#244. My Story Isn’t Over

I have spent over half my life in prison.

All totaled, I have been to prison four times. The sad part is that none of that prison time helped me; to be honest, I truly think it made me worse. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t care to break the law, as long as I didn’t get caught. And for the most part I didn’t even care if I did get caught!

I truly believe that God led me to Addiction Recovery Care (ARC). I’ll never be able to put into words what God and ARC have done for me. While going through the program, I have learned a lot about myself and have come to understand the core beliefs I developed over the years were wrong.

My parents did not care much about me. I didn’t realize how much this would affect me growing up, and I tried to act like I didn’t care, but deep down I was dying inside. They lost custody of me when I was nine years old, and they never looked back.

My aunt and uncle stepped in and did their best to raise me, my brother and my sister. My uncle, who to me is my father, worked all day every day to try to make a living for us. He worked himself to death to take care of us — no matter what. He always tried to instill in us a good work ethic. He taught us to always be honest and do the right things no matter what.

My aunt and uncle were raising us, along with their four kids. They loved us when no one else loved us, and to me that’s what matters most. They were young and doing the best they could with seven kids. Honestly, they did a great job, cause no matter what we went through or what we did, they always taught us right from wrong and always made sure we were safe.

My aunt and uncle decided to get all three of us involved in sports and, we all were really good at something. I played football, basketball and baseball every year. I started in all three. When I was 12, my all-star team went to state in baseball, and I helped pitch for us at the state tournament. So, to say I excelled in sports would definitely be accurate. In high school I continued to do the same.

I think I remember my junior year the clearest. Maybe because it would be the last full year I would get to play. That year in baseball I batted 108 times. The first game of the year we played Allen Central and I struck out swinging twice in that game. The next 106 at-bats I would only strike out one time and end up with a batting average of 608. I had 69 base hits out of 108 at-bats, with six home runs and a slugging percentage of over 1000. That year I made the all-district team and became the only player on my team to make all-region. In football that year, we went 11-2, losing the regional championship game to Paintsville.

In my senior year, our first game was against the Hazard Bulldogs, thought to be the best team in our region. I pitched that game. I remember it well because Alice Lloyd College scouts were there. We only played six innings because our lights were torn up. In six innings you can only get 18 outs. I ended up striking out 15 batters and pitching a shutout against the top team in the region. We beat them 2-0. That game would be the last of my high school career.

My life changed forever on April 17, 2003. I was charged with two counts of first degree assault, two counts of first degree burglary, and two counts of first degree robbery. From that point, my life spiraled completely out of control due to drugs. After several months of being locked up for crimes that I didn’t commit, I started to lose hope in anything and everything. I honestly couldn’t see how this had happened to me. All the doubts and all the fears started to set in, and I began to believe the jailhouse talk. How the justice system isn’t fair and how it didn’t matter if I had done the crimes I was charged with or not — I would be going to prison.

I was hurt and angry, lonely and sad, you name it. I was a kid in a man’s world. I heard talk of a couple other inmates making plans to escape. I didn’t want to be there anymore, so when they brought it back up, all I knew is that I was broken and ready to go. That night, I joined them in trying to escape. A guard ended up getting stabbed, two others ended up getting assaulted, and my situation just got a whole lot worse.

After doing a lot of time in the hole [solitary confinement], I finally got to take my original charges to court. I was facing 120 years, but I didn’t care. I was just ready to have this all over with. To say I had lost hope in everything would be an understatement. By that time, I was almost completely broken.

It took me a couple of years to do so, but I ended up getting acquitted for all those charges I’d originally been locked up for. I remember falling to my knees and crying like the kid that I was. I thought I could finally shut the door on that part of my life. But I had to face the new charges, the escape and assault of the guard. I clearly remember how I felt as I watched my so-called codefendant walk out of the doors that day, and me having to stay behind.

The rest of me broke.

In my eyes it mattered that I shouldn’t have been in jail for something I didn’t do. However, all that mattered to the prosecutor was that I wouldn’t testify against the one who stabbed the guard, so they sent me to prison. I ended up making parole the first time up but the damage to me was done. I had no trust in the justice system and wasn’t ever going to listen to another judge or cop in my life.

Over the next nearly 20 years, I was in and out of prison, descending deeper and deeper into addiction. Each time I was released, I turned to drugs, since that’s how I dealt with everything. My lifestyle had become just like the quote you’ve heard that is often attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

I ended up catching more felonies and going back to prison two more times before serving out a 13-year sentence walking out of the doors of the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in 2014.

I was “dope sick” from heroin and/or suboxone. The first time I ever touched any of those was in prison, so I truly believe prison only hurt me and never helped me in any way.

I was strung out and hating life. On Nov. 14, 2014, while I was taking a part off of a vehicle, the car fell on me. It pinned me to the ground, broke my pelvic bone and my back, and nearly shut down my kidneys and other organs. When I look back, I know in my heart I was supposed to die that night, but God spared me and, at the time, I had no idea why.

I was a pitiful excuse of a man who had let life dictate every decision he had ever made. I was paralyzed from the waist down for several months and didn’t know if I’d ever walk again. Depression became a part of my life. I turned to the only thing that would numb my pain, the only thing that would help me forget all my past failures, hurts and hangups — drugs.

I burned every bridge I had ever crossed, and I hurt almost everyone I had come into contact with. I wasn’t the father I wanted to be, the son or brother I wanted to be. I was hopelessly lost and didn’t know what to do or which way to turn so, as always, I turned to drugs.

In 2016 I got in trouble again. I ended up serving five years in a prison in Virginia. When I finally got out, I was so tired, I didn’t have much strength left in me. Over the next couple years, I went on a meth binge. Boy, I thought I was bad then. Meth was a whole new and different kind of animal. I had done it before, but this was different. It’s all I thought about. But, like I said, I was breaking the law, running from the law, always angry. I was exhausted and coming to the point where I didn’t even want to live anymore. I had already overdosed twice and thought the only way I was going to stop was to end it all.

One night before coming to treatment at ARC, I decided to go and trade the car I had just bought for a gun, so I could end it all. That night I went to the drug dealer’s house to talk to him about trading. I was done. I couldn’t stop hurting the people I cared about, so one way or another, I was going to stop it. While in the house, little did I know that God was doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself. My car was towed away. As I look back, I realize that if that had not happened, chances are I wouldn’t be here today.

A few days after my car got towed, I ended up getting a DUI and, in doing so, I received a court order to complete Phase 1 at Lincoln Oaks drug rehab center in Annville, Kentucky. All I was worried about was completing Phase 1 and then going back to my miserable excuse of a life. Along the way things started to change; my mind started to clear. At first I saw treatment as a hindrance, but then I started to see it as an opportunity to change my life.

The people in the ARC program were different. There were no degrees that made them different, it was their life experiences, they had been where I was. They knew me and what I had gone through because they also had lived my experiences in their own way. They suffered heartache, pain and loss, and they had come out on the other side. They were living the kind of life that I had been dreaming of. I was so tired and hopeless, but these people who had previously been incarcerated, who had lived lives of addiction similar to mine, they were sober and productive members of their society.

For once in more than two decades, I began to see hope. I started to believe that it was possible for me. I truly believe God used ARC and the people there to show me the way.

“This is your way out if you want it; then here it is.”

They saw something in me that I thought had died; and they believed in me. Every rehab center that I went to, I saw people who were just like me. People who had been beat down by life like I had, people who suffered great pain but were taking the necessary steps to have a better life. From the directors to the residential staff, none was any different than I was. They kept talking about how if I did certain things and applied the tools I had learned, I could live the life I was meant to live. This gave me hope, ’cause no one saw the silent tears. The heartache. The constant pain I was truly in.

People only see what we allow them to see. And I never let anyone close enough to see anything about me. The botched suicide attempts. The overdoses. For once in my life I had true hope, and there is no price tag on that. Jesus hung on the cross for that hope. He died to give broken, misguided, helpless people like me a chance at life.

So, here I am, more than two years sober, and people from my community reach out to me and look to me for help in getting into treatment — me of all people.

I am married for the first time in my life. I have a beautiful, Christian wife with a gentle soul and a huge heart. I am a father to my kids, I’m actually a big part of their life now, I am no longer the family disappointment. I no longer have to worry about spending the rest of my life in prison or dying with a needle in my arm. God and Addiction Recovery Care are helping me live a life free from the chains of addiction, something I never thought possible.

All the bridges I once burned are no longer burnt.

Someone once asked me, “After all the time you wasted in prison and addiction, what’s one year (in the program) compared to the rest of your life?” That is one of the many things that has stuck with me. So, I gave myself a year to complete the entire program, internship and all. And here I am living the rest of my life free, truly free. I am a husband and father and blessed to have a job helping others — just like me — at the place that saved my life, ARC. Today I have purpose in my life and I wake up every day and thank God for that.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. To give you hope and a future.”  — Jeremiah 29:11

And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. — Isaiah 30:21

#243. School Bus Baby, Part 2

Photo by Billy June Richardson

I remember her. That little girl in pink and pearls. I remember reaching tiny fingers up to touch those gritty pearls and wondering if I could eat them later if I got hungry. 

I remember. I always remember. At least I want to always remember… because, “Who knows when something or someone will leave, and all you’ll have left are your memories.”

When I look at this photo of a younger me, I see the pain. I wonder if a lost childhood is like the phantom pain of a lost limb. I still secretly grieve. I see the confusion that still haunts my heart to this day. I see a little girl wondering if she is cute enough to be allowed to stay. I see her pale little face, full of questions about who she is and why God would allow her to suffer. I see her yearning to be loved and to belong. I ask God, “Why?” 

For nearly three decades I have roamed the dark hallways of my mind, calling my own name over and over, reaching out for answers. I have battled demons of depression, anger, anxiety and bitterness. I have survived the reoccurring trauma of my memories on a daily basis. My flashbacks are like bits and pieces of an old movie flickering with intermittent static on a black and white TV. 

Some of my childhood memories leave me shaking. “What kind of parents try to drown their own baby?” 

There I am again — in an empty bathtub at six years old — determined to be a lifeguard as soon as I turn 16. 

Some of my memories are sad. The blurry face of my birth mother screaming beside my hospital crib still leaves a ringing in my ears today. Memories of being unwanted and unloved will haunt me to the day I leave this world. 

