In July 2017 I wrote an article for INSIDE HILLSIDE that questioned whether the time I had spent on planning for my retirement was good stewardship of the time and resources God had blessed me with during my forty-year career. In the article I concluded that the countless hours I spent on planning for retirement was good stewardship because I now had time and resources to pursue not only my “bucket list” but also the “bucket list” that God had planned for me. I must admit that doing the things I had planned continue to be exciting and fulfilling. However, I have discovered over the past ten years that the things God has prompted me to do has blessed me far more than the pursuit of my own list.
When I wrote the first article in 2017, I intended to make it a three part series. However, I never intended to take over two years to complete the series. One of the blessings of retirement is learning to slow down. I drink my morning coffee much slower and enjoy the sunrise, when I can see it, of each day. Because of the time gap between the three articles, let me briefly summarize the first two articles.
In the first article I wrote about the dramatic events in my life that lead me to conclude that God had His own “bucket list” for my retirement years. This included signing up for the trip to Cuba with Hillside’s ESL team nine years ago and meeting three Cuban friends who have blessed me immeasurably over the past nine years. I shared the story of Daniel Suarez who was able to leave Cuba after being granted a visitor visa, an event that can only be explained as divine intervention. Daniel came to live in our home for two years while he attended Calvin University, received his nursing degree, completed the requirements for citizenship and began working at Pine Rest Christian Hospital. Also, I shared the story of Shirley Lee who came to live with us two years ago while she attends Calvin University and plans to receive her undergraduate degree in May 2020. Shirley has been a blessing to our family and Hillside as she has shared her gifts of playing the piano and singing with the Praise Team.
In the second article I shared the story of Yudelis who felt she needed to remain in Cuba “to be God’s light in a society that she described as “miserable, hopeless and rude.” Her decision to stay in Cuba was primarily due to the fact that her husband, Pinky, was in prison for attempting to get her out of Cuba illegally. Approximately twelve years ago Pinky was able to escape Cuba in a boat and planned to pursue Yudelis’ legal immigration to America. Due to loneliness and depression, Pinky decided to borrow a boat, return to Cuba and get her out illegally. He was caught and at the time I wrote the second article, he had been in prison for ten years for human trafficking. While interviewing Yudelis for the second article, she stated “she and Pinky begin each year believing that it will be the last one of separation and they start each morning believing that a miracle will come down. The time and seasons belong to God and we know He has a time for us and that time will come perfectly someday.” Last year while visiting Cuba, I had the pleasure of meeting Pinky. He was out of prison on work release, able to spend weekends with his family and expects to be released from prison in 2020. I look forward to seeing Pinky, Yudelis and their daughter, Briana, when I accompany Hillside’s ESL Team to Cuba in January 2020.
In this last article I wanted to feature my involvement with Hillside’s jail ministry. Six years ago Jerry DeWeerd asked me if I would be interested in joining this ministry along with Norm Johnson, Loren Gulker, and Bert and Reik Tameling. This ministry involves going into the Kent County Jail’s God Pod, a 32 cell pod dedicated to men who are committed to changing their lives through Bible study and prayer, three times a year to lead an eight week Bible study based on the book, UNEXPLAINABLE: Pursuing A Life Only God Can Make Possible, written by Don Cousins.
Even though I have been involved in this ministry for six years, I was not aware of how this ministry started at Hillside. In preparing to write this article, I interviewed Jerry and Norm and discovered that it started on the golf course, as all good things do. Senior Hillside members had formed a league in 2007 and during a round of golf, there was discussion about the Forgotten Men’s Ministry (FMM) programs in Michigan’s county jails. Several Hillside members attended an annual meeting of the FMM and were challenged to develop a bible study program and volunteer to present it in the God Pod. Shortly after this meeting, Jerry went to Hilton Head to visit his daughter’s family and, while there, attended a presentation on a recently released book entitled, UNEXPLAINABLE. Jerry was moved in an un-explainable way to develop an eight week Bible study based on the book and specifically designed for jail inmates. It is truly amazing and un-explainable apart from God how He took a conversation on the golf course to develop a Hillside ministry that has been ministering to jail inmates for ten years. I estimate that over the ten years of this ministry, Hillside members have had the opportunity to reach over one thousand inmates with Paul’s story of persecuting the church, experiencing God’s redemption and grace and being used by God to establish the early Christian church. Jerry, Norm, Loren, Bert and Reik are no longer involved in this ministry but thanks to them the next generation can continue this important ministry.
Most of the inmate’s stories share the same story line as Edwin. He was raised in New Orleans, experienced a chaotic home environment and “saw many things that children should be protected from.” When he was thirteen Hurricane Katrina hit, he lost half of his family and was separated from those who did not die in the flood. He was reunited with his mother but lost her to cancer two years later. Feeling abandoned and forgotten he began a life of substance abuse and criminal behavior. He served five years in a Louisiana prison and moved to Michigan when released. He says he was “free but still empty and alone.” He soon returned to a life of substance abuse and crime and ended up being incarcerated in the Kent County Jail. He says “He wanted to give up, but God wouldn’t let me. I was at a point where I couldn’t take any more and then God sent me to the God Pod. Now I fully live by Proverbs 3:5-6 and I learned one great truth while in the God Pod. I needed more than a new start in my life, I needed a new heart. Also, I needed to build a Godly life with God as the architect and His word as the blue print. Thank you for helping me find the right path.”
One of the lessons we do with the inmates is entitled, Letting Go and Letting God. We challenge inmates to follow God’s will and plan for their lives. If they are willing, God promises to lead them in ways that are beyond them, take them to places they cannot get to without Him and He will do things in and through them that are un-explainable. To prove it, I tell them the stories about my Cuban friends and the story of Hillside’s jail ministry.
By Ron Apol