“I was hungry, and you gave me meat. I was thirsty and you have me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. Naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came unto me.” Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and gave you something to eat? Or thirsty and gave you something to drink? Or when did we see you a stranger and took you in? When did we see you naked, and give you clothes? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?” And the King shall answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:35-40
We can call it ground-level Christianity. Lemuel Vega takes the words of Jesus to heart.
When it comes to visiting in prisons, Vega has experience – from both sides of the gray bars. Vega, himself a former convict, was in Huntington Monday with an interdenominational group representing “Christmas Behind Bars,” the ministry he lives and breathes for. He works 14-15 hours a day prior to December to get his bills paid ahead, and then joins with churches and businesses and volunteers to fulfill the gospel mandate.
There were 87 prisoners in the Huntington County Jail on the night before Christmas, a depressing number. Vega’s effort is to bring a message of hope to those who find themselves there, to let them know what the possibilities are. As long as there is life, there is hope.
“The real message of Christmas is that of forgiveness,” said Vega, 46, after his duties were completed in Huntington. He had already been to Columbia City in the morning; he was going to the Kosciusko County Jail in Warsaw that night. Visits to the Blackford County Jail in Hartford City and the Johnson County Jail in Franklin were on tap for Christmas day.
In all, by the time he and those he works with are done with their seasonal swing, he’ll have visited some 30 jails and prisons and handed out 7,500 packages of snacks and stuff to some appreciative inmates.
Christmas Behind Bars’ first contact with the Huntington County Jail came a few years ago, but Vega was denied the access. He touched base with the current Sheriff, Kent Farthing, shortly after Farthing was elected to his first term in 2002 and Farthing allowed him and his group into the jail in January of 2003.
That relationship has continued since. Monday’s visit marked the sixth to Huntington for Christmas Behind Bars. For one prisoner, Farthing said, it has become a tradition.
“He said he was here last year, and remembered the gifts,” Farthing said. “That’s kind of sad in a way, that he was ehre again, but he remembered.”
That is not the only case of benevolent recidivisom – including one on a single day. Vega knows of one prisoner that was in Adams County Jail when Christmas Behind Bars showed up, during the day, that prisoner was transferred to the Whitley County Jail and got another package when Vega’s group showed up there.
There’s a limit as to what Christmas Behind Bars can put in its gift packages. Nothing with staples; they can be used as needle points for tatoos. No red dye in the packaging, such as red-colored cardboard or napkins; it can be used as coloring for tattoos. Fruit was included the first year, but no more; it can be fermented into alcohol.
Assisted by members of an Amish or Mennonite congregation from LaGrange County, the group handed out packages of snacks and books. There was a postcard of an outdoor scene, a reminder of life on the outside. The 52 students in teh congregation’s school produced some 1,142 homemade Christmas cards for the prisoners.
Even though visiting an individual in prison was cited as an example of good works by Jesus, Vega – whose life turned around in prison – understands why some people are willing to pass on the opportunity.
“Some say that these people deserve to be there, and they might just huff about it and walk away,” he said.
So what motivates Vega? Obviously his own story – he was jailed in the 1970s for burglary and drug violations, and then “I tried to set the jail on fire, and that got me some more time” – but beyond that, he says, everybody has a passion. For some people, he said, it’s NASCAR or football or watching TV or a job. There’s just not enough time in the day to fit in compassion for prisoners.
He has a message burning within him to tell those who are now where he was – behind bars.
“You can’t buy happiness – happiness is something that comes from a personal relationship with the Lord,” he said. “The real meaning of Christmas is about the forgiveness, the hope that’s neverending. It’s there for the asking.”
The Herald Press – Huntington Indiana, Wednesday, December 26, 2007.
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