It is an interesting experience to read an article about writing letters — something few if any of us do much of anymore using pen and ink — to effect change socially or politically. Today, this article would likely be called “Using the web to instantly impact events around us.” But some of the principles haven’t changed, even if the methods used certainly have for the most part. And if it seems too old fashioned, remember this: records and turntables are quite the thing among some folks… maybe pen, paper, and stamps will make a comeback as well.
[Cornerstone Archives, Issue #73 - note: some ministry information is out of date here.]
Special delivery: How to write letters worth writing home about
by Mike Hertenstein
Like physical exercise, letter writing occupies that shadowy limbo‑land of my life affectionately referred to as “next week.”
Under a hand‑carved armadillo, unanswered correspondence crumbles to dust on my desk, except of course for chain letters, when sending copies to twenty‑five friends can mean the difference between riches and falling into a manhole. This phenomenon is a common one: try confessing your procrastination to your friends and watch how fast they change the subject. Junk mailers excluded, nearly everyone would much rather receive, than send, a letter.
But belated Mother’s Day and Christmas cards aside, writing negligence can mean missing out on opportunities for ministry. The power of a simple letter to move, shake, and encourage was demonstrated once and for all by the prolific Paul. When he and his friends weren’t busy turning the world upside‑down, Paul managed to mail out the first Bible correspondence course to the Romans, Corinthians, and the others (from most folks Titus would have been lucky to get a post card).
And while the rest of today’s information‑agers are busily pursuing and cataloging trivia, Christians have the opportunity to write, or type, or word process a message of real significance: to your congressman on behalf of the unborn or the hungry; to a foreign government on behalf of a prisoner it has unjustly imprisoned; to a Turkish family that has never heard the gospel.
Suffering at most for your trouble a little writer’s cramp, you can begin stuffing envelopes in your spare time and help ease or relieve the suffering of others. Here’s a quick guide to getting into the letter‑writing ministry, with some ideas on who and what to write, and the addresses of several organizations that can help you keep those cards and letters coming.
CORRESPONDING WITH INMATES IN AMERICAN PRISONS
In his book Loving God, Chuck Colson tells the story of Myrtie Howell, a ninetyyear‑old grandmother who spends her days in a Georgia nursing home writing prison inmates, up to forty at a time. One of the most active of Colson’s Prison Fellowship pen‑pals, Myrtie has corresponded with hundreds of prisoners over the last few years. “Since the day I made a complete commitment for God to take me and use me as a rag in his hand in places where others refused to be used, I have his love that reaches out to prisoners as I never had before,” she shared in PF’s newsletter Jubilee. As a Prison Fellowship volunteer, you, too, can befriend an inmate, many of whom are confined for years without receiving a single letter.
Like cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a distant land.
To get involved with the program, which matches hundreds of prisoners and Christian letter writers each month, write to Prison Fellowship at the address at the end of this article and ask for a volunteer application. PF screens the applications to match age, background, and other data. Volunteers are usually brought together with inmates in a different state and single women under 25 years of age are matched with women inmates only. Correspondants decide mutually how often to write. A similar program matches volunteers with inmates’ families for the purpose of sharing concerns and Christian fellowship.
LETTERS TO INFLUENCE LEGISLATION
Since the rise of the New Religious Right, election‑time issues for most Christian magazines mean pages of how‑to articles on registering to vote. However, participation in the democratic process does not end with casting a ballot. Campaign promises may be forgotten in a sudden attack of post‑election amnesia; the views of our representatives may be hardly representative of our own; new issues may arise on which our man in Washington or Omaha has not yet taken a position. If carried out, the traditionally‑idle threat to “write a letter to my congressman,” might make more of a difference than the armchair policy‑maker might think.
