I Found Hope in Prison

This week I experienced the most humbling, powerful and life-changing experience of my life...... I spent two days at Kern Valley State Prison in the Level 4 security (Maximum Security in California) with some amazing people. I was there with Defy Ventures to offer Business Coaching to a class of men who are entrepreneurs launching their own companies. But, as you will see, maybe I was the one being coached! The men incarcerated here are guilty of the most violent crimes. These men have committed rape and murder. But, as you will see, these men are more than their actions and mistakes, they are men of honor. 

Hang with me while I share a few things... things that have marked me for a life time and have kept me awake the last few nights. You need to hear these things, so get situated and be willing to spend a few minutes with me. 

On my second morning, I started the day spending time with Chris (name is changed for his privacy, as are all names here.) He is a a 26 year old man: tattoos head to toe, with gang tattoos on his face. And, he has a thick “thug” accent. He is labeled as and embodies the appearance of trouble. As the day began he sought me out to spend a few minute before the volunteers and fellow prisoners arrived. During our time he shared with me a bit of his story, so let me give a brief snap shot.

Chris came from a middle class family. He was badly beaten by his step father regularly from age 4 to 14, at which time he left home to escape. He got involved with the wrong crowd, but chose the first group to accept him. His first arrest was at 14 for breaking and entering, and was sentenced to 1 year in juvenile. As a result of his childhood abuse and his arrest, he made a decision that he identity was a worthless human, and could never be good enough. When he was released at 15 he quickly made a bad decision, he chose to stab another man to death in a moment of jealousy. Chris is now serving life, and is just over 11 years into his sentence. In that time he has since attempted to kill another man in prison.

Chris' past is wretched.... But, he has had a shift in his head and heart in the past year. He told me he wakes up every day with his victims face and the faces of that man’s family in his mind. Through brokenness and tears, he told me that he has chosen to honor the life of his victim, whose name he repeatedly shared. Chris told me that his victim could not offer good and hope to the world since he lost his life because of Chris’ actions. Chris said he has made it his purpose to give hope and love to everyone in his life at a double dose. He said that to honor the man he murdered, he must live a life that offers the legacy of two men. Not by accomplishment, but through grace and love. He wept, and I wept, as he closed his story by saying, it took his act of murder and the tragedy of another’s family for him to find his purpose. Chris' goal is to find a way to help others learn to live a life of honor before they make the terminal mistake of selfishness he did.

Randy, another man I spent time with today, has been in prison for 36 years. He spent 32 of those years in solitary confinement, the SHU. In the SHU you are allowed ZERO human contact, not even a simple handshake. Randy, was the only person in his family to commit a crime. 37 years ago he shot and killed 2 men who had interfered with his business.

Since Randy has been to jail, his family has had no contact in any form. He became an orphan at 24 years old based on his mistake. His family sent a message to him, by saying or doing nothing, that he was not worthy of love. For 36 years he has put up walls to avoid another rejection. He has built no friendships and has had no “ride or die” in his life. He is serving life, and until he is 78 years old, he has no hope of leaving prison on a parole he may never be granted. And, Randy said, he has never wanted to leave, because he has no one to go home to in life.

When Randy shared the next 2 things with me, it shook me to the very core. And I have wept all day from seeing and feeling his pain. He told me that our visit today was the first time in 36 years anyone had come to the prison for the purpose of seeing him. 36 years with no one showing you that you are needed, wanted, loved and valued. And, then he told me that his greatest regret is that he disappointed his father. He sobbed in my arms as he kept yelling “I am sorry daddy for not being a good son”. I have never felt such pain and brokenness in my life. For 36 years this man has lived in the trap of shame, of guilt and under the belief he is completely worthless.

