It was one of life's short-notice opportunities. A schedule change created
an opening for me to speak for Operation Starting Line. I was delighted to
receive the call that they needed me in Texas.
Operation Starting Line is a combined effort of more than a dozen prominent Christian ministries, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Prison Fellowship Ministries and Promise Keepers. The goal of this evangelistic, discipleship and post-release program is to touch every prisoner in the United States within a five-year period.
The events in Texas consisted of five teams who visited thirteen prisons. I was part of a team of five, which included an ex-prisoner — me. My job was to tell my story of transformation from a life filled with poverty, despair and drug addiction into a successful businessman.
My mother raised three children on a meager, monthly welfare check while my father served time in a maximum-security prison. Our house was filled with rats, mice and roaches. My environment led me to a life of crime in a struggle to survive. I recounted how Jesus transformed me from a Class X felon into a success.
On Friday we did two shows at a minimum-security prison. The next day, we went to a maximum-security facility. While we were setting up in the yard, the chaplain told us that if a riot broke out we were to go to the brick wall and put our backs against it and let the riot police do their jobs.
The unit was filled with boys, eleven to nineteen years old, who were serving thirty- to forty-year sentences. During the show, someone started a fire in the kitchen. When we returned two days later, we heard that many guards had quit because it was so dangerous.
We went to "the hole" (the administrative segregation unit) to speak to the guys in their cells. There I met a heavily tattooed seventeen-year-old "gang-banger" serving forty "ag" years. That meant he had an aggravated sentence and had to serve about thirty years before he could see the parole board.
In the hole, I sat on the floor and read the Bible with a sixteen-year-old gang-banger serving a ten-year sentence. When I asked him why he joined a gang, he looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Everyone I know is in a gang." I looked into his sad eyes and realized that only God could heal the hurts in this young man's heart. The incredible waste of a valuable life overwhelmed me. I asked him if he would like to accept Jesus into his heart. He eagerly responded, "Yes," and we prayed together. It was one of the most moving moments I had ever experienced.
On April 9, my team asked me to do "the close." Afterward, I told them that it was my birthday and there was nothing else that I'd rather be doing. Then I thanked them and began to walk away. As I turned my head toward the crowd, I was humbled to see the inmates, who were on their feet, blessing me with a standing ovation. The men were touched by my simple, heartfelt compassion. I realized that my job was simply to tell them my story and let the Lord take care of the rest.
A young man named Steve, came up to me after the show and showed me the scars on his hands where rats had bitten him as a child. He had previously accepted the Lord, but struggled with his daily walk. My heart was breaking for him.
As I reflect on these inspiring events, I think of the inmates' hearts that were touched by the hope that my life represents. Twenty-three years ago, I really was a seventeen-year-old convicted Class X felon. Moments before I cried out for the Lord's help, I was lying in my bunk, thinking about killing a prison guard.
Now the pain of yesterday is wiped away. I am happily married, live in a new house and drive a fine car. My life is blessed and radically transformed. Steadfast hope is a driving force that will keep prisoners seeking the face of God, giving him time to answer their prayers and implement his will in their lives.
At those events, Jesus touched many lives — including mine. My heart will forever see the faces of those inmates light up when I explained where I have been and where the Lord continues to take me. Their faces are etched in my mind forever.