I haven’t battled alone though. 

Through it all, even when I didn’t know He was there, I had a Friend. A Friend who is gentle and meek, but also stronger than the demons and darkness I battle. A Friend whose arms are always wrapped around me, shielding me. A Friend who is never sleeping when I need help. 

When my biological father and mother tried to drown me, God gave me the breath of Life. When they tried to starve and poison me, He sustained me. And when my birth mother turned her back on me, condemning me to a lifetime of mental and emotional anguish, God held me fast. 

When I thought I had no one, He was always there.

My God is a Provider. He took the shell of a little girl that I was, and filled my cup to overflowing. I met my forever family about a year after my rescue. Three years later I was adopted by my second pair of foster parents. They opened their arms, hearts, and home to me. They promised to never leave. They promised to always love. When my broken little mind doubted, they stayed faithful. When I tested boundaries to determine if they could be trusted, they withstood the test with patience and understanding. They taught me about Jesus. The One who brought me from the brink of death into a beautiful new life. 

I’m now married to a wonderful man and together we are raising our daughter to know and love Jesus. We are raising her to love, and together we are repainting my life’s canvas. 

My God is a healer. He has taken the broken pieces of my spirit and made me whole. He has walked with me through every dark valley and shadow of death. He has been the key in my dungeon of despair. He is my Almighty Fortress. He is still restoring my soul day by day. 

God has blessed me beyond anything I could have dreamed up myself (Ephesians 3:20–21). He has raised me from my pile of ashes, like Job, scraping away at the sores in my soul. He has been my rock. 

No one could have known the joy that was coming to me, and I cannot wait to see where God will lead me next. I know it will be beautiful though, simply because I am walking with Him. 

“For it is you who light my lamp; the LORD my God lightens my darkness.” — Psalm 18:28 (ESV)

The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” — Exodus 14:14

#242. School Bus Baby, Part 1

Photo by Billy June Richardson

I love these big beautiful mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, but I almost didn’t get to experience the beauty of them. I almost lost the chance to dance on their peaks. I almost lost the chance to grow up in these hollers and see the glory of God in their beauty. But, by the grace of God, I blossomed like an evening primrose in the dark shadows of a coal mine.

There is an ugly poison in our beautiful mountains. Its name is addiction. It has poisoned generations and — no matter what form it takes — its clutches are visible and heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking for those in its grasp and for those like me, who have felt the generational curse and consequences of addiction’s reach. 

My story is not one of a Phoenix rising from the ashes reborn. Mine is a Joseph story (Genesis 37–50). A story of victory over all the demons in hell and forces of sin and darkness. Mine is a story of angels of mercy and hope. Mine is a story of redemption.

Addiction is an expression of despair, a slough of despondency. My birth parents wallowed in it — blind to the beauty of the eternal paradise before them, and enslaved to the god of alcohol. As they worshiped at its altar, I drowned in the consequences. 

I couldn’t find the steps to get myself out; then God sent an angel!

Billy June came on wings of hope with a food basket from her church. (My birth mother had somehow reached a point of despair and contacted Billy June’s church, asking for food for herself.) 

This was the kind of despair that spent the food money on alcohol and cigarettes, a despair that caused a mother to attempt to drown her own baby in a bucket of water. It was a despair that nearly ended my life. 

Several food baskets later, Billy June was even allowed inside the rusty school bus we called home. That’s when she saw me for the first time. My birth mother had been trying to conceal me and had tried to “get rid of me,” so she could leave Kentucky and go back to my father in Georgia.

“There’s a baby on that bus,” Billy June told a social worker, who agreed to come along on the next food delivery to see for herself and to evaluate the situation for social services. 

On that next visit, they were met with ugliness and carbon monoxide fumes so strong the social worker had to leave the bus to vomit outside. They found a baby living on that bus — a baby so pale — with her eyes rolled back in her head. This baby (me) was dying from starvation, multi-organ failure and carbon monoxide poisoning. I had a blood count of 2.4 and had stopped crying and expressing my needs, realizing it was fruitless.

For many months I had lain in a pit of darkness until the doors of death opened to receive me. What a glorious salvation it was the day those doors were slammed shut by the God of all creation! 

After I was taken by social services and placed in a loving home, doctors said I wouldn’t last a week. I spent a year recovering physically. However, if I’m honest, every day is a new victory mentally and emotionally. Every day is a testament to God’s mercy. Every day is a day that I can glorify God as a walking billboard of His mercy. 

I still suffer from the lasting consequences of addiction’s reach. Mental turmoil and emotional scars from the abuse and abandonment I went through are still potent today. But, through it all, one truth remains: All the forces of evil and darkness cannot compete with my Champion in heaven. What the devil and this fallen world meant for evil, God has transformed into good. Those doors of death have been refined and reformed into beautiful gates of heaven awaiting me one glorious happy day. The chains of addiction haven’t just been broken. In my redemption, the forge where they were created has been razed to the ground and, in doing so, I have been raised to a new life, full of hope. 

What a beautiful privilege it is to give my life and place my trust in my Champion! May the rest of my life reflect His glory, redemption, and the hope and comfort that can be found in Him. 

Some people say I should have been aborted or left to die. That my suffering should never have happened. That the emotional and mental turmoil I still experience to this day could have been prevented by abortion or death. But I defy them to ignore the immense blessings my God continues to rain down upon me. 

Nobody knew the joy that was coming! May my every day be a hallelujah!

You Light a lamp for me.
The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.
Psalm 18:28 (NLT)

For you are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with songs of victory.
Psalm 32:7 (NLT)

Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will hold me close.
Psalm 27:10 (NLT)

#241. With a Mighty Crooked Stick, God Is Able to Make a Very Straight Path

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

To some, Louisville, Kentucky, is a thriving hub of commerce and enterprise. But to me, I knew a different side of my city. I didn’t see anything but poverty. I didn’t see anything but crime. My father’s mental disorders created chaos in our home. He was in and out of psychiatric institutions all of my life. With both parents emotionally unavailable, I never knew stability or what a real “functional” home looked like.
 

Our utilities were often cut off. I, along with my four siblings, were often yanked from our sleep, to flee our home from my father’s violence when he derailed. We were thrown from home to home all of our lives, and we were rarely ever welcomed into the homes of relatives.
 

Being molested three times before age 12 sent me spiraling into an emotional whirlwind. Early drug use seemed to numb me just well enough to stop feeling the pain and trauma. Little did I know that the same drugs that numbed me also removed me from reality, from feeling love, peace or a sense of connection. Early formative years left me feeling like I had no value, worth or reason to be. Rejection and abandonment affected my desire to connect intimately and kept me living in a world of fear — living disconnected from others.
 

By the time I was a teenager, my parents divorced. In the court’s eyes, I was old enough to choose who I was going to stay with, and I did that. I stayed with my father, which was not, in any way, a benefit.
  

My father began prostituting women out of our home. When I turned 16, my father threw me out on the street. I packed the few things I owned, got in my car and found shelter in a parking garage in downtown Louisville. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night, other than the car. It was both the winter of my soul and a cold winter’s night as well. That car ended up being my home for the next two months.

I remember opening a bag of chips, eating some of them and thinking, “I hope these last for a day or two.” I remember the hurt and the fears. I wasn’t sure where I was going to turn. I wandered the streets, eventually landing a job as a dishwasher. My wages were just enough to pay for a little food and my drug habit. I was beginning to use drugs more and more and didn’t know where I would acquire the next drugs to keep me one step beyond my pain.

I later married and started a moving company. After eight years of marriage and operating a business as a functioning addict, I received an indictment on drug charges. Realizing a mutual acquaintance had turned me in, I armed myself with a knife and went to this apartment. He was staying in a small room in the back of a friend’s barbershop. I remember walking in the door and confronting him. In a very short time, the heat of the argument escalated. He grabbed a knife and within a few seconds, we were in a fight. During the fight, we both busted through the glass door of the business and landed outside on the concrete.

I seemed to blackout. I had no idea how many times I had stabbed him. I knew when I stabbed him the last time that he was soon to be dead. He put his hand over his mouth and whispered, “Oh, God.” Those words continued to echo in my mind as I left. 

I was later arrested and charged with murder. After I was released on bond, I went home and started getting high. But this time, it was different.

I was sitting in a recliner, listening to music, with a joint going. I remember the presence of God settling in around me. This feeling was something very foreign to me. Being unchurched and lost, I didn’t know exactly what was going on. All I knew was that — for the first time in what seemed like forever — I was able to feel. 

Remorse, leading to repentance began to work in my heart. I began to really contemplate what I had done. I thought about the crime and the crime scene, and all the horror that had taken place. I remembered every detail for the first time. I got on my face. My weeping turned into a compulsive crying, and my high was gone.

That night, I asked Christ into my heart. 

Two years later, I went to trial and was given a 35-year sentence for wanton murder. Throughout those years, I grew in my faith, taught many classes, discipled men, set up accountability groups in each prison and educated myself and others. I took every opportunity to share Christ with fellow inmates. While I was in prison, I earned an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree in theology, a master’s in divinity, and five two-year vocational degrees.
 

Despite model behavior, I was denied parole twice, once after 12 years and the second time after 18 years. I was finally released in 2012, after serving 22 years. I served out my 35-year sentence and moved back to Louisville. 

Today I lead The Prisoners Hope, a very successful holistic ministry that meets prisoners with the redeeming love and grace of the gospel right where they are — before incarceration, during incarceration and post-incarceration. The Prisoners Hope also ministers to the children and families of incarcerated individuals to meet practical, emotional and spiritual needs. 

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20–21

#240 A New Way to Live

I was born the middle of three children. My father was never in my life. My aunt, cousin and grandmother lived with my mother, my brother, my sister and me. I grew up in a traumatizing household. I was sexually abused as a child. Growing up I remember feeling like I had no hope. I didn’t see a future and didn’t believe in education. Drug abuse and domestic violence were a normal part of my life. My mother’s and my aunt’s boyfriends beat them often. I learned a very dysfunctional view of relationships. When I was eight years old, my aunt’s boyfriend broke a beer bottle and cut her from the top of her eyebrow down to her chin. She received around 300 stitches. I came home after my aunt was released from the hospital and she and the boyfriend were sitting on the sofa — drinking beer and laughing, as if nothing had happened. I thought, “What is he still doing here?” I was baffled with disbelief. 

