I had first heard about Myrtie Howell from an inmate in a New Hampshire prison when he wrote to ask those of us at Prison Fellowship headquarters to join in prayers for her health. The Fellowship had matched this man and Mrs. Howell up as pen pals, something we do with thousands of inmates and volunteers.
“Please pray for Grandma Howell,” pleaded his childlike scrawl, “cause she’s sick and may be going to die. Nobody has ever loved me like she has. I just wait for her letters, they means so much.”
Our office staff began praying for Mrs. Howell. Then some months later, I received a letter from the woman herself reporting on the inmates she was corresponding with and telling me how each one was doing, about their morale and their problems.
She concluded: “Writing to inmates has filled my last days with joy.” That was a cheerful thought. But then she added the ominous request that I come to speak at her funeral. She had instructed her pastor to notify me when the day came. “It won’t help me,” she wrote, “but it will wake up my church to the need of taking part in prison ministry.”
I wrote back to Mrs. Howell, reminding her that the days of our lives are numbered by, and known only to, the Lord. Therefore I didn’t feel I could make a commitment to preach at her funeral since nobody knew the date... To say the least, it was a most awkward letter.
Over the next year, Myrtie’s letters kept coming — always upbeat and usually enclosing what was literally her widow’s mite (once she simply endorsed over a $67.90 U.S. Treasurer’s check that was her supplemental income). In each letter she reported on “her boys” and frequently asked for more names to add to her correspondence list. At one point we tallied that she was actually writing to seventeen inmates. No small task for a ninety-one-year-old woman.
No small task for anyone, for just the thought of writing to prisoners scares most people, including Christians, half to death. They have visions of dangerous criminals getting their names and addresses and, once out of prison, tracking them down for nefarious purposes. Why was this elderly, obviously frail, woman different? Why, at ninety-one, did she care at all, let alone so much?
I just had to meet Myrtie Howell, this woman whose letters could call forth such concern from incarcerated men she had never met.
When I tracked her down, I found that Myrtie lived in an old soot-covered brick high-rise in downtown Columbus, an apartment building converted a few years earlier into a home for the aged. Inside, the lobby resembled the waiting room of a hospital, except more depressing. There were no ringing words of encouragement to break the tension of the place, no reassuring banter, no youthful voices, no hopeful expressions. Instead, I saw rows of wheelchairs lined in front of a blaring television set; bodies hunched about on pea-soup green plastic couches and overstuffed chairs with worn upholstery patterns long since erased. The sitcom soundtrack bounced harshly off garish yellow walls. Most of those turned to the set were either dozing or staring blankly. Others thumbed idly through magazines or watched the lobby door like sentries at their post. I felt chilled just walking across the lobby.
After signing in at the front desk, I rode the elevator to Myrtie’s floor. The hallway was carpeted with a rippling, colorless, thread-bare strip that had seen years of scuffling footsteps.
At her door I knocked. “Come in, come in,” a firm, strong voice shouted.
As I opened the unlocked door, I was greeted by a broad, welcoming smile as Myrtie leaned back in her rocker in satisfaction, her white fleecy hair neatly parted at the side. Her blue eyes sparkled behind thick, black-rimmed spectacles and her cheeks glowed with life. This woman is not preparing to die, I thought.
“S’cuse me for not getting up,” she said, gesturing toward the walker alongside her chair. “Oh, I don’t believe you are really here... I just don’t believe it. It’s so... the Lord does give us the desires of our heart.” She kept grinning and rocking and I just had to lean over and hug her, experiencing that familiar affinity believers so often have on first meeting.
I took the armchair opposite her with its doily-decorated arms. Myrtie’s apartment had one window and was no larger than a modest hotel room. It contained a bed, a 12-inch television set, a dresser, a mirror, the two chairs we sat in, and a fragile desk crowded with Bibles and commentaries and piled high with correspondence. Photographs lined the edges of the mirror hanging just above the desk. I’d seen cells with more amenities.
Unlike her surroundings, Myrtie looked almost regal, her hands folded in her lap and her shoulders proud beneath her shawl.
I started to thank her for her faithful ministry, but before I could finish my first sentence, Myrtie waved her hand, started grinning again, and interrupted with a protest.
“Oh, no, you’ve helped me. These last years have been the most fulfilling of my whole life. I thank you — and most of all I thank Jesus,” the last word pronounced with great reverence.
And I knew that Myrtie, despite living alone in this dreary place, crippled and in continuous pain, really did mean what she said. I was already sensing a spiritual depth to this woman that I’d not often encountered. I asked her to tell me about her life and her spiritual journey.
Born in Texas in 1890, Myrtie was brought to Columbus, Georgia, at the age of three; at ten she went to work in the mill for ten cents a day. “We was raised poor,” she said, explaining that she had had only one year of schooling. Her parents gave her little in the way of religious education, but from the age of ten on she knew there was a God, felt He had His hand on her, and knew she would “do best to obey Him.”
At the age of sixteen she joined a Christian church. Married at seventeen, she had her first child the next year and two more in rapid succession. Her middle child, a son, died at the age of two. Indeed, the deaths of her closest relatives proved the crucible for Myrtie’s faith. During the late 1930s, Myrtie’s mother and her husband’s father lived with them. In mid-December of 1939, Myrtie’s mother died. Then in mid-January Myrtie’s husband was killed in an accident; two weeks later her father-in-law died as well.
