The story of how inmates, faith, helped one grown man to read

It took an act of God for Gregory Henderson Sr., 70, to learn how to read, he said. Just 12 years ago, the Etna man was illiterate. Like many who can’t read, he told no one, fearing rejection and embarrassment. It was an unlikely group of people — inmates in Penobscot County Jail — that set him, finally, in the direction toward literacy.

Faith is at the center of Henderson’s story. But whether you are religious or not, it’s easy to see the transformational power of words.

Twelve years ago, Henderson volunteered for the first time to administer the eucharist in the jail. In a room with several other volunteers and about 25 general-population inmates, another volunteer asked him to read a Gospel passage. Usually he would have suggested that someone else read it, but at that moment he had a change of heart.

“God was trying to show me that he needed me to know how to read, but he needed me in that jail to share that I couldn’t read,” he said.

So he told the group of inmates. He said he grew up with dyslexia, hid it all his life and would need their help to get through the Bible passage. What he didn’t expect was that his personal transformation would, in turn, make it easier for the inmates to open up as well, extend their own help to him and, in doing so, ease their negative feelings about themselves.

About five inmates tried to help Henderson read that day, and of the five, three “had a real hard time reading, too, but they still tried to help me,” he said. Each time someone “reached out beyond their abilities and tried to help me, that helped them, and it’s still continuing on.” He shared his greatest secret with them, and they opened up to him about their own experiences and pain.

A member of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Hampden, Henderson has been going to the jail nearly every Sunday for 12 years to minister to inmates who request it. Over that time, he’s gotten to know many people. A great number have trouble reading. Many are dejected.

Henderson said his aim is to give them a reason to hope: “Where they’ve been down on themselves and so think they’re not even forgivable, when you show them God and his love, it gives them hope, it gives them a new start.”

And they gave him a new start, too. As he helped them, they gave him a reason to finally learn to read. “Forgive them for they know not what they do. And this is where it lies. Each of us has an ability that only goes so far,” he said. “God has created us to rely on each other to get the part we haven’t got.”

Two years ago he signed up with Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, which provides free support to adults with low literacy, and was paired with a volunteer tutor, Janet Bertucci of Winterport. He is still learning to read, he said, but has improved remarkably.

Henderson has a lifetime of perspective on literacy. He grew up in the Bangor area in what he described as a dysfunctional home. He was raised mostly by his grandparents, who couldn’t read.

Neither high school, nor the military, worked for him. Though he knew the material, he had trouble reading test questions. He describes dyslexia as “a seeing problem.” Letters off to the right end up at the start of a word. It takes him time to sort out the page.

Twenty years out of high school, he studied and earned his GED, but it took him three days to complete the test. He learned how to hide the fact that he couldn’t read and worked many different jobs, including as a mechanic, carpenter, truck driver and landscaper.

“I do consider myself very fortunate to be able to do an awful lot of things just by watching. That’s how I learned,” he said.

He said he sees now the value in being honest about his reading challenges. By sharing his story, he assures others that they’re not alone.

“I feel like I haven’t discovered exactly who I am yet or what God wants of me yet, but I know right now that he just wants me to love his people and the most needy. He needs people to love them,” he said.

Henderson’s story is not just about learning to read, he said, but helping others grow in the same way he is growing. His goal is to “help people come beyond where they’re at in their life because of the hurt of the lack of love.”

Literacy Volunteers of Bangor may be reached at 947-8451 or marylyon@lvbangor.org.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.