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Well, Brother Gaines didn't know how he was going to write to all the death row prisoners in America, but he agreed to do it. And so, this physically handicapped senior evangelist began Life Row Ministry with his wife. Somehow, George managed to get prisoners' names, and made a point to write back to them individually within 24 hours.

George Gaines, the Evangelist

I didn't get to know George Gaines until he was up in his 70’s, but for the few years I knew him, he left a lasting impression. Many years before, he had been ordained in a denominational church, but I don't believe he ever was on anyone’s payroll.  He was footloose and fancy-free without having to worry about pleasing a board of directors or a congregation that hired him.

During World War II, he and his wife Ann preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in San Diego to the troops preparing to be shipped out to fight the Japanese.  He said they led a lot of servicemen to the Lord because they knew they were going out to the Pacific to die.  Also, he and his wife had two businesses that I knew of.  One was a department store, and the other a restaurant called, “Grandma's Glory Barn.”  At the restaurant, they had gospel singers entertain the diners, but they may have been more successful in real estate, and I don't think they were hurting for money.

In later years, Brother George couldn't get around without a wheelchair, and much to his credit he was the kind of preacher you could call Brother George or just George.  He was a large framed man, maybe 6’4” or 6, but I never saw him stand up completely.  It seems when he played football in school, he was a little more than rough on himself and others and was paying for it in old age.  He told me when his anger was unchecked as a young man, he could bodily take a guy up off his feet and fling him through the air.  However, his old football injuries, feeble legs, and bad eyesight didn't keep him down when it came to doing things for the Lord.  As you may remember, the Lord did his greatest work while being immobilized and crucified on a cross as he forgave us of our sins.

God gave Bother Gaines a new ministry one day while fishing from his wheelchair on the dock where his pontoon boat was moored.  As he sat with his line in the water, the Lord spoke to him audibly, and the conversation went something like this…

Lord: “George.”

George: “Yes, Lord.”

Lord: “I want you to write to every inmate on death row in America.”

George: “Yes, Lord.”

Brother Gaines would tell of this experience to groups and asked if they believed God spoke to people audibly today.  Lots of folk don't believe God does anymore, though their pastor tells them they had a “calling” to preach.  (Maybe it was in sign language.)  Of course, some people thought George was a little off for hearing from God in this way, and for his blunt comments too.  He'd even ask some preachers he didn’t think much of, if they were called by their mothers to preach.

Well, Brother Gaines didn't know how he was going to write to all the death row prisoners in America, but he agreed to the assignment.  And so, the physically handicapped senior evangelist began “Life Row Ministry” with Ann.  Somehow George managed to get prisoners' names, and made a point to write back personally within 24 hours when he received their letter.  One night at his house at Canyon Lake, CA, as guests were celebrating their wedding anniversary, they asked where George was.  He was in another room writing to prisoners within the 24 hour response time he had set for himself.  There at a table he would drop his head down close to the paper and write in very large letters.  I also remember on several occasions, Brother Gaines would say some nice thing about his wife, look at his watch, and announce to the year, month, day, hour, and minute, how long they had been married.  Maybe he included the seconds too.

And so, people became interested in Life Row Ministry and gave money to help with recording equipment, tape duplicators, cassette tapes, and postage.  And unlike most ministries, he let the Lord put it on people’s hearts for support without asking.  Several, including myself, were also moved to write to prisoners.  Brother Gaines would hand me a few names and addresses, tell me a little bit about them, and say they'd write to me if I wrote to them.  I had about 60 at one time, and because of his influence, several years later I had another prison ministry with my wife and got a thousand names through the internet in about 26 states.  Many of them wrote back, and we used George's example to respond in 24 hours.

Occasionally George would get an opportunity to preach at the church we attended, but not too many, as they weren’t sure about his frank and spontaneous comments.  For example, he interjected in his burly booming voice during a Sunday school's discussion on alcohol, “I like my religion because I can drink all I want.  I just don't want to!”  He also made that same point about wife beating.  And when Jimmy Swaggart was exposed as a frequenter of prostitutes, he blurted out in class, “He’s no brother of mine!”  George was a unique preacher and liked being one, having to answer only to Jesus Christ.  He’d also write on the back of his envelopes to be mailed, “Jesus loves you!”

One of the things I remember most about Brother Gaines was when he was asked to speak at church about Life Row Ministry.  It was a night service, and on the platform was a banquet table for him to sit behind in his wheelchair with a long courtesy table cloth.  While squinting to see the congregation, looking through the glare of the stage lights, his text was from Matthew Chapter 25 when the Lord Jesus spoke about being hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick, and in prison.  Well, as everyone in the pews was agreeing to "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” he stopped.  For a moment, Brother Gaines silently panned the congregation from front to back and left to right.  And as they were nodding in agreement with the point, he exclaimed, “And all you goats out there... I can see you nodding your heads!”  Then all the nodding heads creased, not wanting to be thought of as a goat, a phony Christian. Having made his abrupt pronouncement, he radiated a huge smile of satisfaction, like a little boy who had just scared his older sister with a rubber snake.  Of course, the point he was making was, everyone can agree to do everything the Lord Jesus says to do by nodding their heads, but few agree by moving their feet.

Here’s a link to a Los Angeles Times article on George and Ann Gaines, 1985: Evangelist Reaches Out to Death Row

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The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Amen