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Volunteer jail chaplain’s ‘last career’ is his most important

By JOSHUA ROBERT / Laramie Boomerang (re-posted with permission)

The 29-year-old man has a shaved head, tattoos up and down both arms and standard issue black-and-whites.He speaks softly into the telephone, from behind a glass partition, inside a small room of metal and concrete.The inmate covers plenty of topics in the few minutes left of the allotted visit: his 7-year-old daughter, the drug and assault convictions and life on the wrong side of the glass.

“This place,” he says of Albany County Jail, “it sucks. There are, nonetheless, reasons to be thankful, reasons to hope.He says he’s committed to sobriety.He accepts responsibility for his choices and the consequences. And, he has someone in his corner.

He is definitely a blessing, not just to me, but to other people,” the inmate says of volunteer jail chaplain Rich Henderson. “He’s made my life a little better today.”

Henderson knows the inmate through visits during prior jail stints, and on the outside as part of Celebrate Recovery, a weekly, faith-based program to overcome “hurts, habits and hang-ups.”

On this Thursday afternoon, inmate and chaplain talk philosophy, faith and the future.

“Your relationship with God is what’s important,” Henderson says into the telephone, in response to a question about denominations. “Tags aren’t what’s important.”

Henderson taps on a book, “Free on the Inside,” a Bible written at an elementary school level that simplifies concepts for readers.

The book is his constant companion on jail visits.

Henderson seeks out chapters and verses, flipping through and finding pages, encouraging the inmate with words and messages and parables.

The chaplain mentions the book’s testimonials, short passages written by inmates.“

They will help inspire you,” Henderson says. “These are people who have been where you’re at now.”

The two men discuss 8 a.m. July 30.

Ten days from now, Henderson says he’ll be back at the jail to receive the inmate as he’s released and reintroduced to freedom.

They’ll run errands together

We’ll at least get you started,” Henderson says.

The visit ends with prayer.

The chaplain says “the Gospel means good news,” and advises approaching a walk with faith a “step at a time.”

It’s all anyone can do, Henderson says.

After all, he says, “We’re all lost souls.”

~~~~~~~

Henderson, 58, is working on his “last career” by volunteering time and spiritual guidance during multiple visits each week with jail inmates.

He is an ordained minister through Whitewater Christian Church, a Celebrate Recovery co-leader and a Laramie resident for more than 30 years.

Professionally, he’s been an electrician, lawnmower mechanic, bakery delivery driver and Christian bookstore manager.

Two months ago, he retired after 19 years with the U.S. Postal Service.

But, it’s his current work in ministry and inside the jail he believes is his calling.

Henderson said he doesn’t judge inmates he counsels.

Rather, he sees similarities.

“Here’s what I tell the inmates when I visit them,” he said. “If I’m visiting them for the first time, I say, ‘Hey, the only difference between me and you is I never got caught. I’m basically a felon who never got caught.’

“I know the things that I did and I know I repented and changed, purely by the grace of God.”

Henderson grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, in a Catholic family. Religion was plentiful growing up, he said, though a Christ-based relationship was not.

He describes the ages of 17-20 years old as his “period of rebellion.” He spent a year at Western Illinois University, drank heavily, used drugs, “lots and lots of LSD,” he says, “and for all practical purposes, flunked out.”

“I wasn’t interested in school," he said. "I was only interested in having a good time being away from home."

However, Henderson said God worked in his life, chipping away at rebellion and filling the gap with faith.

Henderson cited his troubled experience as a younger man earlier this month during a hearing in Second Judicial District Court. He spoke to the court on behalf of an inmate he regularly counseled in the last year.

Timothy Lund, Henderson said to a District Court judge, wasn’t all that different from him at the same age.

Lund, a former WyoTech-Laramie student, was sentenced to a year in jail in July 2012, the penalty for driving under the influence, causing serious injury and aggravated assault and battery.

He inhaled industrial cleaner and was unconscious behind the wheel of his 1986 BMW in February 2012. He struck University of Wyoming student Cale McCormick, nearly killing him.

During a probation hearing earlier this month, McCormick, his family, Henderson and others spoke to the court on behalf of Lund.

Words like compassion and forgiveness were used throughout. The prosecutor and presiding judge remarked about the rarity of such examples of forgiveness in a courtroom setting.

Henderson met regularly with Lund throughout his jail sentence, though he stops short of accepting credit for inspiring positive changes in Lund’s life.

For Lund, the chaplain said he was simply a middleman, God’s “ambassador.”

Henderson was at the jail Thursday morning when Lund was released from custody, into the arms of his mother and father.“

It didn’t start out being that kind of commitment, it grew into that,” Henderson said of his meetings with Lund. “I realized that this was someone who could really benefit from regular visits.“

People need to be validated, and they need spiritual guidance. What I see, as a jail chaplain, is that many of these guys are at the bottom looking up and they’re looking for answers. Anyone that can come in and offer them hope instead of despair, a hope of change, a hope of a new life when they get out … can be very beneficial.”

~~~~~~~

Henderson has something else in common with many of the inmates he visits. Ink.

He has three tattoos, one on his left and right arm, and another on the underside of his right forearm. They’re the work of his son-in-law, a Las Vegas tattoo artist.

Henderson got the first at 55 years old.

The left arm is Animal from “The Muppet Show,” wailing and flailing on his kit with mayhem.

Henderson is a drummer, performing at times at Whitewater Christian, and the tattoo draws a parallel with Second Samuel 6:22.

“For me, when I play my drums, I’m playing for the Lord and I have all four limbs going, and that’s my dancing before the Lord,” Henderson said.

The right arm is a chain broken by a large cross, a nod to faith freeing him from past addictions, behavior and his former life.

On the underside of his forearm is perhaps his most poignant body art.It says “sozo,” a Greek word from the New Testament.

Henderson said it means “saved, healed, delivered, made whole, preserved.”

“It’s a statement I had to make,” he said of the tattoos.Henderson said there’s nothing unique about his volunteer work in the jail. He’s no “one-man band,” citing other local residents and people of faith who perform similar deeds on inmates' behalf.

“I’m just following in the footsteps of others who have been doing this for a long time,” he said.

The chaplain said his visits, while centered on faith, are about seeing people with compassion, mercy and love. It’s about support, encouragement and “meeting them where they are.”

“It takes more,” he said, “than just coming in and talking about God.”

Again, he takes little credit in whatever transformation Lund has undergone.

He doesn’t know how life will fare for the inmate he currently counsels who is being released at the end of the month.

It’s easy, he said, to “be good when you’re behind bars.”

He can only hope inmates he visits walk away from jail better equipped, more mature and with a firmer resolve about life.

Henderson said this “last career” is about planting ideas, hoping they take root and someday flourish beyond walls.

“Sometimes you’re sowing seed,” he said. “Sometimes you’re watering what others have sown. Sometimes you’re the sunlight helping bring growth. Sometimes the seeds fall on a path.

“I never know. I’m just called to bring the message.”


Comments (1) -

  • Annie Dunne

    7/13/2016 11:00:19 PM | Reply

    I would do everything to be a volunteer at aprison

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