Writing in The High Cost of Indifference author Richard Cizik observes that while letters to your congressmen may not always serve as “persuaders,” they could be important “triggers”: “Most congressional staffers agree that even one wellwritten letter on a subject can start the staff thinking about that issue. These aides see each letter as representing the opinions of many people who do not write. A number of letters on the same topic may prompt the assignment of a staff member to draft a position‑paper for the congressman. In some cases, a letter may actually change a legislator’s mind, particularly when a member is wavering on an issue.” [Richard Cizik, The High Cost of Indifference, (Ventura, CA, Regal Books, 1984) p. 196.]
Nowadays, evangelical leaders seem to be in agreement over the importance of political activism, but often the agreement stops there. Liberal‑leaning groups, for example, such as Evangelicals for Social Action are urging Christians to support a nuclear weapons freeze at the same time conservative evangelicals in the Moral Majority are telling voters the opposite. If you’re interested in making your views have some effect at the legislative level you’re first going to become informed about the issues you care about and determine a position you feel reflects biblical standards. You’ll also have to learn your representatives’ positions and voting records (if not their names) and be prepared to list your own reasons for taking a particular stand.
Then, once you know what you want and why you want it, advocacy groups articulating specific points of view may be helpful for keeping abreast with new developments and pending legislation. Like many such groups, Wash ingtonbased Bread for the World publishes a monthly newsletter updating hunger‑‑related issues for supporters who then write the appropriate letters. “Without the letters we would be only 25 percent effective of what we are today,” says spokesman Cureton Johnson. BFW sponsors an annual “Offering of Letters” campaign in which various churches write letters to put in the collection plate on designated Sundays. The program, which generates thousands of letters, last year helped pass bills for $25 million in aid for Africa.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
In addition to influencing legislative opinion, your letters may be used to influence public opinion. A published note to the editor of your local newspaper can show readers that there is more than one side to an issue. For instance, an articulate refutation of a biased pro‑abortion article lets both readers and editors know the issue is far from settled and might prompt more even‑handed coverage in the future. Most papers encourage this kind of debate. “We like people to call us names,” says Harry Keriher, editor of the Chicago Tribune’s daily “Voice of the People” section, which receives between 1,000‑2,000 letters a week. Your letters can also provoke debate by taking issue with a previously published letter, which may have made no attempt at balanced reporting. “Our letters page provides a forum for our readers to fight with one another,” notes Keriher, adding that timely, well‑reasoned letters between 100‑200 words long are the most likely candidates for publication.
WRITING TO, AND ON BEHALF OF PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to remember those imprisoned for their faith as if we were their fellow prisoners. In some cases, we can do more than just remember: we can encourage or even help alleviate some of their suffering. “So many Christians don’t realize the effect their letters can have,” says Jeffery Collins, director of Christian Response International, an interdenominational group which provides material and legal assistance to persecuted believers. “A personal letter usually demands some kind of personal response.”
CRI directs Christians to write to heads of states, ambassadors, and other authorities to express concern or protest unjust imprisonment. Collins notes that there have been many cases when a great influx of letters to the right authorities resulted in conditions changing for the better. Conversely, when authorities have a prisoner whom they know to be unknown in the West, there is no reason to feel threatened. “When a man is in prison, and no one knows about him, fie just sits there and rots,” says Sharon Brady of Evangelism to Communist Lands, a ministry founded by Russian pastor Haralan Popov. “If people know about him, and write letters of protest, the government is embarrassed and they have to do something about it.”
The more specific information included in such a letter, the more weight it will carry. Birthdates, spouse’s names, and details about the case are helpful. Another formerly‑imprisoned Russian pastor Georgi Vins heads a ministry in this country which publishes a prisoner directory of nearly two hundred Evangelical Christian Baptists in Soviet prisons. Most entries include a photo of the prisoner, birthdate, place of imprisonment, and date of release.
In addition to protesting to the authorities, it is also important to write to the prisoners themselves. Whether or not the letters are given to the prisoner, they will get into hands of officials and signal their plight is known abroad. Often, if mail keeps coming in, the prisoner will be allowed to see it and be greatly encouraged.
All three organizations publish a regular newsletter to keep concerned individuals updated on various cases (see addresses below). Also, the ministries of Pastors Popov and Vins have programs whereby believers in the free world can correspond with Christian families in communist countries.