When I was 14 years old, I witnessed my aunt’s boyfriend, at the time, being shot and killed in our neighborhood by her former boyfriend. A couple of months later, my mother was raped, beaten and left for dead by one of our neighbors. My mother had the strength to continue to scream while her rapist passed out on the bed after locking her in the closet. Another neighbor heard my mother’s screams and was able to rescue her, then run to our home to inform my 16-year-old brother. My brother ran to her and saw her bloody and naked. He started having mental health issues shortly after that. My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18 years old. He has been living in a group home for the past 24 years. After the rape, my mom was hospitalized for three to four months. She was never the same after that. She recovered physically, but she never fully recovered from the emotional trauma. 

I was very smart in school, but I was an angry child and a violent person. I was physically violent and enjoyed fighting anyone. I was involved in street gangs. By the time I was 16 years old, I was a high school dropout, a teenage mom and a daily free-basing cocaine addict. I got high with my mother, aunt and grandmother, and I bought drugs from my father. My first child was born positive for marijuana. Four years later I got pregnant with my second child. I was smoking crack cocaine every day. She was born positive for cocaine. I was court-ordered to go into substance abuse treatment, but I continued to use drugs. I had figured out the system. A year later, when I was pregnant with my third child, I went into substance abuse treatment again, right before my son was born. At birth my son tested negative for any substances, but social services still took custody of him shortly after birth. I saw my son the day he was born and then I didn’t see him again until six months later. The Department of Children and Family Services took custody of my second child when she was 18 months old. 

I continued to use drugs. 

My turning point was at the age of 22, when I was 7 ½ months pregnant with my fourth child. I was tired of the life I was living. I even tried committing suicide to escape my life. I had been up for days. It was 3 a.m. and I said, Everybody can’t be living like this, God help me.” I went into treatment for the sixth time the following day, July 14, 1994, and I haven’t not found a reason to use any drugs since then. 

It was hard because everybody I knew was using drugs. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I didn’t want to use drugs anymore, and I needed to change my lifestyle. I gave birth to my fourth child while I was in treatment. When my son was just two weeks old, we went to live in a homeless shelter. I started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Every day for 18 months I thought about using drugs to get high. I had been using something since I was 12 years old. It was challenging and difficult in the beginning for me to learn how to stop using drugs. When I was really struggling, I would pray, “God take my will, my life and show me how to live today.”

I got custody of my other children and moved out of the homeless shelter into my first apartment with all four of my children, the oldest was five years old. I was trying to change from the inside out. I got my GED and started working for $5.25 an hour. Because I started working, they cut back my food stamps and raised what I had to pay for Section 8 housing. It was like I was being punished for working and set up to fail. 

God put a beautiful woman in my life to help me. My second sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous is an ordained minister who has sponsored me for the past 17 years. She taught me how to treat men and how to be a lady. I know she wants the best for me. The women in my life have been productive members of society, enjoying life without drugs, working and obtaining an education. They have encouraged me to figure out my goals in life. 

I went back to school because I had to. There was no way I was going to survive and provide for my children without an education. The women gave me hope and courage that I can do it. My sponsor encouraged me when I feel like giving up. She’s one of my biggest cheerleaders. She would not let me give up. I worked third shift — midnight to 8 a.m. — at a drug treatment facility, and I enrolled in college to earn my associate degree. I started from the bottom up. When I got off work, I would take the kids to daycare or school, then I went to school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. I’d go home from school, spend time with my children, prepare dinner for them and get three or four hours of sleep before going back to work. There also were evenings I attended my Narcotics Anonymous meetings, so I could stay clean from drugs. This was my daily routine for years. It took me five years to earn my two-year associate degree. Then I earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. I bought my first home when I was 29. I became a certified counselor, and the first 15 years of my career I worked as a counselor with women experiencing addiction and mental health issues. I graduated with my master’s degree in human service counseling in 2005. I became licensed as a mental health therapist and drug abuse counselor. I opened my own private practice in 2011. 

In 2009, I adopted my cousin’s daughter. I wasn’t sure if I’d be approved because in 1992. I had been convicted of two counts of child abuse and neglect related to my second and third child. The Department of Children and Family Services told me I could never have anything to do with children after that. I didn’t think I would be able to adopt my cousin’s daughter, but the court could not find a record of the child abuse of charges from 1992, and the adoption went through. I believed that God intervened, so I could adopt her. She’s my daughter. She’s been part of my life since I took her home from the hospital at four days old. 

In 2009 I went back to get my doctorate in psychology. I had completed my dissertation but because I had reached my time limit, I could not graduate with my Ph.D. They converted my Ph.D. into a master’s degree of psychology. I was devasted but determined. I would never give up on my goals or dreams, I know if I do, I will be giving up on myself. I thought I would never stop using drugs. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I told myself If I can stop smoking crack, I can do anything or be anything I choose to be with God’s help. I was determined to get my Ph.D., so I enrolled in another doctoral program within two months. At this moment, I need to write my dissertation, then I will be finished.  

Only God could transform a 16-year-old high school dropout, single mom, free-basing cocaine addict, into a mother of five successful, healthy, drug-free children; and a professional with my own home, my own private practice, two master’s degrees — and just months away from earning a Ph.D. Five years after a judge locked me up in jail and took my children from me, I sat on a board with that same judge and we opened a women’s recovery house. I do a lot of community work. I am advocate for women. 

I am a Christian. I go to church and participate in Bible studies. God has blessed me with good children that did not travel the path I did. My children are now 32, 28, 27, 26 and 15 years old. All are doing well. God helped me get clean. He gave me my children back and taught me how to be a mother. God put the recovery community into my life, like my sponsor and other women who taught me how to be a mother, friend and neighbor. God chose me to be a member of a self-help program and, with God’s help, I made it through going to school while working full-time and raising five kids. 

People ask me how I did all of that. I tell them that it was God’s strength; the 12-step program and fellowship; courageous women; and my children needing their mother. That’s what gave me the ability to do that. The relationship that I currently have with God is different than when I was younger. I was raised thinking that God was a punishing God. I felt like if there was a God, then why did I have to go through what I went through. I didn’t come from a household of love, and I didn’t understand God’s love for me. I didn’t like God and blamed him until I got clean. When I started working the steps in Narcotics Anonymous, I realized that God had been with me all along and had been protecting me in many ways. 

Now I am not just surviving — I am living. I am healthy and happy. God has given me a new way to live life. 

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. – Psalm 51:10

#239 Nothing is Impossible through God

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I grew up in Missouri in a strong Christian family active in the Assembly of God church. As an 8- year-old, I prayed for Christ to come into my life in the back seat of our car after worship one day. I have trusted God with my life since. I can’t remember a time when I have doubted His power or existence. 

My parents got divorced when I was 10 or 11, which was a very difficult time. We lived on a small farm on the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri. My grandparents lived on the farm as well, and I leaned on them quite a bit. Within a year of the divorce, my grandfather broke his back and was in the hospital. While he was in the hospital, my grandmother had a stroke. The doctor said she shouldn’t have survived. She lost the ability to speak, but she lived for another eight or nine years and was independent in many ways. She was very inspiring to me. A few months after Grandma’s stroke, we found out my grandfather had cancer and he passed away within a year.

About the same time, my sister started arguing with our mother. My sister left home when she was 17 and they didn’t speak at all for three years. I prayed every day that they would be reconciled. I remember when I was 16 hearing my mom talking on the phone with my sister. Based on what I could hear of the conversation, I went to my bedroom and prayed a prayer of gratefulness. I believed God answered my prayers in restoring their relationship as a way of showing me that He had been with me and would continue to be with me. 

In the midst of all that, I was exposed to pornography at age 13. It became more prevalent in my life and affected the way I viewed and treated girls in high school. I was loved by God and was pursuing a relationship with God, but I learned to compartmentalize. I remember praying many times that God would break the hold that sin had on my life. I soon headed to Palm Beach Atlantic University as God had miraculously opened some doors for it to be paid for in full.

I met my wife, Katie, at college. We started dating our freshman year and got married right after college. I was honest with her about the struggles in my life, but I still felt my struggles were things every guy struggles with. We had Christian friends in college with strong accountability that helped to shape our faith. Our school took multiple mission trips each year internationally. God gave me a broader world view through those trips. My love for sports and business developed. I began working at a Christian sports camp my junior year of college. This job changed the trajectory of my career. I felt called to ministry, specifically Christian sports camps. I began to educate myself and deepen my understanding of the possibility and the need. I wanted to start a camp with two friends, but it didn’t work out at the time. 

In the summer of 1997, I was getting ready to get married and didn’t have a job. I started really praying and began to have some opportunities for sports ministry jobs. I interviewed in several different states. I got an offer from a Methodist church in Lexington, Kentucky. When I began, my job was to lead a basketball league with about 70 kids playing basketball and a few adult sports. That first winter, we named the basketball league “I am Third,” to represent that God is first, other people are second and I am third. 

At 22 years old, I didn’t completely know what I was doing in my new job, but I loved God and loved kids. It was all about servant leadership and customer service and every year the sports ministry grew. In 2001, there were around 400 kids playing basketball, and someone offered to provide land for us to start a soccer league. Our first season we had 300 kids in the soccer league, and it continued to grow. One of the biggest things I noticed was the personal relationships formed through sports. There were some strong believers on each team to reach their friends for Christ. We saw coaches building relationships with players and families. At the same time, I was doing children’s ministry as the associate children’s pastor at the church, which created a unique connection between sports and children’s ministry. As a result, our children’s ministry also really grew. Through the relationships we established with the children, we saw people start coming to our church and giving their lives to Christ. Parishioners and church leaders started seeing sports as a way to evangelize.

