by Henry Lane Hull
“I was in prison and you visited me.” Those words spoken by the Lord in the Gospel of Saint Matthew are a challenge to all Christians. For many, the more comfortable approach to living in accordance with the biblical mandates is to leave that behest in the background, and to concentrate on other less taxing and emotionally disturbing commandments. Freeland Mason did not belong to that latter category.
Quite simply, Freeland read the Bible and applied its teachings to his daily life. Whereas others might eschew prison ministry, preferring more socially pleasant religious practices, he embraced it through the Kairos program and made it a prime focus of his life’s work for over three decades. He genuinely enjoyed spending time behind bars, visiting and counseling those incarcerated for their crimes. His patience was unending and his enthusiasm in trying to be a friend to the inmates with whom he worked was boundless.
On one occasion he told me that he had spent an entire weekend in prison. I jokingly replied, “Is life that bad?” albeit knowing what he meant. For Freeland, time with his inmates was golden. He never gave up on anyone, regardless of the person’s past, always confident that redemption, even for the most heinous of criminals, was entirely possible. When a prisoner reformed his life, Freeland was jubilant. When one was released, Freeland was at his side to help him re-enter society.
Freeland considered a prison sentence to be a debt one had to pay for illegal and immoral activity. In his view, once that debt had been paid, the person should be accepted back into the community. In that regard he often encountered opposition from those less forgiving and more wary of the inmate’s level of reform. Their concerns did not daunt Freeland in his ministry.
A native of Colonial Beach, Freeland went off to boarding school at Christchurch in Middlesex County, and then to Virginia Tech, where he became a diehard enthusiast for all Tech athletic programs, but particularly for football. He spent his career in Warrenton, working in the real estate and insurance business. When he retired he fulfilled a lifelong ambition of returning to the Northern Neck to follow in his father’s footsteps in working on the water.
He purchased an old farmhouse on Indian Creek, bought a boat, obtained his waterman’s license and began crabbing and gill netting. He said that he had watched his father battle the Potomac throughout his childhood and he wanted to live on more quiet and tranquil water. He became active in the Virginia Waterman’s Association and was a regular attendee and speaker at meetings of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission in Newport News.
I do not know if Freeland actually made a living off of the bounties of the water or not, but he savored every moment out on the bay. I went with him to fish his nets one morning when he was nearly 80. He worked diligently and caught a variety of fish, each of which species he described to me in great detail. I never saw anyone happier in his trade or profession. He would take his catch in his elderly van accompanied by his beloved dog, Sook, to sell in Irvington. The van was readily identifiable by the small crab pot on its roof. He said the crab pot helped him find his vehicle when he parked among a sea of cars.
Sook was an Irish Water Spaniel, one of the most loyal animals I ever knew. She went everywhere with Freeland, waiting patiently while he was in church or at the grocery store. She was well known across the lower Northern Neck, always cheerful, but totally directed towards her role as Freeland’s companion. She rarely barked and was slightly obese, huffing and puffing along as she followed in his stead. The only place she did not go with him was to prison, I presume due to health reasons in accordance with correctional regulations.
Early this month Freeland died at the age of 94 at Richmond Westminster-Canterbury, where he had moved at the age of 80. When asked how he liked living there, he replied, “I think I have died and gone to Blacksburg.” His prison days are behind him now, but many inmates and parolees over the long course of his ministry lived richer, fuller and happier lives because of his abiding care and concern for their welfare. When Freeland met the Lord, he truly could say, “I visited you in prison.”
Thomas Freeland Mason Jr., April 24, 1924 – February 5, 2019. R.I.P.