EVANGELISM BY MAIL
For the price of a roll of air mail stamps, you can be a missionary to countries where evangelism is a dangerous, sometimes fatal occupation. Since 1972, Evangelism to Communist Lands has sent over 200,000 complete New Testaments to people in Bulgaria, the USSR, and Czechoslovakia as a part of their “New Testament Letter Ministry.”
For each New Testament, packets of twenty‑four Scriptures are provided to twenty‑one Christian volunteers throughout the free world. Each volunteer receives the same names and addresses, obtained from phone books, but different Scripture portions. Eventually the addressee will receive the complete New Testament in portions from such diverse places as South Africa, Brazil, or South Dakota. Scripture i s p laced into the hands of unbelievers as well as believers, making the program one of the few evangelistic outreaches to these nations. “We are doing something at practically zero risk that a Christian in these countries could not do without risk,” says ECL’s Eugene David.
Sharon Brady, coordinator of her organization’s Prayer and Action program, says ECL has never heard of anyone being persecuted for receiving letters, and notes that confiscated packets are usually either kept by the authorities or sold on the black market. Response‑wise, the new Czechoslovakian outreach has provoked piles of letters ranging from “Please send more” to “Don’t send more” to “I received Christ through this New Testament.”
ECL provides Scripture packets free of charge along with a cover letter and tips for getting the letter through, such as hand‑writing addresses on small personalize envelopes, Over 23,000 people have been involved in the New Testament letter ministry since its inception over a decade ago.
“Friends of Turkey” sponsors a similar program for that nation, which is ninety’ nine percent Muslim and does not allow open evangelism. Volunteer letter writers have sent over three million pieces of gospel literature into Turkey in the last fifteen years. “We feel God is preparing a real spiritual breakthrough in Turkey,” says Director Steve Hagerman. The organization also works with English teachers in that country to find Turkish students interested in pen‑pal correspondence, opening a way for further evangelism. Operation Mobilization oversees a follow‑up program for the group.
PEN MIGHTIER THAN SWORD, BUT HARDER TO PICK UP
As a postscript, it must be remembered that the pen is mightier than the sword, and it also fits more comfortably behind the ear. Independent research has proven, however, that most people would rather see a couple pirates going at it than a novelist fight any old day of the week. Which of the two is the weapon of choice, there is no doubt.
However, if by a few mere strokes of a pen and a little stamp glue on the tongue we could encourage someone, or share the gospel with someone who might not otherwise hear it, or actually help make conditions easier for someone who suffers for being a Christian, we should be beating our swords into Bic Medium‑Points and gluing our tongues raw. (Maybe then they wouldn’t flap so much.)
To begin with, make the task harder to put off: try setting aside a morning or afternoon each week to write your letters, or partner up with an interested friend. Keep your writing materials in a special drawer, or treat yourself with a nice expensive pen just for correspondence . If you hate writing long letters, use smaller stationery.
Your epistles may never be collected and published in book form (oh, and by the way, the new C.S. Lewis book, Letters to Rufus: Chiefly on This Week’s Laundry is due out this month); what you say may not even matter so much as the mere fact that you wrote at all. But the fact that you did write may make all the difference in someone’s world. There is one principle which always holds true for Christians, even when it comes to writing letters: giving always beats receiving.*
Christian Ministries with Letter‑Writing Programs:
Match‑up Program Prison Fellowship P.O. Box 17500 Washington, D.C. 20041
Congressman/womanU.S. House of Representatives Washington, D.C. 20515
Senator U.S. Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20515
Christian Response International Box 1712 Rockville, MID 20850
ECL/Door of Hope International Box 303 Glendale, CA 91209 Toll‑free number: (800) 423‑3667
International Representation for the Council of Evangelical Baptist Churches of the Soviet Union, Inc. [Georgi Vins] P.O. Box 1188 Elkhart, IN 46515
Friends of Turkey Box 3098 Grand Junction, CO 81501