When I was 25, I went to a Christian conference and heard pastor and author John Ortberg speak. He shared pro-football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary’s testimony about being a man of integrity. Singletary had an affair before his marriage but didn’t tell his wife until after they were married. At that moment, I remember asking God to break everything off of me. I prayed, “I will do anything it takes to reconcile relationships and heal,” and God healed me. I knew all the lust and pornography addiction had been healed. I came home and shared what had happened with my wife, which was devastating to her. She was not aware that I had a pornography addiction, but I knew it had affected our marriage terribly. The first years of our marriage were horrible because of how pornography played into my heart and marriage. After that confession to my wife, it was difficult for a few months, but it has led to 20 years of wonderful marriage. Part of that journey was meeting with my pastor and confessing. A few of his advisors had told him to let me go but my pastor said, “I am not going to fire you, but I am going to hold you to the fire. I am going to hold you to accountability and counseling.” I was all-in. I knew that I had been healed and whatever it looked like living that out and showing that to other people, I was in. 

I had a conversation with my mom and learned more about the divorce and the cause of it. Hearing some of the things that went on in my parent’s marriage was difficult but freeing because I saw how some of those things were in my own life. Being able to name those things gave me more power over those things in the Holy Spirit. Once I could name it, I had authority over it instead of the other way around. God fully got a hold of my heart during this time and did significant work.

In 2005, I began the role of youth pastor at our church. We did youth camps and mission trips. As our kids were getting older, I realized that I wanted to transition out of the youth pastor role. Through different roles at the church and leadership opportunities, God continued to teach me and help me to clearly define my identity and calling. My life call is motivating, coaching and encouraging people into lifelong vigorous faith for the Kingdom of God. 

About this time, one of our youth moved to Costa Rica and started a ministry. Over the last seven years, I have traveled to the Costa Rica ministry over a dozen times with family and friends. What I experience there is the closest thing to the Acts 2 model of discipleship and the church family that I have ever seen. I now even serve on their board. Being a part of their ministry has been an awakening for me and an important part of my spiritual journey.

God has used all of these events, healings and ministries in my life in powerful ways. We have seen friends come to Christ through relationships formed on I am 3rdsports teams. We have seen God transform people through cross-cultural mission trips around the world. We have seen God heal others in supernatural ways. As we have experienced these things with God, He has worked through us in relationships we’ve formed over the past 23 years in Lexington.

Through these three events: becoming an associate pastor, experiencing the Spirit in new ways through ministry, and getting involved with the Costa Rica ministry, I have felt God moving in a new way in my life. I began to wonder what it would look like to do something different in a different place. Our church had planned to start a second campus that I would lead. When the pandemic hit, the brakes were put on the second campus. In late April, I felt that leading at the second campus wasn’t God’s plan for me. I believed my time in full-time vocational ministry was coming to an end, and I had unbelievable peace about it. 

Over the next month after I felt this peace, God brought new opportunities to do some life coaching and church consulting. I love meeting people one-on-one to dream and pray with them and help them see these dreams come about. As we moved into June, God made it clear that my time at my home church was coming to an end sooner than I thought. I started brainstorming and praying, “If you want me coaching and consulting and working in the marketplace, you will have to open some doors.” In July, we went to dinner with some friends to share what God was doing in our lives. Seemingly out of nowhere, I was offered a job with their construction business. They created a new job for me, a business development position, which is about building relationships with current and potential customers. 

As only God can do, He showed us an opportunity for our next church home that resonated with our heart for the local church. Our family became a part of a network of house churches in October. There are currently five house churches in the network, each using the Acts 2 model for what a church looks like. 

Even though we are in the middle of a pandemic, we have left our church of 23 years and I have left my job of 23 years, I still feel God’s peace and blessing. God is clearly leading us through this journey. There has been so much change, but I sit in awe because it is obvious that God is right in the middle of this. We are ready to see what God is going to do with this new chapter in our lives. 

What have I learned about the nature of God? One of the biggest things is that God really is the God of impossible. What humans see as impossible is just a mountain that can be moved by God. I have experienced Him both personally, in my family, and physically, as a healer. Nothing is impossible for God through the power of His Spirit. He has healed me from the grip of pornography and used that witness to encourage and free others in His Spirit.

Acts 4:27–32 ESV

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.

#238 Hope Is Here

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

When I was 32, I had a $10 million grocery business with nearly 100 employees. Life was going well. I was getting ready to buy several other businesses. But on March 1, 1997, there was severe flood in my town. I was away at a John Maxwell conference at the time. I couldn’t get back to try to protect my business because of the weather. The next day, when I finally got back to the store, I couldn’t get near it because of the flood. There were boxes of Zesta crackers floating all over. A man near me said, “Man, somebody lost a lot of inventory.” The person who lost a lot of inventory was me. 

I called my insurance company to explain what had happened, “Hey we have a flood here,” I said. Some profanity came out of my agent’s mouth, then he said, “You have every type of insurance except flood insurance.” He said there hadn’t been a flood in my town for 89 years, and no one in my town had flood insurance. 

I found myself in $2 million of debt overnight. We were one of the largest employers in town, and I felt such a responsibility to get my employees back to work. I was unable to get to my house because of the flood. I spent the night with my sister. I was flipping channels and landed on a channel where John Maxwell was speaking. His sermon title, “Do you need a miracle?” got my attention. After that sermon I thought, “God, You can do a miracle!” 

The councilman for our district contacted our state representative. He helped to push through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) loan for my business. In a miraculous 21 days we re-opened. I used a lot of information from the John Maxwell conference I had attended to help me rebuild my business. One of the main principles I learned was, “It’s not what happens to me, it’s what happens inside me.” The next year I was recognized by the town’s Chamber of Commerce as businessperson of the year.

The next time John Maxwell came to speak near my town, I went to his conference. After he spoke, I had an opportunity to speak with him and tell him how his words and principles had helped me recover after the flood. “I just wanted to say thank you,” I told him. He looked at me and pointed across the table. He said, “Charlie, I want you to write this story for my new book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success.” I shared my story for the book. The title of my chapter is “It’s not what happens to me, it’s what happens inside me.”

The business recovered well. Then another grocery came to town, and there wasn’t room for two groceries. I had to file for bankruptcy. I still had around $2 million in debt. I went home that night and told my wife about filing bankruptcy. She said, “I hate to add to a bad day, but I don’t love you anymore and I want a divorce.” I had to put my home up for collateral for the flood disaster loan. So, I lost my business, home and marriage within 24-hours.

I had suicidal thoughts. I was angry at God. “Lord I have loved you. I have gone to Sunday school, done Bible studies and listened to Christian radio. I’m going to find out if all this stuff in the Bible is real.” I started reading the Bible, seeing a Christian counselor, and exercising regularly. My family was wonderful. The Bible became real to me. Verses started to jump off the page and speak directly to me. 

A pastor I respected wrote me a letter in which he said, “I hurt because you hurt.” He cited Romans 8:28, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.He wanted me to know, “I don’t know how, but God will work this out.” I saved his letter. 

While going through the divorce, I couldn’t find the key to my safe deposit box at the bank. While the locksmith was working on it, we were making small talk. He told me that his pastor had resigned. I can’t believe this came out of my mouth. “If you need someone to fill in someday, I would be happy to do that.” Here I am a divorced, bankrupt man offering to preach at his church. Two weeks later he called to tell me his church wanted to take me up on my offer to preach. 

For my first sermon in this small rural church, there were about 15 people in attendance. They asked me to come back the following week. The church started growing. It was up to 45 people. “Bring a Friend” Sunday was coming up, and I felt like God was saying, “Let’s see if we can get 100 to come on “Bring a Friend” day. I challenged each person in the congregation to bring at least one visitor to the service. On the big day just two weeks later, I pulled up to church and there were cars everywhere. I wondered if all the other churches around were having something going on. I walked in our church and it was standing-room only. We had 156 people in attendance. I immediately start to cry. I heard the Lord speak to me, “This is not about you. It’s about me. If you will surrender to me, I can take a bankrupt, divorced guy and use him for my glory.” The elders came to me and said, “It’s obvious God’s hand is on your life. We would like you to be our full-time pastor.” 

I was getting ready to accept their offer, when I received an offer from another church to become their associate pastor to lead small groups, men’s ministry, sports ministry and singles ministry. I visited this church and could feel the Holy Spirit there. I felt that was where I was supposed to be. But the salary was only $21,900, and it was a full-time job. I couldn’t live on that salary. I talked to my brother about it. He told me that it was obvious that God had his hand on my life and had opened this door for me.” I stepped out in faith and God blessed everything I did. I started in August 2003. My first office was an electrical closet with no ventilation. In the summer the circuit breakers were tripping and the sweat would roll down my back, but I loved the job. The church doubled in size and they needed an executive pastor. I became their executive pastor two years after becoming associate pastor. 

I got remarried and, on my first anniversary, we learned that the senior pastor at our church was involved in an affair. The next year was very difficult. People were hurting. In 2008 my wife said she wanted a divorce. I was shocked as I thought things had been going well. As a twice divorced man, I pressed into my faith. I got out of ministry in 2013 to take a break and do some healing. 

I started a sports radio program and did that for about three years. In August 2017 I got a call from a friend telling me a mutual friend had taken his life by suicide. I had presided over this man’s wedding. No one saw his suicide coming. I couldn’t get his little daughters out of my mind. A couple more of my friends died by suicide around the same time. All three were men of faith. I thought, “Someone has to do something about this suicide thing.” About that time, I got a call from a radio station and they said, “We have a 15-minute radio program open. Would you be interested?” I thought this could be an opportunity to share hope that might prevent suicide. This quote from Hal Lindsey is a reminder of the importance of hope, “A person can live about 40 days without food, about 3 days without water, about 8 minutes without air, but only for 1 second without hope.”

I came up with a name for the radio program: “Hope Is Here.” I asked God for His help. “I am going to step out and do this, but God you will have to help me.” I started in December 2017. We have had almost 800 programs to date. We make a podcast of the radio program, and by the end of 2020, the podcast will have had 40,000 downloads.  

I have learned life is about continuing to ‘fail forward.’ God will be with you every step of the way. What the enemy has meant for evil, God will use for good. God will restore what the locusts have eaten. I have learned that my scars become someone else’s stars. It is really about surrender, daily surrender. It’s about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Romans 8:28 was true when the flood happened in my small town 23 years ago, and it’s still true today. I believe that everyone has a purpose. My purpose is to be an agent of hope. Because of Jesus, there is always hope. 

