Some people help you understand what the gospel is all about. They cut through all our theological bickering, personality conflicts and denominational rivalries and inhibitions. They do things that show us what Jesus really meant.
They are people like the widow in the Temple who donated “all her substance” to the offering. Or the thief on the cross who just wanted to be forgiven. Or the worried father who asked if Jesus could heal his child in spite of his own unbelief. And like Sam Howard.
Sam is a middle-aged African-American man who has spent nearly two decades on death row. My wife, Pat, and I have known Sam for about half of that time.
Sam is incarcerated in Ely Maximum Security Prison, a grim fortress of concrete and razor wire in the moonscape of central Nevada. As we wait for him in the windowless, no-nonsense visiting room, it occurs to me that in more than 10 years of knowing Sam, we have not once been able to sit in the open air. The rules are strict—this prison holds some dangerous people. But Sam is no longer one of them.
Several years ago, Sam became a Christian. For him, this was not just the acceptance of a religious argument, or a knee-jerk emotional reaction. It meant the repudiation of a whole way of life that had earned him the reputation for being one of the most dangerous inmates in Nevada’s prison system—his nickname was “Nitro.” Today he is a quiet teddy bear of a man, living a life of service and humility in circumstances that most of us could not tolerate for 24 hours.
Talking with Sam is refreshing. We who are the richest and best educated disciples in history tend to complicate Jesus’ teachings. We have vast resources, but we seem to spend so much time talking, arguing, planning for action, revving our engines on the starting grid, getting our ducks in a row and endlessly analyzing, quantifying, organizing and reorganizing ourselves in our efforts to be lights and preach the word. Sam just gets on with it.
His mission field is literally and spiritually stony ground. Ely Prison is a harsh and unforgiving place, but Sam has found a way to bring compassion, empathy and kindness to an environment where the usual emotions are anger and fear.
The hours we spend together are not spent going round in circles over controversial doctrinal points and theological conundrums. Sam tells us about the people he has helped—like the deaf, mute young inmate who was the victim of bullying and racial abuse. Sam befriended him, and encouraged him, until eventually the traumatized man stumbled out the words “You good, man.”
“But I’m not good,” says Sam. “I know who to give the credit to.” The gospel for Sam is a 24/7 challenge of living in contrast to what he calls his “situation.” Every day sends opportunities to serve, to share the little that he has, to turn the other cheek and to do good to those who would abuse him.
His “room” on death row has become a place of hope. Mail—vast amounts of it—arrives from all over the world. Even staff members, used to hostility and abuse, know they will get respect and encouragement from Sam Howard. “I’ve been able to accomplish so much in here,” he tells us, without a trace of vanity.
Until his conversion, everything and everyone Sam trusted in life let him down—his family, his friends and his country. He is an ex-Marine who was sprayed with Agent Orange while on active service in Vietnam. But he bears no grudges. “I made mistakes—it is my fault I am in here,” he says. “And in Jesus I now have a friend who will never betray me.”
We’re his friends too, and we’d like to help. Can we do anything for him? No—he’s fine, thank you. Does he need anything? No—he has all he needs, but he promises he will let us know if there is anything. But there hardly ever is.
Sam receives a small disability pension from a veterans association. He tells us how grateful he is for small blessings—a chance to encourage a lonely inmate, a letter or card from one of his many friends, or just a new air mattress to make life a little more comfortable. He never has a bad word for anyone. He is not bitter, resentful or consumed with greed. He has that deep-down spiritual peace of mind which, as Paul wrote, “transcends all understanding.”
He also reminds me of what the imprisoned Paul said to King Agrippa: “I pray that you and all who are listening may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
Sam’s case is under appeal and inching its way oh-so-slowly through the legal system. Most people who know the facts believe there is a strong argument for a retrial. I don’t have the legal expertise to comment on this, and anyway, Sam wouldn’t want me to.
“John,” he says, simply and with conviction, “it does not worry me. God knows what happened. I’d like to be free, but for me it is not the big question. The big questions of my life were answered when I repented of my sins and accepted Jesus as my Savior. Sin is a terrible prison to be in—I am free of that. Whether I live or die is not the critical thing. God has a plan for me, and no one can take that away.”
All too soon it’s 2:45—time to go. A phalanx of officers appears to escort the inmates back to their cells. “See you next time,” says Sam cheerfully as we say our good-byes. “Thanks for coming.” Thank you, Sam. Once again you have reminded us what this way of life we call Christianity is really all about.
Author: John Halford