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Gospel at the Coalface - Michael Graham in San Quentin
Michael Graham came to the Lord after 28 years of disciplined practice in Eastern spiritual traditions and the New Age movement. It is a remarkable story – the subject of a book and several articles - and many church audiences have been entranced to hear it.
Michael is now living in San Francisco, and 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 back in 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.
Surprisingly there’s 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.
Sometimes they 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