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him. (Psalm 28:7)  

#237 Very Good in God’s Eyes

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I was born in Shreveport Louisiana. My mother was 16 when she gave birth to me. All my family is conservative Baptist, and when my mother became pregnant, there was a stigma. They sent her away for a period until she gave birth to me, and then my grandparents became my primary caretakers. My mother graduated high school, but my grandparents retained control of her. 

Because I was born out of wedlock, I was always treated differently, but I didn’t understand it as a young child. As a way to remove the shame, I was put in church from sunup to sundown, practically seven days a week. From K to 3rdgrade I went to a private Catholic school. My mother eventually married and lived with her husband, but I stayed with my grandparents. The private school closed and I began going to a public school near my mother’s home. My mother would take me to my grandmother’s home as soon as I was out of school, and I would stay there until the next morning when my grandmother took me to my mother’s to catch the bus to school. During this time, I was still in church all the time but it felt foreign to me. I didn’t feel a connection. The teaching at church didn’t line up with my life at home, and that was confusing for me.  

My stepfather took me as his own son and loved me. But my grandparents told my mother that she had to divorce him because he drank. I don’t remember his drinking being a problem in our home. He was good to me and had a good job and provided well for our family. My mother divorced him. He loved my mother and never married again. He began drinking excessively after she divorced him. He drank himself to death, dying of liver cirrhosis at 43 years of age. 

My mother had to move to the ghetto because she didn’t have the income from her husband, and her family didn’t help her financially. That’s when my life started to take off in a negative way. I felt like I had two lives. When I moved to the bad neighborhood, the structure was different. Because I sought to belong, when I attended school, I hung out with the children that were doing everything wrong. By this time, I was 11 or 12. I had been sheltered and now was introduced into this community of kids doing all these things I didn’t know anything about. I was just trying to fit in. Eventually this led to me to participating in gang activity. I never did anything with the gang per se. I never got involved in crime because I was still staying with my grandparents at night. This time in my life was a turning point for me because I began to become emboldened. I developed an attitude. My grandmother told my mother, “Come get him because if you don’t, I’m going to kill him.” Between 6thand 7thgrade, I moved back with my mom. My mother was never home. I had to watch my younger sister. I would pick her up from school and watch her until my mom would come home. My mother wasn’t there to tell me to go to school, so many times I didn’t.

I was baptized at Paradise Baptist Church, my grandparents church, but I began going to Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church down the street from my mom’s house. Every Sunday my mom would say, “Get dressed, get your sister dressed, and go to church.” The pastor, Rev. Hunt, wanted to know where my mother was. He took me home to meet my mother and that began a relationship between us. After school I would go to Rev. Hunt’s office and spend time with him. He became like a model father figure for me. He took me to his home and treated me like his own son. But there was still disconnect between church and my own personal life. I appreciated him and loved him, but I didn’t feel any sense of peace or belonging in church. Little did I know, all the training that I received at Paradise Church and Morning Star Church would come back to help me in a most difficult period in my life when I went to prison. 

By this time, I was about 15 ½ years old and had been kicked out of school for tardiness. I was attending what is now called an alternative school. There was a teacher, Ms. Huntington, who was kind and compassionate, and she exuded love. She always told me, “You are an intelligent young boy.” She always encouraged me. Rev. Hunt and Ms. Huntington became the two people that gave me self-worth and were positive. I didn’t want to fight and be with the guys because I had these two adults in my life encouraging me and believing in me. 

The goal at the alternative school was for the students to spend one semester and then go back to their regular school. We were to sit in a cubicle all day and do our normal school work sent over by our regular school and also do additional work. It took a lot of discipline to sit in that cubicle every day and do that work, but I was determined to get back to my school and worked hard to do everything that I was supposed to do. 

When I went back for my school board hearing to see if I could get back into my regular school, the assistant principal at my old regular high school said I was doing good where I was and I should stay there another semester. That crushed me. I had tried so hard. That day I stopped caring about everybody and everything. But I was still attending church. I can remember sitting in church saying to God, “To hell with it all. I don’t even care.” I didn’t go back to school. My mom found out and was really mad. So I ran away from home. The second night, my mom was out looking for me. When she found me, I could see she was holding my little sister. My stepdad told me to always be there for my little sister and my mom. I went home that night. 

The next night, we were at church. Rev. Hunt told my mother she worried too much and that I was going to turn out all right. He told her that I was going to be a preacher. She said, “What?” I looked up in the sky and there was a full moon. And these words stuck with me the whole 28 1/2 years I spent in prison. I said, “God, if you want me to change, you got to put me in a position to make me change.” I don’t believe that God brings bad things to people. I believe that God laid choices before me. My statement to God essentially was that I’m not changing unless something drastic causes me to change. I was rejecting doing what was right. 

I was supposed to go to school the next day, and I wanted to go to school, but I missed the school bus. I thought I could catch the city bus. I got dressed and walked to catch the city bus. I saw a gang member fixing a car and thought he could take me to school. He asked me to go with him to take two rings to the pawn shop to get money to buy a catalytic converter, and then he would take me. I saw the city bus and something inside of me said, “Get on the bus,” but I didn’t get on the bus. At the pawn shop I saw another city bus. I had a second chance to get on the bus. Again, I didn’t get on the bus. We left the pawn shop. The guy’s younger brother had joined us and this younger brother said he needed to go by his girlfriend’s house, and we began walking that way. The guy I was with at first forgot his receipt at the pawn shop and as he turned around to go back, I saw another city bus. This was my third opportunity to get on the city bus. Something again said, “Get on the bus!” I let the bus pass. We made it to the street where the younger brother said his girlfriend lived. He asked me to go knock on the door and ask for Kelly. I did but no one named Kelly lived there. We all three started to walk back up the street. And then the younger brother knocked on another door and a woman answered. They started arguing. His older brother and I walked off and when we were some distance away, we heard four shots. We walked home and about 15 minutes later, the younger brother caught up and said, “I did something.” I said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

Later that night he was arrested for stealing a bicycle. He had a check made payable to the woman he shot. He was suspected for murder. He had shot two ladies at point-blank range in the head. One died and one was badly hurt but lived. He was 16 years old at the time. He told the police that two other people were with him and named me and his brother. They questioned his brother first and let him go. The next day they came and got me and they questioned me and I wouldn’t tell them anything. My mom came with Rev. Hunt and he said that he thought I should tell the police what happened, but my mom said no, I couldn’t talk. 

Because I wouldn’t talk, the police said they were going to hold me up to 72 hours in juvenile hall. On the third day, I stood before the judge, and he said there was probable cause to transfer me to an adult facility. But because of my age, they separated me from everybody else. I stayed there for about two to three days before I appeared in court. The court-appointed attorney said, “There is no probable cause to hold this person. You’ve got to let him go.” But then they asked me to stand in a line-up in front of the lady who survived. The police said that she said, “It looks like #3 (which was the one who shot her) but it sounds like #6 (which was me)” and that became probable cause to hold me. The indictment was first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. 

I was appointed to a different attorney and I still wouldn’t talk. Now they wanted to file the death penalty and I was moved to a high-security isolation cell. The entire cell was painted white and the light remained on 24-7 with a camera pointed directly in the cell and chicken wire over the bars. I was 16 when I went in and they kept me there almost 4 ½ years. They were telling me they were going to kill me. Everything I had learned in Paradise Church and Morning Star Church came back to me in that cell. The only thing I knew was to turn to the Bible. For 4 ½ years, my routine was that I would eat breakfast and then read the Bible from about 7:30-3:30 and then I would pray. Every day I read and prayed and read and prayed. My family slowly drifted away from me. They said I had no business being with those boys and told my mother not to go see me. I was cut off from all communication. There I was—alone, 17 years old, facing death. And I just read my Bible, prayed, and sung old Baptist hymns. 

I ended up changing lawyers because he wanted me to cop out. I got a Christian lawyer and told him everything that happened. He believed me and did everything he could to help. He ended up filing a motion to perpetuate testimony to bring the victim to the trial to testify about me, and when he did that, they took him off my case, but they had to go through with his motion. They brought the lady who survived to the court and she said, “That’s not him. Where did you get him from? I don’t know him.” After her testimony, they amended my indictment from first-degree murder to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. The language in the law in the Louisiana Revised Statute 1424 says that all persons concerned in the commission of a felony whether present or absentare principals to the offense. A low-degree principal was engaged in the crime but disengaged. From the time I walked from pawn shop to the first house where I knocked on the door and asked for Kelly, I was engaged. I was a principal in the murder even though I was absent from the scene of the crime and had no intent and no knowledge that he was going to shoot two people. I faced life in prison because I was a principal according to this law. The guy who actually shot the two women and killed one of them got only seven years because they gave him a deal for testifying against me. His brother, the guy I initially asked to take me to school, who was with me when his brother shot the two women, served no time at all.  

So I go to Angola prison to serve a life sentence. The best way to describe how I felt is to imagine yourself in a dark room, as dark as it can be, pitch black and soundproof. And you are thrown in and the door slams behind you and you don’t know where the door is to get out. No one can hear you. How do you get out? That’s how I felt. You are just in this dark place. 

For 4 ½ years I had been praying, thinking that God knew I was innocent and was going to deliver me. Then that all went away. I didn’t want to hear about church. I didn’t care about the Bible. But there was something that kept calling me from inside myself not to lose faith. So one day, I found myself going to the chapel at Angola. Angola is unique. It is an 18,000-acre farm, and under direction of Warden Burl Cain they built chapels in each satellite campus. Inmates are allowed to go to church. The churches are for the most part led by inmates but they also allowed free people to come inside to conduct churches. There was a chapel led by a woman (Cindy) from the outside, an Episcopal deacon. I started going to this chapel and to their Bible studies. Even though I didn’t understand their liturgy, there was a song that they sang in every service that reminded me of my Baptist upbringing. It resonated with me. But eventually I stopped going. At the end of the year the Episcopal church holds a banquet for regular attendees. Even though I had stopped attending, my name was on the call-out list to attend the banquet. But I said I wasn’t going. At 5:30 they opened the doors and this guy said, “Come on and go.” But again I said, “I’m not going.” Finally, it was my third chance (just like with the buses). It was my third chance to say yes to the opportunity God was giving me to help me. This time, unlike with the buses, I finally said yes to the opportunity for God’s help. The guard said, “Last call for call-outs.” I said “Alright. I will go.” 

