Actually, it wasn’t funny at all. It was glorious!In the past 20 years we have held hundreds of meetings in 10 prisons in the U.S. and one in Honduras. Yet, I could count on one hand the times we encountered God’s grace like we did yesterday at the Death Row Hospital in Raiford.
I’ve known “Lucky” (Lloyd Duest) for a little more than 3 of his 27 years on Death Row. He was a strong Christian when we met him and has been for most of his years living on Death Row. His faith shines in that dark place like a candle in the black of night.
God has used this man as a secret source of hope and strength in my walk. The resilience of his lively walk with Jesus, amidst his 6 X 8 ft. cell has humbled and inspired me more times than I can count. Like the one time a couple years ago as I was so frustrated working with 42 churches to host a large homeless outreach in Daytona Beach. I received a letter in the mail from Lucky saying he was with us in spirit … and a check for $100.
Or the time last year when I was ready to throw in the towel, again. Here comes a letter from Lucky telling me that his cancer is back, but raving about the goodness of God and how blessed He is to know Him.
Or just a few months ago, when I was belly-aching to God because the funds weren’t coming in to cover the cost of our Honduras mission. Here comes another letter from Lucky from the hospital at Death Row with words of blessing for the Honduras outreach and a check for $200. That was hard enough to take ‘before’ I learned they had just taken his bladder two weeks before he wrote the letter! What a spoiled, pampered, weak American Christian I am.
Since returning from our last Honduras mission, I have so wanted to get to Raiford and hug Lucky’s neck and thank him for being such a source of strength and faith to me. Yet, there has seemed to be an extra measure of resistance for me to get there. My father-in-law’s cancer; now my sister-in-law’s cancer diagnosis; my wife getting hit with painful shingles; the ongoing work of trying (too hard) to get our struggling church ‘in-the-black’ and keeping up with our outreach schedule while planning five new mission trips are just a part of it.
After receiving a call from a dear friend that the doctors say Lucky’s not long for this world, I cleared the deck and made the trek to Raiford. I’ve been in many prisons and on Death Row many times, but never in the Death Row hospital. It was worse than I even imagined.
It was filthy and disgusting. It smelled like a bad nursing home and other than the little sign that said ‘hospital’ on the front door, there was not one hint of anything medical throughout the building. Paint was falling off the walls like a condemned tenement building and large boards littered the stairwells. The correctional officers were loud, annoyed and abrasive. One guard joked loudly, for my benefit, to another guard about how he ‘needed to get saved’ as they escorted me down a long, God-awful row of 6 X 8 ft. cinderblock rooms sealed with thick metal doors with only a 4″ X 18″ strip of glass to connect them with the outside world.
The two officers unlocked Lucky’s door and were required to stand guard at the open door for the duration of my visit. This seemed to annoy them to the point they incessantly chattered with each other louder than a normal volume and seemed to intentionally have turned their radios up full blast as some kind of twisted ‘pay-back’ for what I don’t know.
Whatever distraction they were trying to create quickly vanished in the joy of Lucky’s surprise to see me. I was humbled by the honor the Lord was anointing me with to hug my friend for the first time since I have known him. I don’t know if I have ever been hugged like that before. All 108 lbs. of him hugged me as if he was trying to squeeze the Christ right out of me. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he did.
Amidst the boisterous noises directed our way from the guards and all the other noise from the hallway, we had an incredible visit. Lucky managed to sit up. He showed me the feeding tube in his stomach and a stamped, addressed letter to me at the end of his bed. Both seemed to hit me like a brick.
We sat in his ‘hospital room’ and visited like long lost school buds. We read scriptures aloud. The noise from the hall was such that I had to read very loud just so he could hear me even though I was 3 feet away from him. He drank in every word of Psalm 91 and Revelation chapter 22. We had a word of prayer together. God was present in a tangible way.
I so wanted to give this dear man something to thank him for the encouragement and inspiration he has been to me. Prison regulations prohibit us from leaving anything with inmates. Anything material, that is. I said, “Lucky”, I want to sing a song in your honor. He said, “Let’s sing”.
His voice was quiet and weak. I began to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ just as loud as I could and the most amazing thing happened. Before I got to “… how sweet the sound” a Holy hush hit that place. I don’t mean just his pitiful 6 X 8 ft. poor excuse for a hospital room. I mean the entire building. As if on cue, every one of the six correctional officers on that row turned their radios ‘off’. You could hear a pin drop. No one was making a sound. It was as if the Holy Spirit put the whole building on ‘lock-down’ without asking anyone’s permission. The Presence of God was as thick as a cloud and I felt the energy of His Spirit as I sang all the louder.
The acoustics of the cinderblock hallway carried the song throughout the building … but, there truly was more going on than acoustics. God had His hand on us.
As I began to sing, ” … I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see” what sounded like the voice of a large, black man from probably 50 ft. away started to harmonize the song in a way I will never forget. It was Holy. It was real. It was an unforgettable encounter with the One whose grace truly is amazing.
When we finished singing, “Praise God, Praise God …” Lucky just sat there nodding his head from left to right saying over and over again, “unbelievable … unbelievable.”
We talked several more minutes. Lucky pulled his prayer list from his Bible and pointed to ‘Higher Ground Ministries’ on the top of his list. There were probably 50 names on his prayer list including my family, my father-in-law, May, Ginny, Joyce and a few others who are already dancing on streets of gold. We prayed together and it was time to go.
As I rejoined my two escorts there was still complete silence in the entire building. Not a sound. It was strange. It was Holy. It was real.
They led me down the hall, down the littered, paint-chipped stairs, down the first-floor hallway and there, too, was complete silence. Several prisoners sat on a bench near the exit and stared at the three of us as we walked toward them … motionless and silent.
Literally the only sound I heard the entire way out of ‘the hospital’ was from one of the guards. Right before he opened the door for me to leave the building he uncharacteristically apologized for the condition of the building and said they ‘needed to clean it up.’
The entire two-hour drive home yesterday, all day yesterday and even now as I write this, I am clothed in a renewed awareness of how truly amazing God’s grace really is. That He would save and use a wretch like me.
Thank you, Lucky. Thank you Lord.