Tears brimmed in Myrtie’s eyes as she recalled to me, “I felt like Job. I just felt like old Satan had a conversation with the Lord and said if the Lord would just let him get that Myrtie he’d make her give the Lord up. But it only made me lean more closer, more to Him.”
The death of her husband resulted in the loss of her home also, and Myrtie had to go back to work to support herself. At first she did “practical work,” piece work from the mill, and then “for two years I run a dress shop. And then I run a little cafe. I always been doin’ somethin’ to take care of myself. I didn’t want to get on with the children or nothin’ like that.” So Myrtie worked until her advanced age and declining health forced her to move into, as she put it, “this old folk’s home.”
The death of her youngest son, her “baby boy,” the declining health of her oldest, and her own move into the home sent Myrtie into a spiritual depression. So many of her loved ones had died and she “couldn’t do” for those who remained; she felt she had nothing left to live for. She wanted to die.
“Lord, what more can I do for You?” she prayed with all her heart one day. “If You’re ready for me, I’m ready to come. I want to die. Take me.”
“I knew I was dying,” she continued. “But then He spoke to me as clear as can be: WRITE TO PRISONERS. Three words: WRITE TO PRISONERS. Imagine that! I want to die, figure I’m about to, and the Lord say, ‘Okay now, Myrtie, you go back and write to prisoners.’
“He couldn’t of spoke to me any clearer if’n He’d been standing before me. And I was afraid at first. I said, ‘Lord, me write to prisoners? I ain’t got no education, had to teach myself to read and write. And I don’t know nuthin’ bout prisons.’
“But there wasn’t no doubt. I would have squirmed out of His hand if I hadn’t obeyed. I had to.”
Myrtie’s call became even more miraculous to my mind when she told me that at the time she’d never heard of Prison Fellowship or any other prison ministry. She had never given such a task the merest thought.
But she was faithful to God’s command and acted on the best plan she could think of. She knew there was a penitentiary in Atlanta, so she wrote there, the envelope addressed simply, “Atlanta Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia.” Inside her message read:
I am a Grandmother who love and care for you who are in a place you had not plans to be. My love and sympathy goes out to you. I am willing to be a friend to you in correspondent. If you like to hear from me, write me. I will answer every letter you write.
A Christian friend, Grandmother Howell
The letter must have been passed on to the prison chaplain, for Myrtie received eight names of prisoners to whom she was invited to write. Chaplain Ray, who carries on an extensive prison ministry, sent her additional names, as did Prison Fellowship when we were put in contact with her.
Myrtie has subsequently corresponded with hundreds of inmates, up to forty at a time, becoming a one-woman ministry reaching into prisons all over America.
Her strategy is simple: “When I get a letter, I read it, and when I answer it, I pray: ‘Lord, You know what You want me to say. Now say it through me.’ And you’d be surprised sometimes at the letters He writes!
“His Spirit works. I obey. I don’t put anything in there that I feel’s of self, of flesh. As He gives me, I write it.
“But the real blessings, they’re in the answers,” she said, reaching over to the stack of letters piled on her desk, within arm’s reach of her chair. “Just look at these,” she said, grinning and handing me a packet. As I scanned the pages, phrases leaped out at me:
Dear Grandmother... was very happy to get your letter... the guys kidded me when they said I had a letter... I didn’t believe them, but it was true... I don’t have anyone to care about me but the Lord and you... I’m in the hole now, that’s why I can write letters... Why am I so afraid, grandmother? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers about this?... I am really glad to know that there is someone out there who cares... I will remember you in my prayers every night starting now and for the rest of my life... please write back soon... love, Joe
One letter, signed “Granddaughter Janice,” read:
I received your letter and it made me sad when you wrote that you think you may not be alive much longer. I thought that I would wait and come to see you and then tell you all you have meant to me, but now I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to tell you now.
You’ve given me all the love and concern and care that I’ve missed for years and my whole outlook on life has changed. You’ve made me realize that life is worth living and that it’s not all bad. You claim it’s all God’s doing but I think you deserve the credit.
I didn’t think I was capable of feeling love for anyone again but I know I love you as my very own precious grandmother.
“Bless you, Myrtie,” I said, putting the stack of letters back on the desk. “Oh, the Lord has just blessed me so wonderful, Mr. Colson. I’ve had the greatest time of my life since I’ve been writing to prisoners.
“And you know, once I turned over my life to Him — I mean, really did it — He took care of all my needs. Things go right before I even think about ’em.”
After I asked about the Bible commentaries on her desk, Myrtie told me how she spends her days. She said she doesn’t “do much of anything” but write to prisoners, read and study the Bible, pray, watch a few religious programs on TV, and “be carried” to and from the common dining room where she takes her meals. Myrtie insisted that time passed faster and more joyously for her now than it ever did before.
As our time together drew to a close, Myrtie gave me a final bit of advice: “So, now, Mr. Colson, you just keep remembering the Lord don’t need no quitters. Once in a while old Satan tells me I’m getting too old, don’t remember things good... had to agree with him there... But we mustn’t listen to him. First thing you know he’ll turn us around every which way. So I just keep remembering what the Lord told me and I can’t quit,” quickly adding with an admonitory gesture toward me, “and neither can you.”
With that, Myrtie Howell gave me her wonderful grin again, exuding the joy of life lived to the fullest.
We prayed together, hugged one more time, and I promised we’d see each other again, holding to that marvelous thought C. S. Lewis was so fond of: Christians never have to say good-bye.
Excerpted with permission from Loving God by Charles Colson, copyright Charles W. Colson.