had never been done. One of the prisoners at this institution is a faithful Seventh-day Adventist, having been baptized in another penitentiary several years before. He told me that he had mentioned this desire for help to an employee of the prison who is an Adventist. Sabbath after Sabbath this faithful brother gathers those he can into the chapel and has his Sabbath school. But after nearly two years of waiting he has yet to be visited by an Adventist minister. He told me I was the first minister he had seen in all that time. Brethren, this should not be.
The servant of the Lord has warned God's people about the danger of isolating themselves from the world. Ministering to broken men and women about us, giving a helping hand to those ready to sink in the waters of sin, is a service that cannot be left altogether to others to do. I have found that many of the boys for whom I labor are as promising as boys are anywhere and would make earnest Christians if they were only given a chance. But when a mother abandons a little boy, when a father shoots and kills a boy's stepmother before his eyes, when a boy is shunted from home to home like a boxcar on a railroad track, until he can count ten foster homes where he has tried to live, and he is not yet twelve years old, what else can we expect? How much can the human system take and not crack under the load of such treatment? How much better would we have fared without a mother's love or a father's care? Perhaps not one whit better.
To respond to such a Macedonian call requires more than a compassionate heart and a willing hand. In the complex world of our day men and women in the modern halls of correction and rehabilitation must be given more than the unskilled care they received in years gone by. Time was when most any experienced preacher of the gospel, if he was known by the warden, might apply and stand a good chance of being employed as the prison chaplain. No special training was required. But that day has passed. Civil service examinations are now given to candidates, and a year's internship under the guidance of a trained chaplain is generally the requirement demanded today. We now know that dealing with the minds of men is the most delicate work in the world, and it must be undertaken with some skill. So, while our weapons of warfare as ministers of the gospel remain, greater skill and adaptation is now an essential in the handling of these weapons of the Word and the Spirit.
May I suggest that some of our difficulty in obtaining permission to labor in certain prisons has come about because of a lack of this skill and knowledge, which a degree of preparation would have given. In one instance an Adventist minister had been called in to visit a boy who claimed to be a Seventh-day Adventist. But our brother exhausted his welcome after the first visit. The boy did not want to see him again because of the embarrassing questions put to him in this first interview. It was necessary for the chaplain to suggest that he not return. However, these reports have not come too often and should not discourage us. It is up to us to develop the right kind of technique to open these doors. We need not fail the second time, at least in the same area of operation.
May God help us to somehow grasp the size and the extent of this Macedonian call and then to undertake the program it requires. It will cost money, if for no other reason than the fact that the field is so large. Remember that during the past twelve years the number of juvenile arrests and court cases has nearly doubled the rate of juvenile population growth. Who can foresee the end? Our President has called for a five-year program to combat juvenile delinquency and estimates that the cost to the national Government alone will be ten million dollars annually. Congress has been asked to vote this amount. This is a new area of Federal activity undertaken because of the emergency in the unparalleled increase of lawlessness among the youth. Can we stand by as a church and do nothing for those who have fallen victims to the monster of sin? Ellen G. White has given us the answer:
His [Christ's] followers are not to feel themselves detached from the perishing world around them. They are a part of the great web of humanity; and Heaven looks upon them as brothers to sinners as well as to saints.—The Desire of Ages, p. 638.
The person who has broken the law and has fallen into disgrace and shame in the community is still a child for whom Christ died. Only Christ can save him. He is our brother as well as is the saint in the church for whom we labor. May God roll upon us then a sense of obligation toward these "disinherited souls" who are increasing in such numbers all about us. He may be the forgotten backwash of our slums, his misdemeanors may cause us to shudder, but tonight he may be sitting in some lonely cell, wishing that he had the power to live a better life. He may be longing for a chance to take his place as an honorable citizen in this great country of ours. He feels he has never had that chance, and he might be right. Let us help him.