In his day, Bill Glass was one of the most outstanding football players in the National Football League, playing on the 1964 champion Cleveland Browns and making the NFL Pro Bowl four times. In 1969, long before prison ministry became popular among evangelicals, Glass founded what is now called Champions for Life. The ministry invites professional athletes to speak to prisoners, following up with trained volunteers who commit themselves to building lasting relationships with juvenile inmates. After three-and-a-half decades of ministry, Glass, with Terry Pluto, has written Champions for Life: The Healing Power of a Father's Blessing (Faith Communications, 2005) to address an issue that is sorely affecting the fabric of the nation.
What is our country's biggest problem?
A lack of the father's blessing. The FBI studied the 17 kids that have shot their classmates in little towns like Paducah, Kentucky; Pearl, Mississippi; and Littleton, Colorado. All 17 shooters had only one thing in common. They had a father problem. I see it so much; it's just unbelievable. There's something about it when a man doesn't get along with his father. It makes him mean; it makes him dangerous; it makes him angry.
On the day before Father's Day, I was in North Carolina in a juvenile prison. I ate lunch with three boys. I asked the first boy, "Is your dad coming to see you tomorrow on Father's Day?"
He said, "No, he's not coming."
"He's in prison."
I asked the second boy the same question and got the same answer.
I asked the third one why his dad wasn't coming, and he said, "He got out of prison about nine months ago, and he's doing good, and I'm proud of my father. He's really going to be a good dad to me, and he's going to go straight."
I could tell he was protesting so strongly because something was still wrong. So I said, "How many times has he been here to see you since he got out nine months ago?"
He said, "He hasn't made it yet."
"Well, he lives way, way away."
"Where does he live?"
"He lives in Durham."
Durham was only two hours away. I had come 1,500 miles to visit the boy. His dad couldn't come two hours? There are a lot of fathers who are really deserters. When I'm in prison, I always challenge the inmates to bless their kids. If you want to keep your kids out of prison, bless them.
What was your relationship with your father like?
My earliest recollections are that my father would sit on my bedside and rub my back and tell me what a fine boy I was, and almost every night, he would kiss me on the mouth. He was a pro baseball player, a very manly man. But he had no problem expressing his love and blessing to me and to my brother and sister.
My dad died when I was only 14 years old, and he had been sick for about two years before he died. I had a huge hole in my heart. I felt despairing. My mother was very loving and warm, but it just wasn't the same as when my dad was there.
My coach was told that I had lost my father and that it really hit me hard. So every day after workout, he'd stay out with me, and he'd teach me how to play football. He would walk with me after workout to the dressing room with his arm around me. He'd ask me to sit beside him on the bus going out to the game, and he'd just talk to me. Then at noon he'd meet with me, and we'd lift weights for about an hour. I moved from being the slowest, smallest player on the team to, within a year, being unblockable, because I learned good fundamentals. And I didn't even like football then. The only reason I played was because I wanted my father's blessing.
A kid who is searching desperately for a blessing will put himself in all sorts of contortions in order to get it. You see this in gangs. Kids get into gangs because they want to be accepted by a family. Most kids that get into gangs have no father relationship. So, as a result, they go into the gang, because the gang promises them that they're going to be part of a family. "I've got your back, and I'm going to watch you all the way, and I'm with you no matter what." They have these little teardrop tattoos. Have you seen them on a kid's face? Those little tattooed teardrops stand for some heinous crime they committed in order to get into the gangthe initiation fee. If I have to kill someone to get into the gang, I'll do it, because I need to feel that I'm part of a family. And only a father can make a child feel that way. A mother, by herself, has a hard time ever doing that. All those guys on death row love their mothers. It's their fathers they've got the problem with.
Describe this concept of the father's blessing.