I could tell many more stories. The men who have been incarcerated since ages 7 and 8... 7 and 8?!?!? Forgive my harsh words, but what in the hell is that?!?! It is the dark and shitty reality of the broken world in which we live. Who puts a kid in prison and doesn’t teach them to believe they can have a better life? One of the men was 7, and was jailed after his group of friends found one of their father's guns, it accidentally went off while he was holding it, and it killed his best friend. An accident, not premeditated murder, put this man in jail and on a path to believing his life was worthless. As a result, when he left juvenile, he lived what the system told him he was, a murderer. He wasn't a murderer at 7, he was a kid who had an accident. But, as all of these men told me, because no one spoke life to them at a young age, but instead made them believe they were worthless and criminal, they believed the lies... and that shaped their lives. That’s what happened, they weren’t loved, but instead treated as burden unworthy of the effort. And as a result, these men ended up murdering. They didn’t know their lives mattered, so how could they know the value of another person’s life?

I could only see the faces of my kids.... and I was wrecked! My kids do stupid things, they make mistakes. But, instead of labeling them as burdens and unworthy, I speak life to them so they will believe and become the men an women I know they can be.

One of our volunteers, a very successful entrepreneur was in prison for 2nd degree murder. He served 6 years, and was able to get out and rebuild his life. But, 9 of the men at the prison this week were in jail for life for the same crime. Why did one get 6 years and others get life? Want to know the difference? You decide.... the man who served 6 years is a middle class white man, the other 9 serving a life sentence are black men from the inner city? All of them were repeat offenders, all were convicted and served time in California under the same laws, but have completely different outcomes.  We call it the justice system, but I wonder what that even means. 

All of these men lost their identities and were labeled as worthless and evil. All of these men have essentially lost their families. They have all had their sense of worth and the ability to believe that they are worthy of honor and love taken from them. That translates as hopelessness. Without hope, we believe the lies of Satan that we are worthless.

I spent the day weeping, laughing, dreaming, hugging, cussing, questioning and more with these men. They spoke life to me.... they showed me honor.... and I was broken.

After all, I’ve only been lucky not to get caught. We’ve all done things that we could have been arrested but weren’t. (Did you know that WiFi squatting is a felony offense, punishable by prison time?) I am lucky to have a good family. Out of the nearly 160 men this week, less than 12 had both parents in their lives. I was lucky to have been given grace in my worst mistakes. I was shown love. And, the people around me, the majority, spoke life to me and believed I was better than my mistakes, flaws and issues.

What could I do for these men? I can’t give them their freedom. I can’t change their story. I can’t restore what they have lost. I can’t change the way the majority of you and the world view these men. If you are willing to be honest, and most of you won't because I have now given you compassion in the moment, most of you reading this would still call these men horrible, evil and criminal. And, knowing that, most of us would feel helpless and even perplexed.

But, because of the forgiveness, grace and love given to me in my worst moments.... I knew what I could give these men.

I could speak life! I could tell them they are loved. I could tell them they are worthy of honor. I could tell them that I do not see them through the lens of their worst mistakes. I could speak to the potential and purpose inside of these men. And then, follow my own words with siply displaying honor by being present, listening and caring for their story. As my friend Cat says often, I no longer believe in criminals, I believe in people who have committed crimes. 

God did not make a mistake with these men. And, God is not disappointed in these men! Did you hear that???? GOD IS NOT DISAPPOINTED IN THESE MEN..... And, many of you reading this are trying to justify a way to argue that statement.... God looks at them with the same love, compassion and grace as he does me and you! These men are not lacking. They were created whole and complete. But, because they were not shown unconditional love, they have never known that truth. I believe the truth of the Bible, all of it. The truth that stands out to me is in 1 Peter 3:18 where is says, Jesus died ONE time for the sins of ALL mankind. So, their debt is paid and they are not under the label of sin, they are simply loved by God. We will face the consequences of our sin, because accountability does matter! 

As I spent time with Chris, Randy and many other men... I made it a point to hug these men tightly and long (Most have not been shown healthy physical contact in decades). I made it a point to speak life to these men. I told these men to embrace their story. They are transformed through their mistakes. I told them that they need to believe they are worthy of love, worthy of honor and worthy of hope! (As I am repeating this to myself even now, because I need to hear it every day.)