At the banquet, there was Deacon Cindy. She walked up to me smiling and said, “How have you been doing? We love you and miss you and hope you come back.” I said, “I will come next Saturday.” I was there the next Saturday and have never left the Episcopal church. Deacon Cindy is such a kind and loving person and is a mother to me. She never asked anyone why they were in prison. She never criticized anybody. She never told me what to believe. She let me figure it out. This was foreign to me because I came from a background that was dogmatic. One day she pointed out the Genesis 1:31 passage: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Then she said to me, “You are very good in God’s eyes.” It blew me away and I started looking at Scripture differently. I was never able to be me. I was always trying to fit somebody else’s mold, and when Cindy showed me that, I realized that I am good despite all else and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says. I am good. Period. It changed my whole perspective and woke up a new person inside of me.

I stopped thinking about my case and getting out. After this, I knew that I would get out. Because of all of the inmates with life sentences in Angola, 85% of the inmates in Angola will die in Angola. But I knew I would get out, and I had a sense of peace about it. I came to the conclusion that if I just do what is right and listen to the voice of God, everything would work out. For 12 years I went to church faithfully and ended up becoming a Eucharistic minister in Episcopal church. The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary had an extension center at Angola where inmates could attend classes. Through this program, I got an associate’s degree in Christian Ministry and then a bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry. When you graduate they say you have to get a job. They gave the inmates the authority to be peer ministers and now they send inmates to other prisons to be ministers in other prisons. There was only one job in ministry available when I graduated. It was to deliver death messages (tell inmates when loved ones had died). I also helped inmates who couldn’t read and write to write letters. I sat with inmates when they were sick and dying and did funerals. The prison staff called me when people were suicidal. The process humbled me and I actually began to see God. When I was sitting with people who were dying, I was looking at them but it was like I was seeing through them to God. God was molding me through their suffering. I met inmates at very vulnerable times in their lives, and because of the experiences we shared they protected me. I didn’t have problems in prison that most people have—God kept me from that. I watched people get stabbed and beaten. I didn’t experience any of that. Thank God.

In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to give a juvenile a life sentence for non-homicide, and inmates who were in put in prison for life as a juvenile were let out if they didn’t commit a homicide. But because I was considered a principal in a homicide, that ruling didn’t apply to me. Then there was a new case from Arkansas, and the Supreme Court said the ruling about juveniles DID apply in homicide cases. But that still didn’t help me because Louisiana said the ruling wasn’t retroactive. In 2018, the Supreme Court said the ruling was to be retroactively applied. 

So this is when I had the opportunity to go before the parole board. Cindy got so many people from the church to speak on my behalf. The district attorney had written an opposition letter, which he read. He said I was a cold-blooded murder and should never be let out. At that point, my lawyer went point by point through the transcript from my trial to show that everything that the district attorney had said was not true. My lawyer did a phenomenal job. Then the parole board stepped out to take a vote. They stayed out about 20 minutes. The warden looked at me and said, “Man, you have a lot of people standing up for you. I think you got a shot.” I had also gotten a paralegal degree and horticulture degree while I was in prison, and I was enrolled in the master’s degree program at the seminary. I had stayed out of trouble and hadn’t had a write-up in almost 20 years. The parole board came back in with their decision. “So you didn’t kill anybody. You have a lot of support. I better not ever see you in here again.” Three days later on October 5, 2018, I walked out of Angola. 

I have reconnected with my family. I chose to forgive my mom. I told Cindy when I got out that I needed a church home, and she found a church home for me in an Episcopal Church in New Orleans. I have had so much support from my church family. They have helped me every step of the way with reentry. God has blessed me greatly through them. I have started my own landscaping business. I reapplied to finish my master’s of divinity. I am in a training program in the Episcopal church to be able to visit people in hospitals—to be a lay Eucharistic visitor. 

I often go back the Bible stories of Daniel in the lion’s den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. In both stories, it was all about whether they would choose to serve God or not. The moral of both stories was that serving God has nothing to do what I get out of God. It is about everything that God has done for me, and the essential thing that He has done for me is give me salvation. I am very grateful to be out of prison, but even if I had not gotten out of prison, I had committed myself to serving God while I was there, and that’s why I took the jobs that I did. I still have that approach. Even if God doesn’t grant my desires, I will still serve Him because that is what life is about, and that has brought me so much peace. One of my seminary professors said, “It’s not about you.” But it is all about perspective. Change of perspective. Change of life. 

I would like to thank God for patience. God gave me patience because in those trying moments something inside of me kept me in peace and kept me patient. I never got so discouraged to think about killing myself. I had a peaceful patience that came from God. I kept my eyes fixed on Him and knew everything would work out. 

We often deceive ourselves into thinking that God doesn’t exist and that He doesn’t care about us. Don’t be deceived. He does exist and He does care about us. God is real. Belief in the Bible is based on pure trust. But faith is different than belief. Faith is based upon some tangible experience. Look though the course of your life and identify those moments of doubt, frustration, and insecurity and try to discover how did you feel. You may have felt hopeless but also hopeful. Those moments of hope are the moments you have to hold on to. Your faith can build from that. You don’t have to know the end. You just need to know the present. God will take care of the end. 

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. James 1:12-13

fabianeharper@gmail.com

#236. A New Heart, A New Spirit, A New Life

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I grew up in Southern California. My mom and dad were Los Angeles police officers. My father never knew his biological father. His mom and dad got married after he got her pregnant and right after he was born, his dad left. My dad’s goal was to be the father to me he never had. And we had a very good relationship. But what he missed in being a good father was being a good husband to my mom. They divorced when I was about 7 years old. But even still he was very committed to me and very available to me. But then he died of a massive coronary when I was 14 years old. At the time, I would have told you it didn’t affect me, but it did. I no longer had the respect and fear of my father that would have kept me in line, and my mother had a hard time containing me. I gravitated to kids that did drugs, and it was like a rabbit hole. I was the first kid to get a tattoo, I was smoking at 15, and I was always getting in fights. That’s who I thought I was—this bad guy. I dropped out of high school. At about 20 years old, I was working in construction. It was the mid-1980s, and I was partying hard and had a serious cocaine habit. My only purpose in working was to get drug money. 

During that time, I had a girlfriend who got pregnant. That had happened many times before with me and girls, and there was the mindset with the people I was hanging around with that if you got pregnant you just got an abortion. I remember it was such an annoying inconvenience to take this girl to this place and she would be all emotional. We didn’t think of it as killing babies—just as eliminating a problem. One girl I got pregnant said she didn’t believe in abortion, and she wasn’t going to have one. I was surprised by that and really impressed by it. So, she had my daughter. We were both 21 and my cocaine habit was really taking root. Not long after that, my son was born. We were together 12 years—on welfare and food stamps. I was a terrible father and mate. I loved my kids and wanted to be there for them, but I had a burning desire to feed my addiction. I tried some 12-step programs but just didn’t have the strength to do it. 

I got involved in crystal meth. It would keep you high for much longer and keep you awake for hours at a time. To me, it was much more economical. I was staying up all night and partying and then I’d go to work the next day. I was so twisted in my thinking that I didn’t think it affected me. About this time, I got into trouble and went to the county jail, and the mother of my children took our four children. She moved in with her mother and got a restraining order against me. She moved a couple of counties away which made it inconvenient for me to see the children. She did what was best for her and the kids. At some point, I gave up. “I’m a terrible person, a terrible father,” and I surrendered that they were better off without me. That gave me new freedom and I didn’t have to worry about it. This was in the late 90s and I was in San Bernardino, California, which at one time had been a very nice place, but at this time there was a lot of homelessness and drug problems. I navigated that very comfortably. I had no problem living off the grid. I didn’t have a driver’s license for about 10 years. I just drove other people’s cars and stole cars. 

I met this girl who had family that lived in Texas and we did drugs together. She wanted me to get her and her son to Texas. She told me, “You have such great potential. If you could just get away from these drugs, you could really make something of yourself. I have some family in Texas, and if you could take me there, they could help you find a job.” I said, “I don’t have a way to get us there, but it sounds good.” The next day I got a day labor job and the guy filled up the tank of his truck and gave me the keys with about a $1,000 worth of tools in the trunk to take to the job. We pawned the tools and headed to Texas. I remember thinking sarcastically, “The Lord must want me to go to Texas.” We ended up in Palestine, Texas, and I got a construction job. I got off the meth and it was the most normal life I had lived. 

Then one day, a guy who had been driving a tractor near where we were working, walked across our worksite and I just knew that this guy knew where to get crystal meth. It wasn’t a logical decision to talk to him. I was just drawn to him. Sure enough, he had crystal meth and we start doing it together. I asked him where I could get it and found out he was making it. I started being his helper and learned how to cook crystal meth. It occurred to me that I had a way to make more money than I knew what to do with and all the drugs I could ever want. So, I broke away from him and started making meth and selling it to the people of the town. I watched a community of simple country folks get addicted to crystal meth and watched them lose jobs and their relationships break up—and I was at the ground level of that. I was making so much money, but I was so spun out. I was cooking meth in the woods of East Texas, and when I wasn’t cooking I was rounding up ingredients. I’ll never forget realizing that I had everything I ever wanted, yet I had never been more miserable. I hadn’t seen my kids for five years. I had failed and there was no undoing that. I had failed at ever being a good father. I had failed at ever being a good son. I had failed at being a good husband. I had friends but not really. They were friendly to me but they hated me because they had to pay me to get drugs. It just started wearing me down. One night I was out in the woods at one of my cook spots. One of the guys helping me had stolen all my chemicals. I was furious and tried to reach him on a prepaid cell phone, and the battery was dying. I went into a rage. In the midst of that rage I thought, “God, if you are real, you did not create me to do this.” I was challenging God to take my mess and fix it. And then it was as if the veil was torn and I could see all the failure around me. It was an ugly place to be. I could see who I really was at that point. Before that, I had no real vision of myself and my reality. I cried out to the Lord, “Take me out of this. I can’t stop.” 

