Rev. Clinton H. Goodwin is assistant evangelist and house manager of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, said to be the largest rescue mission in the world. He has been a jail and prison evangelist since 1921.
I was born August 28, 1898, in Roswell, New Mexico, in an old log cabin. My little mother never knew her parents, having been adopted as a baby by people by the name of Brown in Steubenville, Ohio, and brought to Roswell when a girl of seventeen because of the ill health of Mr. Brown.
My mother played the organ in the Methodist Church in Roswell where she met my father, Charles Goodwin. My father, being somewhat musical, played the violin to assist in the music there. Because of unhappiness in the home occasioned by the inconsistent life of her foster stepmother, my mother readily consented to marry Charles, although Mr. Brown informed her that he would disown her if she did so. She thought only of escaping the hypocritical domination of her stepmother. Hence, on June 16, 1897, Charles Augustus Goodwin and Mabel Anne Brown were married in that little frontier town. What followed in the succeeding years serves only to add weight to the passage in the third of Proverbs. “My son, forget not my law.” It was already evident that my father was beginning to lose his faith in God.
When I was just a few months old we removed to Kingman, Arizona, where two brothers of my father were in business and where they assisted him in opening a barber shop. In the ensuing years God blessed mother and dad with eight more children. Never in all my years as a growing boy did I hear my father pray or observe him reading the Bible, despite the fact that he had wooed and won my mother in the shadow of the church. After a great many years of moving from one city to another, we went to Chicago from Los Angeles in 1910.
It was in Chicago, while living at 508 Cass Street, then a tenement house, that we were visited by a Miss Matthews, a student at the Moody Bible Institute, who was doing personal work in the neighborhood. This visit resulted in one brother and I attending Sunday School at the old Moody Church, at Chicago Avenue and LaSalle Street. I was naturally of a religious disposition and had often thought of becoming a preacher or missionary in which endeavor my mother had given me much encouragement. My first real knowledge of God, my first acquaintance with the Bible, and my first prayer came as a result of my mother’s tender promptings. When Mr. Charles Goodman, an insurance executive and the teacher of my Sunday School class, talked to me one day about giving my heart to Jesus, I knelt and accepted Him as Lord and Savior. That was in 1912 when I was fourteen years old.
I began immediately to engage in active mission work in the old Clark Street Mission and other places, singing the Gospel and giving my testimony. When Paul Rader came to Moody and opened the large tabernacle on the northside, I enrolled in the evening classes at the Moody Bible Institute. What glorious experiences followed, to sit under such teachers as Dr. James M. Gray and Dr. W. P. Nicholson! I attended the evening school for two semesters, all the while doing my daily work.
In 1917, I had an opportunity to go back to New Mexico to Albuquerque to work as store keeper at the Harvey House. My parents thought that this would enable me to assist materially with the family income.
Because my new work required me to be on duty on Sunday and because I had no Christian fellowship with my fellow workers, I gradually lapsed into a condition where I no longer read my Bible nor prayed consistently, and therefore found myself backslidden and indifferent to the tender wooings of the Holy Spirit. I did not become a hater of God nor an infidel, but just neglectful and indifferent. My time was taken up — it was during the first world war — with supplying troop trains with food and I was too busy to pray. One has wisely said, “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy.”
While in Albuquerque my folks moved back to Kingman, Arizona, and seeing an opportunity to “be on my own,” I left my job and began to roam. Back and forth across the continent I went, working for short periods as harvest hand and dishwasher, I became adept at “riding the rods,” and, in the parlance of the road, I became a “bum” and a “panhandler.” I generally carried a New Testament and often read it, but I was too busy to stop and consider God’s claims on my life although I had dedicated myself to Him years before.
One cold, early spring morning in 1919, I jumped off a freight train in the Denver, Colorado, freight yards. Hungry and despondent, I made my way to the Savoy Hotel, where I asked the chef for something to eat. He told me that if I would officiate as “pearl diver” (dish washer), he would feed me. I replied that I would do anything to get food. I worked there for some weeks, sleeping on newspapers behind a billboard, directly across the street from the capitol building.
One day in the kitchen of the hotel I became acquainted with a boy of my own age who asked me secretly if I would like to earn some “easy money.” (I wish to say that until that time I had never engaged in any depredations of any kind.) So we talked together in the evening and he divulged to me that he was a “stickup man” and that he knew all the “angles.” I thought only of the thrill involved and perhaps some day of having a lot of money. My mother’s prayers and the voice of Jesus meant little to me then. I developed a give-it-to-me philosophy and an insatiable desire for a “fling” and a “bang” out of life. From then on until September, 1920, we were involved in a number of holdups and burglaries from Denver to Los Angeles, ranging from service stations to grocery stores.
Once, on a lonely road in West Los Angeles, an intended victim drew his gun and, throwing his car in gear, fired point blank at us. We emptied our guns into the back of his car. The mystery of how we ever escaped killing this man and his companion, or being killed by him, will remain in the heart of God until I see Him face to face. God has promised to answer when we call upon Him, and I believe that He answered my mother’s prayers in the protection He gave me that night, for she had never ceased praying for me.