You see it in Genesis 27:3038, where Isaac is blessing his son, and Jacob steals Esau's blessing and his birthright. Four times in those eight verses, Esau begs for his father's blessing, but it's never forthcoming. The Scripture says Esau always hated Jacob for that. The emphasis is more on the blessing than it is on the birthright.
The blessing always involves a hug and a kiss. Not the kiss of abuse, but the kiss of blessingthere's a vast difference. You can't force yourself on your child, but you can hug them and get close to them physically to a certain degree without embarrassing them or turning them off.
I found my kids love to be hugged and kissed. I grab my little girl by her ears and look into her eyes and say, "I love you, I bless you, I think you're absolutely terrific." That's easy with her because she's little and dainty. But I've got two boys, 280 and 290 pounds. One played pro ball, and both played college ball. They're 6'6", bench press 500 pounds, and are bigger than I am, but I grabbed that eldest son of mine recently and said, "I love, I bless you, I think you're terrific, and I'm so glad you're mine." His shoulders began to shake and his eyes filled with tears and he said, "Dad, I really needed that."
It's got to be said out loud. It's got to be stated. It's not like the lawyer that's getting a divorce and the judge says, "How often did you tell your wife you loved her?" and he replies, "I told her the day I married her and then never told her differently."
The blessing is also unconditional and continuous. If it's conditional, it's not love; it's a negotiation. I was in a prison in Texas recently where they've got 300 boys ages 10 to 15. These boys have committed every crime you can imagine. I asked the warden, "How many of these boys got a visit from their father in the past year?"
He said, "One, and he only stayed 15 minutes, got into a fight with his son, and stomped out mad." They're not fathers, because fathers hang with their kids no matter what. I know a lot of fathers that disown their kids because they go to prison. But it's got to be something that is continuous and unconditional in order to be a real blessing, in order to be real love.
What do you tell people who have had bad relationships with their fathers?
I think that the dangerous thing about this whole concept [of a father's blessing] is that I could imply to some poor kid that he's a criminal because he didn't get his dad's blessing. But the answer is to say to him that he needs to find a substitute father.
Fred Smith is now my substitute father. He's 90 years old and a man of great wisdom, a man of deep spiritual beliefs. I don't make any major decisions until I check with him. In fact, I've been taking him to Dallas every other day for the last two yearspicking him up out of his wheelchair and putting him into a dialysis chair. He's just amazing. He can hardly walk, but you'd better be on your toes if you're talking to him. He's as sharp as a tack.
One reason I think our prison ministry is so effective is that our counselors are like substitute fathers for the kids. They have to meet once a week for 2 hours for 12 weeks. We've had unusual success with that. We only have about 10 percent who get back into trouble, instead of the normal 80 percent. It incorporates everything I'm talking aboutthe blessing, conversion, mentoring, father/mother substituting, and, to me, it is really the answer for the kid in prison.
Nancy Madsen is a senior at Wheaton College, Illinois.
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Champions for Life: The Healing Power of a Father's Blessing is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More about Bill Glass's Champions for Life is available on their website.
Other Christianity Today articles on fatherhood include:
Our Fathers Who Are on Earth | If Satan thinks they are a key battleground, shouldn't we? (May 3, 2005)
Affectionate Patriarchs | In the popular imagination, conservative evangelical fathers are power-abusing authoritarians. A new study says otherwise. An interview with W. Bradford Wilcox (Aug. 6, 2004)
Editor's Bookshelf: Creating Husbands and Fathers | The discussion of gender roles moves beyond 'proof-text poker.' (July 19, 2004)
Editor's Bookshelf: Raising Up Fathers | An interview with Maggie Gallagher (July 19, 2004)
Complicit Guilt, Explicit Healing | Men involved in abortion are starting to find help (Oct. 27, 2003)
Fatherhood on the Rebound | What we can learn from the real history of basketball. By David Blankenhorn (December 6, 1999)
The Pursuing Father | What we need to know about this often misunderstood Middle Eastern parable. (Oct. 26, 1998)
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