God answered my prayer. An interesting thing happened not long after that. In February 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was supposed to travel from Dallas to Florida, and the shuttle’s path was right over Palestine, Texas. But it blew up. The debris field went all the way to our town in Palestine, Texas. I remember the day it happened. It was February 1st and I had been up cooking meth to get ready for welfare check day, and I was at a farmhouse. I heard an explosion then went outside and there was something different in the air. The birds were making different sounds. I turned on the radio and heard that the space shuttle had exploded and parts were spread all over our small town. They sent federal agents to comb through the woods with a fine-tooth comb to find shuttle pieces. They were uncovering meth cook spots all over the place. I couldn’t cook meth in the woods for months. Then the county police department launched a Drug Task Force. Everyone was telling on everyone else. Everyone I knew was getting busted. The little drug culture in our community was coming to an end. 

The day I got busted, I was hiding under a pile of dirty laundry in a house. I was trying to make myself smaller but it wasn’t working. I could hear the cops in the house looking for me. I heard them call for a canine unit and knew that wasn’t good. The head of the Drug Task Force found me. He said, “Today your picture comes off of my wall. You have been on my hit list for months.” 

I was charged with transport of illegal chemicals with intent to make crystal meth. The judge told me that I was a cancer to his community and cancer has to be cut out. He gave me the full 10 years. I knew that this was the Lord responding to me to get me out. 

When I was in prison, I went to a Bible study. There were pages torn out of the Bibles to wrap cigarettes in to sneak them in. I said, “Do you guys have any more Bibles because my Bible doesn’t even start until Leviticus.” There was a local church member coming into the jail to minister to us. He took out all the place markers in his own personal Bible and gave it to me. It was marked up with all of the notes he had written in it over the years, but he still gave it to me. I still have his Bible. 

I was reading the Bible but not living it out. I remember these guys in the church area singing in a loud voice, “This is the day that the Lord hath made.” I sat up from my bed annoyed and thought, “This is the day that the Lord has made? Are you kidding? You are in prison.” That was my introduction to the concept that you could be free in prison. Those men were free in prison. I learned more about freedom in prison when a man conducting a Christian class for us said he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but he would keep volunteering his time to teach our class. He said, “Your attitude can change the outcome of your life. You can look at being in prison as a terrible thing that happened to you and be mad at the world, or you can look at this as an opportunity to grow and get healthy. You can learn your Bible and get an education. This could be the best thing that ever happens to you.” Because he had Alzheimer’s, the next week he repeated the same things. And the next week he repeated the same things. I am the kind of person who needs redundancy to make it stick. Could it have been the Lord’s divine wisdom to put a guy as my teacher who repeats himself? 

I got to see an example of this when I was moved to a new work squad where they took us to a farm to work. I was complaining and had a poor attitude. This guy I was working with said, “This is the best job.” I looked at him like he had two heads. I said, “How?” He said, “We are outside of the gates of the prison, out in mother nature, telling jokes with the guys, and we get to go back and get a shower and have the rest of the day off.” After this my attitude changed and it made a big difference.

Several ministers came to the prison and preached to us. All these things were solidifying that this was God’s response to deliver me from the life I was in. One of the ministers asked me what my parole plan was, and I told them I had a plan to go back and live in Palestine where I had sold drugs. They said the only people I knew there were the police and drug dealers and suggested that I go to a mission in Houston instead. I had enough wisdom to take their advice. 

After I got out of prison, while I was at the mission, I started attending classes at The WorkFaith Connection and then got a job there. In my job, I had the opportunity to pour into other people and help them turn their lives around. Being in that environment helped me to continue to grow and learn and deepen my relationship with God. 

But still I struggled with thinking about my past. I kept thinking, “I’ll never be able to fix what I did to my mom or what I did to my children and the mother of my children.” Before I went to prison, I didn’t have a strategy to do bad things. I was just being who the enemy wanted me to be. This led me to do things I really regretted. I remember one time my mom asked if some of my friends knew where to get pep pills and I gave her pills with crystal meth. While she was spun out on crystal meth, I stole her debit card and emptied out her bank accounts. She lost the house she lived in and went through a series of financial hardships because of what I did.

I was planning on being single for the rest of my life. I had been working at WorkFaith Connection for seven years when I met a volunteer. I knew by the end of our first conversation that I wanted to marry her. We were both running steadfastly toward the Lord alongside each other. We had these common goals. I thought she was way too beautiful and way too young for me. The more I got to know her, the more I realized how important sexual purity was to her. We got engaged and spent two years of relationship in sexual purity. We got married and a couple of years into marriage we had a son who is now a little over a year old, and we are expecting our second child. I get to be completely present in my son’s life, and I get to be a father to my teenage stepdaughter, the father she prayed for for years.

I have gone back to California to visit my grown children many times since I have gotten out of prison. I also visited my mother who was living in an assisted living facility on a police officer’s pension. She was really deteriorating, and my wife said, “We need to find a place for her to live in Texas.” My mom agreed and she moved here in 2016 about 10 minutes from where I live. She is in an assisted living community that is so much less money, that she has all this money now she never had before. I go see her every week and meet with her doctor. This is where I really see that the Lord is restoring what the locusts have eaten. My mom said to me recently, “You’re such a good son. You’re such a good father and such a good husband.” Those were the things that I thought I could never be. 

I now work for a big commercial construction company. I love my job. We bought a house and I have a nice truck. The Lord provides for us. I didn’t finish high school. I got my GED in prison. I started off making $11.50 per hour and this year I made almost $90,000. God provides for me more than I could ask for—materially, spiritually, and with my relationships. I get to be so much more than I dreamed I could ever be. I can’t do what I am doing without the Lord’s strength. The Lord’s strength in you helps you turn away from temptation. When you ask God to show up, He shows up. Ezekiel 36:26 says, “I will take away your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh and put a new spirit in your body.” This makes sense to me because now I don’t long for the things I longed for before. The Lord gave me a heart transplant and a new spirit.

When I was doing drugs, I had holes and infection all over my arms. I had to use my hands and feet and even my neck to inject drugs. I wore long sleeves shirts and Band-Aids on my hands.  Some days I felt so poked full of holes. One day I was listening to a Christian song, “Rain Down” by Roger Cullins, and it just hit me. I had been like a baby lamb stuck in a thorny brier, all poked full of holes, and the Lord gently pulled me out with His Shepherd’s hook. He lifted me out of the pit and gave me a new heart, a new spirit, a new life.

There is a mindset that if I do this, this, and this, THEN the Lord will work in my life—compared to knowing He is ALREADY at work. When you start to understand grace and mercy and that He doesn’t love me because I got sober, He loved me the whole time—it is an incredible new way to look at God. I finally realized that I never had to earn His grace and mercy; it was there for the taking. I might have been breaking His heart, but He loved me the whole time. 

 For if a man belongs to Christ, he is a new person. The old life is gone. New life has begun.

2 Corinthians 5:17

#235. My Ronnie

Photo by Anna Carroll

I will begin at the end, which for me was the beginning of an unexpected walk of faith. 

Late in the evening on Oct. 26, 1989, there was a knock at the door. It was my parents who lived about 45 minutes away. They had come to tell me that my sweet son, Ronald Lawrence Cole III, had been killed by a drunk driver, while riding his 10-speed bike.

My world turned upside down that night, and it has been difficult ever since. I was sent down a path no parent expects to take, a lonely road of losing a child. My parents consoled me as I cried, and my two stepsons woke up to my cries, “No, no, no.” It was a very sad night.

I put on the Florida Gators T-shirt Ronnie had given me for Christmas, and as I fell into a slumber in the wee hours of the morning, I felt a little closer to him. The next morning, I awoke to the realization that I needed to tell my sweet 12-year-old daughter, Natasha, that her dear brother had been killed. I was so very afraid, God was going to have to give me the words, and I dreaded telling her. As the words came forth like an ugly monster, I could hear her heart crack as her tears fell all over me. She and I clung to one another as if we would surely die ourselves. How would we ever survive this day?

There is nothing like Christian parents and a family of Christian friends. My parents and best friend were over first thing the next morning. We talked about Ronnie, his memories flooded the room, I think we may have even laughed some. Those first days are so full of denial that I know my memories are altered. I remember it was like being in a daze; I had to be told each step to take. I still remember my dad saying, “We need to go to the funeral home,” and, I realized, “Oh yeah, I have to go pick out a casket don’t I.” We continued on the mission that no parent wants to take, I screamed in my head over and over, “Why me God, why, why, why?” It was a question I would ask God for months. I picked out a casket, when I should have been helping Ronnie pick out a class ring. He was only six weeks into his senior year. I had spent a small fortune on braces as a single mom. All those growing-up years, where were the fruits to enjoy. Instead of planning his senior prom, I was planning his funeral. It was so unfair. I remember telling God, “You have no idea how I feel.” I had never felt so alone in my whole life, and yet I was surrounded by loving family and friends. 

In the months to come I questioned God over and over and over, why didn’t He intervene? It seemed so wrong. It was so wrong. I struggled with the meaning of my life. Being a secretary was no longer fulfilling, life had to be more than that for me. I went back to college to become a nurse, a dream I’d had for years, one I had shared with Ronnie. As we sat on the front porch during his visit that summer, I told him I wanted to be a nurse. He asked me what kind of nurse? I said a pediatric nurse, but that I didn’t think I could handle the death of a child. Imprinted in my brain like a brand is Ronnie’s response. As he turned and held my hands and looked into my eyes with those beautiful baby blues of his, they sparkled, “Mom, you are so strong in the Lord, you could handle that.” Many, many times those words rang in my ears, he believed in me, he believed I could handle it, he believed in my faith. Yes, “faith,” what a struggle that was these days. What did I believe? At times I believed that God didn’t really care about the hairs on my head. If He did, He would have intervened, isn’t that what God does for Christians, His special people. I struggled so with free will, consequences, faith and grace. One minute I would pray and talk to God, the next I would cry and blame Him. Yes, after the shock and denial wear off, there is such anger and sadness. You feel all alone as you walk through the malls at Christmastime. It seems everyone is laughing, as you feel your shattered world will never be the same. Will there ever be true joy again? Does joy really come in the morning? I could not see God’s hand in my everyday life, but I look back now and see that He truly carried me through the nightmare of grief. 

