Editor’s Note: This reflection was written by one of our news reporters describing her experience researching and writing an article over a course of time that spanned before and after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S. and Canada.
I found out about 86-year-old Bill Vanstaalduinin and his volunteer work at Hyde County Correctional Institution about 72 hours before the quarantine, but even before the words, “unprecedented,” “pandemic,” and “isolation,” became common household words, I knew this was a story from another time.
When I asked Mr. Vanstaalduinin’s pastor, Garrett Saul of Terra Ceia CRC in North Carolina, about getting in touch with him, Pastor Garrett said he’d be happy to talk with me, but he doesn’t have an email address, just a phone number.
“How will he know I’m calling him?” I wondered.
I'm used to lining up an interview ahead of time and giving people an idea what I want to ask them so we're both prepared. The thought of picking up the phone and calling a stranger unsettled me.
When I told Mr. Vanstaalduinin I was interested in learning more about his work, he told me he’s been involved in the Yokefellow Prison Ministry for over 20 years. He started soon after he retired from full-time farming. “I do what I do because of what Christ did for me,” he told me.
“We are a listening ministry,” Vanstaalduinin explained. He and other volunteers meet with 50 men every Monday night to sit, talk, and pray. “We come to comfort and support them. They don’t get too much to say in prison, so they can talk here,” he said.
One man, a returning citizen, has been attending Terra Ceia CRC for about 2 months. He rides to Vanstaalduinin’s home, they go to church together, then they have dinner back at the Vanstaalduinin’s home. “This is the third time he’s starting over again,” Vanstaalduinin said. The man is 40, and not married. “He used to work on the river, fishing.” Vanstaalduinin is trying to find him similar work now.
Just before our phone call ended, Vanstaalduinin said he could send me a few documents about the prison ministry. I said I’d love to learn more and figured I could easily plug in what he sent me with quotes from our phone call. I’d have this story submitted by the end of the week, no problem. When he asked for my address, I forgot and started to give him my email address. When I realized he meant my home address, I also realized these papers wouldn’t arrive for several days, if not a week or two. I wasn’t sure the story would still be relevant then.
That was March 11. By March 13, Michigan schools closed their doors until April 6. Churches called off Sunday services. By March 16, everyone was working from home. Today, all restaurants are closed, we have a shelter in place order, and school is called off for the rest of the year.
Life has slowed considerably, and fear is tangible.
On a late afternoon when I was feeling particularly anxious and pacing my living room thinking about how much has changed and how much was going to change, I heard the creak of my mailbox open, then slam, then watched the mailwoman walk across our lawn to the next house. I waved to her from the window. Usually, I’d walk outside and say hello, and she’d hand me my mail. That is too dangerous now.
That afternoon, Vanstaalduinin’s letter arrived. The envelope was thick, and inside was a hand-written letter from him, a pamphlet about the Yokefellow Prison Ministry of North Carolina, and a copy of a hand-written note from an inmate thanking Vanstaalduinin for the Easter card he sent him. “It was my only one, and it meant the world to me,” the man wrote. The note was dated April 25, 2019.
I learned from the Yokefellow Prison Ministry pamphlet that the organization “believe(s) the best way to share the love of God to those incarcerated in North Carolina’s jails and prisons is to be willing to listen and be with someone who is hurting.” This hearkened back to what Vanstaalduinin told me about being a “listening ministry,” and this perspective came across in the inmate’s letter. Not only was Vanstaalduinin a listening ear for this inmate, but the man trusted him enough to tell of another man incarcerated—a man who played the piano in Hyde County Correctional Institution’s church services. This man’s mother had recently died, and “he has a terrible time as of late. Pray for him and his family.”
In his letter to me, Vanstaalduinin explained that Terra Ceia CRC had several members who “volunteered and supported” Yokefellow Prison Ministry, and that they were asked to set up a Yokefellow Ministry in Hyde County Correctional Institution. Pastor Garrett said he had a chance to sit in on a meeting recently.
“Around 50 inmates came to study Scripture for about an hour and a half followed by a short time of singing,” he said. “There was also a time of sharing about what the inmates hope to do with their lives after they get out of prison.”
Vanstaalduinin wrote that his interest in prison ministry stems from childhood, when his parents gave him the Sugar Creek Gang books for Christmas one year. “Little (Jim) always inspired me about going to preach at the jail.”
In another letter to churches who supported this ministry, Vanstaalduinin wrote about the church service at Hyde County. “The inmates at Hyde have organized a church body for worship, they wanted to be recognized as a community of believers.” They serve cookies and coffee, they sing and pray and study the Bible.
He closed his letter to me, writing, “I’ve been blessed as much as the inmates. I thank God for the opportunity to serve Him.”
I’ve attempted to contact Vanstaalduinin and Terra Ceia CRC, because as I prepared my notes and got ready to write this story, I wondered how things have changed since I spoke with him less than a month ago.
It seems this might be a story from another time—like so much of our lives. Like going to school, going to church, out to restaurants, giving hugs, playing in the park—this is something we used to do.
I’m worried about the inmates. I’m worried about the man who is re-entering the world for the third time. I’m worried about Vanstaalduinin and the connection with the world he can no longer have. I’m worried this isn’t going to be a very inspiring story.
Maybe, though, stories from another time are exactly what we need. Maybe we need the reminder that calling someone—a stranger even—is a gift; that paper mail is still an important vessel to spread God’s infinite love.
Maybe telling stories from another time will help us have faith and pave the way forward—the parting of the Red Sea, a man in a lions’ den, a betrothed virgin learning she’s pregnant, and the baby grows up to lay down his life so that we may live. So that we too can carry on the work of caring for one another and say what Vaanstaalduinin said to me: “I do what I do because of what Christ did for me.”
UPDATE: On April 9 writer Callie Feyen received an email from Pastor Garret Saul reassuring that while the Yokefellow Prison Ministry had not been meeting for several weeks, "Bill VS is still sending weekly devotions to all the prisoners and I think they are greatly benefiting from that." For the returning citizen who had been attending church, "He has been disappointed that he can't come to church, but Bill VS and I check up on him regularly so see how he is doing," Saul said.