624) Bessie’s Last, and Best, Christmas

By Chuck Colson (1931-2012), for the Breakpoint radio program, December 25, 1995.

Chuck Colson served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973.  He spent nine months in prison (1974-75) after pleading guilty to charges of obstruction of justice.  Colson’s life fell apart during the Watergate investigation, and during that time gave his life to Christ.  While serving time in prison, he vowed that after he was released he would do what he could to minister in the name of Jesus to prisoners.  He started Prison Fellowship Ministries, now an international organization working with tens of thousands of prisoners in hundreds of jails and prisons around the world.  For the rest of his life, Colson spent every Easter and many Christmases preaching in prisons and visiting prisoners.  See:  www.prisonfellowship.org

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     Bessie Shipp was spending Christmas in jail.  A slender black woman, Bessie was watching her life slip rapidly away.  Though she had not been sentenced to death by the state, she was under a different death sentence:  Bessie had AIDS.

     I met Bessie that Christmas Day in a North Carolina prison for women.  I had come to give a Christmas message to the inmates there.

     The atmosphere was glum.  The small crowd that gathered to hear me preach was somber and subdued.

     After the service, a prison official said, “Do you have time to visit Bessie Shipp?”

     “Who’s Bessie Shipp?” I asked.  When they told me, I confess, I was taken aback.  This was several years ago, and I had never visited an AIDS patient.

     And yet, just the night before, I had seen a television story about Mother Teresa and the AIDS patients she was caring for.  How could I do anything less?

     “I’ll go,” I said.

     We walked down a narrow corridor, and a heavy door was opened to reveal a small, dark cell.  There, sitting in a hard-backed chair was this tiny woman, wrapped in a bathrobe, shivering in the cold.  To my surprise, I saw a Bible on her lap.

     After chatting a few minutes, I came right to the point.  “Bessie,” I said, “Do you know the Lord?”

     “I want to,” she replied softly.  “But I don’t always feel like He’s there.”  And her voice trailed off.

     “Would you like to pray with me to know Christ as your Savior?” I asked.

     Bessie looked down, twisted a Kleenex in her thin hands, and finally whispered, “Yes, I would.”

     So we prayed together in that cold, concrete cell.  And Bessie made a decision that would change the rest of her short life:  She gave it to Jesus Christ.

     Only days later Bessie was paroled.  Friends and prison officials had been trying to get her released for a long time.  But the timing was providential.  She stayed long enough to meet Christ, and then she went to her home as a new Christian.

     A short three weeks after her release, Bessie contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized.  A Prison Fellowship area director visited her and found her spirit strong to the end.

     “These are the happiest days of my life,” she whispered.  “Because now I know Jesus loves me, and you all love me, too.  I’m in the Lord’s hands.”

     Two days later Bessie died.  She went to meet the Savior she had accepted only a short time before, on Christmas Day, in a cold prison cell.

     When Jesus came to earth, He wasn’t born in a grand palace.  He was born in a dirty stable that reeked of animals, with mice scurrying underfoot.

     And Jesus still comes to us wherever we are.  Not only to warm, well-lit homes, but also to run-down tenement buildings and gray prison cells.

     So wherever you are, why don’t you ask Him to come to you?  He will do it.  Just like He came to a young woman dying of AIDS in a North Carolina prison one cold Christmas Day.

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Revelation 3:20  —  (Jesus said), “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

Matthew 25:36…40  —  (Jesus said),  “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…   Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Hebrews 13:3  —  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

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Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal.  Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.  Remember all prisoners and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future.  When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice.  Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.  And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, lead us to improve their lot.  All this we ask for your mercy’s sake.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship (#186)

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