Sometimes taking a stand for your religious convictions can get you in trouble. Deep trouble! Does God care?
When we review the account of Job in the Bible, it is readily apparent that God does not necessarily prevent evil from befalling His children. God doesn’t promise freedom from trials, but He does offer wisdom, guidance, and His everlasting presence.
As a resident of an Oregon state prison, I have learned that trials and less than ideal conditions afford multiple opportunities to demonstrate faith and trust in our Lord and Creator.
One such opportunity arrived in the form of a dining-hall work assignment. Because my first day of work was on a Wednesday, it was obvious that I would be assigned to work on Saturday, which is the day I observe as the Sabbath. I immediately submitted a reassignment request through the chaplain’s office in order to get the Sabbath off work.
Mail distribution brought the answer to my request from the chaplain’s office. I now had affirmation of my Sabbath commitment, along with instructions to contact my work supervisor with my letter in hand. He was to either arrange the Sabbath off or release me from that position. My supervisor was less than enthusiastic about the change and replied that “he would see what he could do,” but he made no promises.
A Saturday-morning check of the duty roster revealed that I was to report to work. The housing unit officer advised me to go to the work roll call and discuss the matter with my supervisor. When my name was called, I reported front and center and submitted to a routine “pat-down search,” at which time I informed my supervisor of my decision to honor God’s Sabbath by not working. His terse response was, “You’ll either work or go to the ‘hole.’ ”
Now the “hole,” more properly referred to as the Disciplinary Segregation Unit (DSU) is, as its name implies, a place to isolate those with disciplinary problems. The unit is intentionally unpleasant—drab with peeling paint—and overwhelmingly noisy.
In addition to the chaos, the “hole experience” had other important consequences to be considered. First and foremost, it is recorded on the permanent prison record and is considered when early release or parole is discussed. One also loses honor housing because the 18-month clear-conduct requirement is violated. In addition, the more attractive and better paying jobs will go to those with a better conduct record. And when one does find a new job, he must complete six weeks of probation without pay. Now, if those aren’t reasons enough to avoid the “hole,” transfer to the hole also removes the privilege to take classes and to attend religious and school programs and any other scheduled events.
I had to weigh my religious convictions against the present and future consequences and make a decision—all in about ten seconds.
I had the chaplain’s letter in my hand, all other procedures had been completed, and time allowed for the change. Now I had no doubt in my mind what I must do.
In the most confident voice I could muster, I responded to the supervisor, “So be it.” At the same time, I admit apprehension at crossing into an unknown area on a one-way trip.
A minute or two later a sergeant with a pair of handcuffs escorted me to the hole. My apprehension was increased by the presence of several more officers. Only my trust in God’s presence quelled my panic.
Upon arrival in the hole, I was given a paper stating that sometime within the next six days I would participate in my hearing.
My “prison blues” were exchanged for a brighter-than-pumpkin-orange jumpsuit. I was given the standard issue: two blankets, two sheets, towel, toothbrush, baking soda to use as teeth cleaner, and a comb. I was also offered a paperback science fiction novel. I was informed that I could request a Bible that would be provided before Monday night.
In the two-man cell to which I was assigned everything was made of strong steel secured firmly to the concrete. In the midst of all the discomfort and confusion of the hole, I was at peace because I knew that God was in the hole with me. I spent some time in prayer, thanking Him for His presence.
The following Thursday, wearing my in my orange jumpsuit and fancy bracelets, I was escorted to my hearing. A supervising officer and the hearings officer entered the room. The hearings officer began by the reading the various facts and then the officer’s statement. After that, I was then allowed to present my now very valuable letter. The facts were straight forward, and my disagreement was not with the facts but with the institution’s refusal to attempt to fulfill my request. I now had a chance to speak. Very simply, I recounted that I wanted only one thing—a schedule change that would provide me the opportunity to worship God according to my convictions.
With all the evidence presented, I waited to hear the verdict. After a long pause, I heard good news: “Mr. Nethken, you have completed all of the requirements, and your case is made. All charges are dismissed.”
Praise God and thank Him!
Officially, I was released, but I had nowhere to go. It was several hours before I finally walked out of the hole to my new destination—a bunk in a different area of my old dorm. As I entered my unit, I was given a warm welcome because they knew exactly why I had been sent to the hole. I was joyous but contemplative.
Because all charges had been dismissed, I did not have to work the six weeks without pay, and my reentry into my other activities was simplified.
Amazingly a clerk position opened, and I was selected. In that position, I worked Monday through Friday at twice the pay—and had Sabbath off. And to top that, the working conditions were great because I worked with only two other people in an area of little supervision. The lower security meant less stress. As a worker for God, I didn’t need supervision to do a thorough job!
As God worked in the life of Job, so He works also in our lives every day, whether we give Him credit or not. My experience showed me that God does not promise freedom from problems, but He does give His wisdom, guidance, and everlasting presence.
Kim Nethken writes from Pendleton, Oregon.