My Students Were Prisoners

When I lived in Sydney, Australia, I was invited to teach creative writing to inmates of a top-security prison—habitual criminals. I refused the first invitation. I wasn’t going into any jail teaching criminals! The thought appalled me. Anyway, I didn’t know enough. I was still learning myself.

Three months later I was asked again and immediately I said yes. I think I was prompted in my answer, because the word slipped out before I’d even had time to think about it. I went into that jail every Saturday morning for ten months until work pressure and exams forced me to stop. I learned something: every soul is important to God and must have a chance to hear the gospel.

From the first day I was picked on as religious. They said, “You’re different. You’re religious, and we don’t want any religion here.” I repeated that I was only there to teach creative writing. And so it went from 9 A.M. until 12:30 P.M., and oh, was I exhausted by then!

The second Saturday was a little better; I accomplished more. The third Saturday was different still. As soon as class began they said, “You’re different. You talk differently, you think differently, you act differently. We’ve been talking about you all week, and two of us think you’re a Mormon. Are you?”

I was dumbfounded. I never thought they’d guess my religion. Anyhow, I owned up, waiting for what was to follow. They said, “Well, in a way it spoils our speculation. We had a lot of fun talking about it, but we’re glad to know.” From that day they inundated me with questions on the gospel. I wasn’t supposed to be teaching religion, but it always took precedence over the writing side of the lesson. Oh, they wrote and studied all right, but I took their stories home and worked on them so that we could spend most of the time talking religion.

One of them, Kevin, wrote a beautiful story about Jesus. Another, Peter, had met the missionaries outside jail, and had their cards and a Book of Mormon in jail with him. He softened a little more toward the gospel. And another prisoner, Ralph, eventually asked to see the missionaries.

Church magazines and other copies of the Book of Mormon made the rounds undamaged. Usually religious books were mutilated and eventually destroyed. Pages from the Bible had even been used as cigarette paper.

We usually worked around a rickety old table, but one day a new round table with a wrought iron base and covered with a blanket stood in the circle of chairs. I complimented them on the change; then they unveiled it. It had been a two-week labor of love; they had constructed and painted the table, finally painting the face of a gray cat on top because they knew I loved cats. I was deeply touched.

I’m happy to say that my class was the most popular and the most consistently attended of all that were offered, with an average of ten students each week. It wasn’t because of me, though, and I knew it. It was the material discussed, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Priesthood members helped me by answering most of the countless questions scribbled on scraps of paper. That was another part of my homework.

I loved the work and would gladly go again if the opportunity arose, only this time I’d like things to be organized so that the gospel could be taught openly if the class wanted it. I know now, though, that at that particular time there was a job to be done—a prisoner was ready to receive the gospel. I was sent because I had the means to reach that person. I still correspond with him.

“But He’s Deaf!”

Years ago, as second counselor in a bishopric, I struggled with determining which young man of the deacons’ quorum should be the new president. The bishop asked me to prayerfully consider each boy in the quorum and then make my recommendation. I narrowed the possibilities to three worthy thirteen-year-olds.

But as I tried to select one of these boys, I was unable to get that calm confirmation I needed. So I reevaluated each boy in the quorum. This time my attention centered on Kevin, one I had overlooked the first time. I had known Kevin for several years; he was worthy. I also knew that each quorum member was his friend and that his family would sustain him.

“But he’s deaf,” I repeated to myself, and I hesitated with my final decision. But I knew it would be unjust to keep him from church participation, thus isolating his deafness as an insurmountable handicap. His speech would not improve unless he had opportunities to express himself, and I knew his leadership abilities would remain dormant without opportunities to cultivate them.

When I prayed about the decision to recommend Kevin as the new president of the deacons’ quorum, I received strong assurance and discussed it with the bishop. He too felt good about the choice and asked me to discuss it with Kevin’s parents. Kevin’s parents, pleased, expressed confidence in their son. Kevin accepted the call and expressed his desire to do a good job. I know he felt his Father in Heaven’s love. So began a close and mutually rewarding relationship between Kevin, his family, his bishop, teachers, advisers, and the ward family.

During the next seven years, wonderful things happened to Kevin. He learned effective leadership—he delegated authority, gave talks, helped with service projects, and blessed the sacrament. He became a tremendous influence for good among the youth. The year he joined the ward junior softball team, the team won the stake championship, the regional championship, and the area championship, and the area sportsmanship award. In all those games, Kevin never heard the ward cheering for him, but he truly sensed their love and support. He belonged, and he contributed.

A couple of years after Kevin’s deacons’ quorum calling, I was called as bishop. I talked to Kevin on several occasions about a mission. He wanted to complete his university schooling first and didn’t really feel that a mission, under the circumstances, was for him. Then at Kevin’s last Aaronic Priesthood activity, as we gathered around a camp fire for a testimony meeting, Kevin rose to his feet and testified that he knew God lived and that he was going to do as the bishop had asked and pray about a mission. He received his answer and I processed his papers. A few weeks later Kevin stopped by my home one evening and showed me the mission call he had just received from President Spencer W. Kimball.

He was thrilled. And I was delighted. He had received assurance that the call came from his Father in Heaven. At the airport, as he departed to the mission field, tears streamed down his smiling face and his voice quivered. “Thanks for everything,” he said simply.

At that moment I knew that most of us are only as handicapped as we allow ourselves to be. I was grateful to Kevin’s parents, friends, leaders, and fellow members. They had never treated him as anything more or less than their equal—a choice child of God.

Kevin has helped me realize that we do not speak only with our natural tongue, see only with our natural eyes, nor hear only with our natural ears. Rather, we speak, see, and hear with our spiritual senses. No physical handicap need keep us from our Heavenly Father or the work and joy he has in store for us.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Karl Hepworth

Ned B. Combs, a bank executive and the father of five children, serves as a high councilor in the Salt Lake Olympus Stake.