CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 17 June 2017

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An on air Get out of jail free pass

HONG KONG (SE): The old Monopoly game offered a Get Out of Jail Free pass to the odd lucky player, but in real life prisons in Hong Kong no such privilege is available to those securely locked behind bars. They are there for the duration.
 
However, at least for foreign prisoners in the city some respite is offered every Sunday night when Bruce Aitken hunkers down behind the microphone at AM 1044 Metro Plus.
 
For two-and-a-half hours as Brother Bruce, he conjures up a release from the chains that confine the soul, the spirit and the mind within the dark cocoon of prison walls.
 
As one man writes in addressing his cell in Stanley Prison, “Physically I might never escape from you. But surely every Sunday from 8.30pm until 11.00pm I will escape from you through the air waves along with Brother Bruce, whether you like it or not.”
 
Aitken’s long-running Hour of Love programme first went to air 13 years ago. Beginning simply as an outreach to shut-ins, his audience was mostly made up of Filipino migrant workers who were not allowed to go out on Sundays.
 
But little by little another breed of shut-ins began to tune in, foreign prisoners. They welcome the soft American accent, refined by its 40 or so years in Asia, as it carries spiritual nourishment for many a lost and lonely soul.
 
With its steady diet of scripture readings, together with praise and worship music the Hour of Love offers a welcome tissue for isolated tears. But there is an underlying, yet unexplained wisdom flavouring the words Aitken speaks into the air waves that attracts those behind bars like a magnet.
 
In April this year the source of this wisdom was revealed in his newly published autobiography, The Cleaner: The true story of one of the world’s most successful money launderers.
 
Aitken no longer launders money, a year behind bars in the United States of America (US) put an end to that lucrative career, but it also opened up a new era in his life, with baptism into the faith of his Catholic wife, Jenny, whom he freely admits kept his feet somewhere near the ground during his giddy days when more time was spent in the air than on the earth and in five star hotels than at home.
 
His arrest in Bangkok and transportation back to the US was followed by 12 months of spurious court hearings, being shuffled from one prison to another and always under the pressure to plead guilty.
 
There he learned a lot about the life of a shut in, whether it be an employer or prison bars holding captive.
 
It was a sudden drop from the highest of the high life to the lowest of the low. The man who travelled under the name of Mr. Clean had not only been making money, but was influential as well.
 
He played a significant role in the Lockheed Scandal, ferrying huge amounts of cash to Tokyo, which eventually saw the demise of the prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, in the 1970s.
 
The Nugan Hand Bank affair of 1980 was another outlet for his handicraft. As fundamentally a financial institution of the Central Intelligence Agency to attract the accounts of terrorist organisations around the world, it resulted in three major Australian government inquiries.
 
Through all this spurious activity Aitken maintains his innocence, stressing time and time again in his book that he never broke a law, as although some of his shenanigans may be illegal now, they were not then.
 
Always one to chance his arm, as a champion pitcher during school days a sporting scholarship got him through university and, until shortly after a try out on the mound at Yankee Stadium when he did in his cartilage, he had looked set for a career in the Major League.
 
But his arm was still intact and he chanced it on a few going nowhere jobs, until he answered an advertisement in the 1960s to work in the money transfer business of the US Army in Vietnam.
 
There he developed new loves and learned new tricks. A liking for Asia grew in him and a knowledge of the fluctuations of currencies, which put him in good stead a few years later when as a newly married man with a wife to support he took the only job offered to him—something or other in Hong Kong.
 
And Mr. Clean was born.
 
But his captors in the US wanted something. “Whatever it was I could not accommodate them,” Aitken writes. “Although they knew I had absolutely nothing to do with drugs, they falsely assumed I could lead them to tons and tons of cash belonging to my clients.”
 
Insinuations were made; about Vietnam it was implied he was working for Hanoi instead of the US government; about living in Hong Kong it was pointed out he was not Chinese; and the crowded pages in his passport pointed to de facto guilt.
 
During the days that dragged into months he was not charged. He admits he was under great pressure, but it was where his faith was born.
 
“If you have not developed a faith in God before you arrive (in prison), then you are in big trouble. It is the only thing that will save you, your spirit, your humanity, your sanity,” he writes.
 
Prison did not last forever and a plea bargain saw him on his way back to Hong Kong, but to a new life with new priorities and a desire to serve those who live without the precious freedom he had learned to cherish so dearly.
 
Still willing to chance his arm, Happy’s Kitchen in the old open air car park next to the Shun Tak Macau Ferry Terminal was a first venture; a happy go lucky stage featuring religious music for migrant workers with free food to boot, mostly provided and served by their employers.
 
But SARS brought an end to that, so where to play his music and where to share his message with those who may otherwise never get the chance to hear became his dilemma.
 
But the arm that had once thrown a curve ball was still ready to chance it, this time on radio and on Palm Sunday, 6 April 2004, the Hour of Love was born.
 
Aitken has added an extra half-an-hour for a segment he calls Prison Visitation on the Air, but it has taken on a life of its own and is threatening to take over the whole time slot, so many requests for messages to be read and songs to be played are coming in.
 
Regular guests include Father Pat Colgan and Father John Wotherspoon with stories about their prison visitation. Father Colgan has had a go at speaking Spanish, which is in great demand on the programme and requests for six hymns in six different languages are becoming commonplace.
 
The Philippine Consulate Prison Visitation Team gets on the telephone once a month and floating segments come from the Islamic Union for Muslims who are behind bars.
 
There are no dull moments in life on air, as many a prisoner and many a shut-in have learned over the years.
 
Radio with Brother Bruce is not only great fun, it even rivals the great escape, as prisoners sense that somewhere deep in the underbelly of that soft American accent lies a recognition that deliberate ignorance does not equate to innocence and, more importantly, a profound understanding of how good people sometimes do things that many regard as evil.