I believe the truth, hope and love of what Jesus has shown us. He showed us that we are loved, valued and worthy. It's not because of who we are and the things we have done, but because He says so, shows it unconditionally and love us with reckless abandon.

God doesn’t love us as we should be, He loves us as we are. Jesus showed us unconditional love, not because we loved him first or have achieved anything great.... it is simply true that this is his nature. Unconditional LOVE!

My failures and mistakes are much less impactful in comparison to these men. But, I had the chance to confess the moments of failure and shame in my life. To wrestle with my own unforgiveness of myself. I have lied, I have cheated, I have manipulated, I have let pride control me, I have wounded those closest to me, I have betrayed trust... I have failed again and again. It was in an effort to prove my worth, have others like me and build my own ego. And, today, these men spoke life to me. They reminded me I am loved and worthy.

Together we called out our failures! But, we chose to stand on those as the foundation and legacy that has made us the men we are and the men we will become. I am accountable to these men, and they are accountable to me....not to achieve or prove anything, but to demonstrate what true love and friendship really can be!

We are all loved, we are all worthy and yet we are all broken. So, please, consider the impact of your words, ideas and treatment of the people around you. Your rejection and fear, may be the catalyst for a catastrophic moments in someone’s life. But, your kindness may make the difference of life and death.

Did I do something great this week? Did I offer value and accomplish something of worth? Maybe.... but this isn’t about me... this is about others. This is about you!

I received a blessing and healing this week. I expanded my family this week. The men who have seen my brokenness, who know my dark secrets and the men who shared theirs with me.... they are knit to my heart and soul.

I found freedom, hope and healing in the company of men who had murdered and raped.

As a follower of Jesus... as a long time pastor.... I find it a failure that I have rarely, if ever, found this kind of hope and healing in my churches, my pastoral peer group and fellow Jesus followers. (My wife, my children, my parents, siblings and grandparents have been the hands and feet of Jesus to me in my darkest moments) But, in the community of those who follow Jesus I have rarely found this raw love and grace. And, as a former pastor, I fear that I have failed to teach this, demonstrate this and live this!

This is not a statement of condemnation for the church or Christians.... this is a place of clarity. This is only the outward display of an inward brokenness. You cannot offer this sort of love and grace if you have not been given that same love and grace. When we live it as the Jesus followers we claim to be with each other, then we can offer this to the world.

So, I want to ask for your forgiveness. If I have hurt you, if I have have let you down and if I have disrupted your life.... I take responsibility. If I lied to you, manipulated you, cheated you or simply did not show you honor.... I am asking for forgiveness. In those moments, I made a decision of selfishness and chose to withhold honor. Please forgive me. I hope that in my lifetime, where possible, I can repay my debts, say these words face to face and restore broken relationships. It may not be possible for all of you. But, if I have done anything to hurt or impact your life, I am deeply sorry for my actions, words and reactions. Please forgive me.

For those who I believe hurt me.... I have chosen complete forgiveness. I want to live free and I want you to live free. You are worthy of that honor, love and respect!

I discovered the gospel again today. I saw Jesus more clearly in the eyes of the men who wept with me. And, I was reminded of my great purpose in this world... I am here to live an uncommon life, to give hope anywhere I go and speak life to everyone around me.

What will it take for you to discover this truth for your life?

For my new brothers at Kern Valley State Prison.... if we never meet again in our lifetime, we will carry a portion of each other... and I believe the world will be shaken as a result these moments today...

Thank you to the Defy Ventures team and Catherine Hoke for inviting me. Thanks for pouring your lives into this work. Thank you Tim Ferriss for being a man of absolute integrity and showing such honor to these men today. Dan Goss, you are an amazing Chief Deputy Warden who is changing lives!

Would you like to go to prison with me the next time I go? Let me know.... I promise it will be worth every single moments, dollar and sacrifice to join me next time I go. Let me show you humanity, love, grace and hope like you have never seen before.