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Evangelists Reaching Out to Death Row

March 11, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

CANYON LAKE, Calif. — Some men wax rhapsodic on their 50th wedding anniversary. George Gaines did too, but not to his wife.

Gaines marked the day last October--16 hours of it--by writing longhand to Death Row inmates throughout the country. His wife helped him.

Working in a bright, airy converted home laundry with white curtains bordered in soft blue, Gaines brings his "Life Row Ministry" to 1,479 Death Row residents in 37 states.

He has written letters and prepared musical tapes for condemned men and women six hours a day for more than a year.

"They have everything to gain by my message," Gaines said recently at his desk. "If they accept it they've got peace, hope and joy instead of fear, and instead of hell they've got heaven."

A large man with a firm handshake who walks slowly because he has suffered from osteoarthritis and strokes, Gaines works at a desk nestled next to a clothes dryer.

Behind his swivel chair, duplicators and sound mixers sit on a metal shelf and 300 empty tapes rest in boxes on the floor.

Three packages in plain brown paper wait on a chair for mailing to prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi.

A lamp that incorporates a magnifying glass sits suspended over his desk so Gaines, 71, who has cataracts and glaucoma, can see what he writes.

He writes longhand because neither he nor his wife, Ann, knows how to type.

Sometimes when many tapes need to go out, white-haired Ann Gaines, 68, takes a duplicator into an adjoining den and sits in an armchair reproducing the messages.

If a prisoner needs something personal, the Gaineses often send that, too. Ann Gaines just mailed one Death Row resident a small television she had watched in her kitchen.

George Gaines, an ordained elder of the Church of the Nazarene, conducted services for Navy men and women in San Diego during World War II and launched a long career in radio evangelism.

Following the war, he started an orphanage in Atlanta and then returned to California, where he and his wife opened Gaines' Department Stores in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Riverside and Corona. The last store closed in 1982.

Struck by a Feeling

The couple moved to Florida to be near a son, and Gaines said he was sitting on a beach reading Watergate figure Charles Colson's book, "Loving God," when he was struck by a feeling that he should correspond with Death Row inmates.

He moved back to California, wrote a booklet and mailed it to every Death Row resident in the nation, following up with a letter asking to be their friends.

The message is that when one is born again, "old things pass away," Gaines said. "The things a man fears, he no longer fears. The things he hates, he no longer hates."

A small, rectangular box on the shelf in his office is filled by some of the 20 daily letters he receives in response to his continuing correspondence.

One inmate sent Ann Gaines an intricate, diamond-patterned jewelry box made from match sticks on a red fabric. Another mails floral drawings, while a third insists that Gaines take $2 of the $3 he earns each month so that the evangelist can continue writing. Gaines estimates that he has spent $7,000 on the project.

'It Changes Their Lives'

Sitting in a large brown chair in his living room and holding tightly to his copy of "Loving God," Gaines said that most Death Row residents have no families or have been disowned, "so they adopt us. It changes their lives." Some write two or three times a week.

The Gaines' life style is worlds apart from the objects of their mission. They live on a 380-acre lake four miles east of Lake Elsinore. An entry gate regulates traffic in the 2,400-home community, which allows Gaines to ride a three-wheel bicycle several miles in the afternoon sun.

Or, if he chooses, he may walk slowly down to a neighbor's dock on the placid lake where a pontoon boat takes him fishing for bass and catfish.

He also enjoys visiting his son, George Jr., 49, a local realtor. Another son, Dan, 46, an airline pilot, lives in Lake Park, Fla., while a daughter, Susann, 38, manages a clothing store in Anchorage, Alaska.

A small, green foothill dots the other side of the lake and snow-capped, rectangular-looking Big Bear juts out in the distance.

Unevenly Administered Penalty

Pondering this vista in his cathedral-style living room, Gaines said he doesn't think the death penalty is wrong but that it is unevenly administered. He lists cases in which he says murderers received different sentences for similar crimes.

Gaines, wearing a brown sports shirt and slacks, said his mission is to be a friend to the condemned. "I'm trying to help these fellows through a terrible situation," he said, and handed a reporter several letters.

"Last night a friend of mine, Robert Lee Willie, was executed here and I was feeling sad and down," wrote Sterling R. Rault from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., "but after re-reading your letter and listening to the best music this side of heaven, I am 'up.' . . . Thank you, Brother George."

"Not many men know exactly when they are to die and cannot prepare themselves for their death in the hopes of reconciling themselves with the Lord . . . ," Rault wrote in another letter. "So when you look at things in this perspective, aren't we on Death (life) Row lucky in this sense?"

" . . . It is not death they are actually condemning us to but rather a new life. . . . Come to think of it, what more could one possibly ask for? Lord, let thy will be done."

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