I recall many rough moments. I cried at a friend’s daughter’s wedding, knowing I would never see my son standing at the end of the aisle, waiting for his bride. What would she have been like? What would he have become? How many grandchildren did satan rob from me? Yes, I had started realizing it was satan who had come to steal, kill and destroy. In my grief I did not always go to the Word for comfort, I would sometimes play right into satan’s hand and not even go to church if I felt down. At other times I used the Bible for comfort. I found I could only listen to Christian radio songs. The rock music station could not give me the rock that my Jesus was. I bought Russ Taff’s song, “I Still Believe,” and I would play it and play it and play it. It was my spiritual warfare song, because it was clear satan had stolen my son, and now he was after my heart. At times I wondered how “saved” was Ronnie? He had gone on a youth trip that summer with the church and had recommitted his life to Jesus, so satan said to me often, ‘You don’t know if he stayed saved do you?’ It was a horrible recurring, haunting thought, right out of the pit of hell. I so needed peace. Where was my Prince of Peace? Anger, oh how angry I was at God, at life, at the drunk driver who crashed into my baby boy. Yes, life is not fair! I went to a full-gospel meeting about five months after Ronnie’s death. Spring was in the air, birds were singing, and I felt like the world was coming back to life, but not my Ronnie.

The speaker that night talked about anger and forgiveness. I had forgiven. I had said so in my heart, “God, forgive this enemy of mine who killed my Ronnie.” Yet, when the alter call came, my feet took me up front, to a man I will never forget. He was of American Indian background. He knew much about spiritual warfare, and he (about my dad’s age) and his son (about my age) asked me what my prayer was. I told him my son had been killed by a drunk driver, and I wasn’t sure I had forgiven him, or even could. He then asked me if I prayed for him, I said “yes,” every night. He asked if I prayed out loud and reminded me whatsoever the mouth speaks is made known in my heart. He asked me to repeat after him, which I obediently did. “By the grace of God, I forgive (what’s his name, honey?)” I bolted, threw my hands down, and this angry voice I did not recognize said, “I can’t do this!” He got in my face and said “That’s right, you can’t; only Jesus in you can!” 

Then he asked me if God had forgiven me of anything. Wow, did I see my life and former sins flash before my eyes. I was broken. My God and His grace had forgiven me of so much. He told me if I wanted God’s continued forgiveness I, too, must forgive him, in Jesus’ name. He could see I was ready, so again, he said, repeat after me, honey:

“By the grace of God.” 

I said, “By the grace of God.”
He said, “I forgive.” 
I said, “I forgive.” 
He said, “What’s his name?” 
I said, “SCA.” 


At that moment I bawled like a baby, I felt 50 pounds lighter as I cried and cried and cried. It was so freeing. He reminded me the thief would come time and time again to steal my joy. He said, I needed to pray out loud daily for SCA. I do, and I still do, and I always will, till the day I die. 

The following Sunday was amazing. I was at church and the pastor told us to look up a scripture. I misunderstood him and wound up on a page with a subtitle standing out to me like a lighthouse beacon: “Forgiveness for the sinner” (2 Corinthians 2:5). Yes, God was calling me to do more than I could have imagined. I have learned this is His trademark. He’s the “More than I Can Imagine God.” 

On the six-month anniversary of Ronnie’s death, the first sad milestone, I sat down and wrote a letter to SCA. God put it on my heart from that scripture, and I was afraid not to be obedient. My heels were dug in the ground, and God was pulling me forward to a new level. I was quite resistant. I wrote the letter and shared my experience with him. I was ordered by God to also mail a Bible to him. “Wow, God, what’s next?” So, in my half obedience, I bought a paperback student study Bible. I mailed it to the prison, and several days later it came back to me, water damaged. It looked like it had been dropped into a puddle of water and then dried. It looked awful. 

I called the prison to find out why it came back to me. They explained a security procedure that required much red tape: If the name ends in these letters of the alphabet, you have to do this, and on and on. I finally said in a very exasperated, tearful voice, “Lady, please, I just want to mail a Bible to the drunk driver who killed my son.” You could have heard a pin drop, to put it mildly. She paused for some time to no doubt recuperate from the shock of my statement. Then she spoke to me in a totally different tone of voice, one of compassion. She told me I could mail it to him through the prison chaplain’s office. So, once again, I set out on a mission to a Christian bookstore for a new Bible, a study Bible for the man who killed my son. 

As I arrived at the store I was shown the leather-bound Bibles that were on sale, Wow, talk about pretty and the price was not much more than the paperback. In my heart, I did not want to buy a pretty Bible for him, yet my betraying legs walked me to the checkout counter. The sales clerk asked me if it was a “gift.” My mind did not like that word at all. This man did not deserve a gift, and certainly not my Holy God’s Word, “Oh no, not at all I thought.” Yet, my betraying mouth said, “Yes mam, it is a gift.” She then explained that it is store policy to engrave the receiver’s name on the Bible at no additional cost, and it would only take about 10 minutes, would I like that?

My mind, screamed “No, no, no — not “his” name on my precious Lord’s Word. Once again, my mouth betrayed me, as the words flowed from my lips, “Yes mam, that would be very nice.” I was a bit angry with God, wasn’t he pushing this obedience thing a bit too far? My flesh and my spirit were having one really big battle. “God,” I prayed, “please help me have the spirit of love and grace that you have for me.” I went home, wrapped the Bible, and quickly shipped it to the prison chaplain. Engraved in beautiful gold letters read “SCA.” It seemed so very odd, seeing his name on the Bible and my son’s on a tombstone. Yes, it was very odd indeed. 

About three days later as we were eating breakfast, we received a phone call. My husband, Bill, answered the phone and anxiously shared, “It’s the prison in Florida. It’s the pastor you mailed the Bible to SCA through.” As we spoke, the chaplain said words so amazing, I will never forget. He informed me that he had received the Bible with the letter, explaining to give it to SCA. He had never met SCA before, as he did not attend prison church services, so he called him into the office. He told me SCA opened the Bible and read: “To: SCA, From: Ruth Whittinghill; In memory of Ronald Lawrence Cole III. He broke down into sobbing, heaving tears for a very, very long time. Finally, when he could utter some words through his continued sobbing, he said, “No one, and I do mean no one has ever given me a Bible as a gift in my life, and of all people — “her.”

The chaplain said he had seen a lot of people in his lifetime talk the talk, but “Lady you are truly walking the walk.” I told him it was only Jesus in me, not me. I said that I was struggling with the obedience to do what God had put on my heart. It was only through the grace of God that I could do this. 

The chaplain assured me that it was still a choice of obedience and that I was to be commended for following through with God’s will. It felt good to have done the right thing. It felt good to know, as the pastor had put it, “Today you made a difference in this young man’s life, I don’t know about his tomorrows, but today, you have made a difference.” SCA responded with a letter that was full of surprises, I learned he’d had a very rough life. He lost his biological mom to acute alcoholism when he was only three years old. He lost his stepmom to cancer when he was 23. His father was in a nursing home, unaware he had a son in jail. He said he couldn’t write to him and break his heart. He had a sister that he had cared for who had been in an alcohol-related wreck, leaving her a paraplegic, only in her case, she had been the drunk driver. She was now in a nursing home. He had an LPN degree and had been working in a nursing home himself before the accident. 

His letter said these were only the facts and by no means were they any justification for what he had done. SCA’s letter started out with these words, “I never expected to hear from anyone while I was in here, especially you. I can’t even begin to understand why you have written to me, nor why you sent me the Bible.” It dawned on me that he felt very undeserving of this act of grace Jesus had done through me. I continued to write throughout his jail term, sharing Jesus with him. I prayed for guidance, for the right scriptures. You see, he had shared that he had come to realize that if I, the mother of the young man he had killed, could forgive him, he somehow knew that God could forgive him, too. It gave him back his faith. 

We are all sinners saved by grace. None of us deserves what God gives us. I also had to believe that my son, so dear to my heart, had made a difference in this man’s life. It would be such a waste if Ronnie’s death had made no difference. Then satan would have won. Time and time again, God has given me a peace that surpasses all my understanding. How could I not pass that love on? Yes, that is the way Ronnie would have wanted it. God has rewarded my obedience tenfold. In countless ways, His love is forever, as is His sweet grace. 

My first Mother’s Day was one I deeply dreaded. How would I make it through such a special day without my sweet little boy? He was always so good to me on Mother’s Day, and I knew the void would feel like a deep vacuum. I went with the women at church to a conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I felt extra lonely, but I was trying to act happy. I didn’t want to bring down anyone’s special time. I walked along the shops ahead of the others, ducking into a shop that called my name. Oh, Mickey Mouse, he was everywhere, my son’s childhood hero, I felt so sad, I missed him so very much, and the memories were everywhere, pervading my soul. I walked out with tears filling my eyes, praying to God to get me through this weekend and back home where I could cry and be held by those who somewhat knew my pain. I looked up and the next shop was “God’s Corner.” “Oh yes, that is where I needed to be, in God’s Corner. 

As I entered this quaint little shop, I was awestruck by the most amazing picture, in sundry sizes all over the wall, this stunning picture of Jesus and my Ronnie. It was not red hair, not blonde, not curly, but my baby’s brown longish straight hair. It was his physique. Ronnie was 6 feet tall, slim, same uncanny profile, same hair color and hairstyle. It was God holding my Ronnie, as if he had waited a lifetime to hold him. “That’s my child with my Father!” What a gift from God! “Wow,” I thought. “It’s a miracle.” My son is alive and well in the arms of Jesus and Jesus loves me soooooo much. How many people can say they have a personal picture of their child and Jesus? He truly loves me, more than I can imagine. This picture was my defense when satan slapped me in the face each day, taunting me, “Remember, your son’s dead. Remember your son’s dead.” 

Yes, God truly cares about the hairs on my head, no doubt about it. Do I believe I was rewarded for my obedience? Yes, I do indeed! So, if you have anyone you are holding anger against, I can tell you, you will be richly rewarded to follow your Father’s example, to forgive and to love your enemies, the reward is abounding joy, peace beyond measure, and an afterlife that is out of this world. 

So, pray for His strength to do the right thing. I promise you will be so glad you did. Thank you for allowing me to share God’s grace and love, and my Ronnie, with you. 

This is the special photo that looks just like “My Ronnie” with Jesus. Ronnie was 6 feet tall, slim, same uncanny profile, same hair color and hairstyle. That’s my child with my Father! What a gift from God. What peace this picture has given me. God truly knows the number of hairs on our head. Just look at my Ronnie!