The climax of this life of crime came in September, 1920, when I was apprehended in a hold-up on South Flower Street. Never shall I forget that night. My hands were held behind me and the cuffs snapped on while one of the officers, a huge fellow, proceeded to beat me up. My eyes and lips were swollen and I was a sight to behold when I was ushered to a cell in the University Police Station. I sat on the edge of the one and only bunk all night in reflection of my condition. When morning came I asked for paper and pen and wrote my mother a letter telling her of my plight. Her reply to that letter contained one expression which struck a note of hope in my heart: “I love you if no one else does!”
Each Sunday during the three and a half months that I was in the County Jail numerous church groups conducted Gospel services at each jail “tank.” I was constantly reminded of my backslidden state, but being hopeful of effecting probation, I refused to confess and forsake my sins, although many times I was earnestly prompted to do so by the kind Christian workers, among whom was “Mother” Miller and “Mother” Whitely of Pasadena. Because my own mother was too ill to visit me, the Lord sent these two precious mothers to take her place. They followed me to prison with many letters of Christian love.
I was brought to court where I pleaded guilty to robbery, and was sentenced to San Quentin Prison. I was chained to another prisoner during the trip to prevent any attempt at escape. At the prison entrance the handcuffs and chains were removed and I stepped in through the “one-man gate,” so called because it is only wide enough for one man to go through at a time. This is to prevent any mass attacks by the convicts. After being processed through the “gallery” and given prison clothing I was assigned to a cell in the “old cell block.” I introduced myself to my three cell mates who were young like myself, two of whom were doing time for a similar offense.
That first night in the cell will never be forgotten. When taps were sounded at nine o’clock and all the lights were out, the only light visible came through a slot in the solid steel door called the “wicket hole,” through which mail was handed by the guards who were called “screws” from the act of “screwing” the huge keys in the cell locks each morning and evening.
January 12, 1921, found me as usual at my “loom” in the jute mill making grain-sack material for the State. A “runner” (messenger) came through the mill calling for Number 3401. I motioned to him, and he handed me a slip of paper notifying me that the Chaplain, Dr. Oliver C. Laizure, requested an interview. I was glad for any excuse to shut my loom off although we were required to run a hundred yards of cloth a day as our task.
I made my way to the Chapel, producing the interview card wherever challenged by the guards and soon found myself in the presence of the “Sky-pilot.” He shook hands with me and motioned me to a chair, meanwhile producing a card from his file. After studying it a moment he turned to me and said, “Robbery, son, that’s bad!” and then he asked, “Son, are you a Christian?” I answered, “I used to be, but I am not now; otherwise I would not be here.” After talking to me about my soul, he said abruptly, “There is no time like now to get back to God. I may not see you again. This is a big prison, so let’s do it now.” The Spirit of God opened the eyes of my understanding, and also opened the flood-gates, and I began to weep. The chaplain, seeing I was ready to repent of my sins and return to God, put his arms on my shoulder, whereupon we both knelt in prayer.
That hour is almost too sacred to display to the gaze of man. It is only because I want my Lord to have the glory for it all that I tell it. Suffice it to say that the “prodigal son” came home that day. I arose from my knees with full, assurance that the statement, “He that confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall obtain mercy,” had been fulfilled in my own life. That assurance has never failed in the nearly twenty-six years that I have been walking with Jesus as Savior and Lord.
At the expiration of my minimum term of “one year,” I appeared before the Board of Prison Directors and received a sentence of ten years, with half time on parole which meant I would have to serve three and a half years in prison and spend an equal amount outside under the jurisdiction of the Parole Department of the State.
I came to Pasadena on parole where I obtained employment with Crane Company with which concern I worked for over twenty-one years, terminating my employment with them only in order to take the position of assistant evangelist and house manager of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles.
God has marvelously blessed me during these years that I have served Him, both in and out of prison. I can testify He has never failed me one single time, praise His name! He has given me a faithful, Christian wife and three sweet children who love the Lord with all their hearts. These dear children, now in their “teens,” have never been inside a movie theater; they do not care to go, for they have something much better.
During the years I was with Crane Company I was actively engaged in Gospel work in the Los Angeles County Jail, road camps, and hospitals. For three successive years I was chairman of the United Jail Workers Association, and a member of the Jail Commission, the commission having charge of all of the Gospel activities in our local jails.
I was ordained to the Gospel ministry in 1935, and, in 1943, Governor Olson gave me an unconditional pardon. On February 14th that year I was privileged to stand in the chapel at San Quentin Prison and preach the Gospel in the very same room where twenty-two years before I had found peace and joy at the foot of the Cross.
If this humble testimony should come to the attention of any prisoner, either in or out of a state prison, and should result in that life’s looking to Jesus and finding in Him a resting place, I shall never cease to praise God.
I WAS BORN AGAIN
By Norman A. Wingert
A Book of Conversion Stories
Compiled and Edited by
Norman A. Wingert, M. A. Professor
of Religion at Beulah College Upland, California
E. V. Publishing House
By Norman A. Wingert
Printed in U. S. A.
E. V. Publishing House