It’s easy to underestimate the toll prison can take on inmates. Although a volunteer gets glimpses into prison life, volunteers cannot fully understand or fathom the darkness and desperation that exist in incarceration facilities across this country. Instead of sharing our own perspectives, we interviewed Jake, a former inmate. Below he describes how attending a REC helped him discover God’s love and redemption. He shares how his journey of faith has transformed a life of chaos and violence into a life of purpose and joy.
When I entered prison, I was in the middle of an identity crisis. I had tried so hard for so long to be someone I wasn’t. I had made a lot of bad choices and where did that get me? It landed me in prison serving a 30- month sentence for a felony I committed. I lost my job. I was estranged from my family and friends. I was abandoned, alone and afraid.
Because my poor choices meant I was spending all my time in prison, I was constantly reminded of what a loser I really was. My lack of value was palpable, tangible. I did not matter. I was no good and my life was ruined. Consequently, I had a very low opinion of myself and I had very little hope.
I heard about REC from another inmate who encouraged me to sign up. Even though I wasn’t sure what it was all about, I did sign up, just to get a break from the daily grind of prison life.
When I entered the retreat room – although still in the bleak and soulless prison – I immediately felt the calm. It was a place of peace. During REC I was asked to make a “life-line” and tell my personal life story in front of 30 inmates and the REC team of volunteers. I described myself as “an asshole.” As I said earlier, I was in the middle of an identity crisis. I didn’t know who I really was.
So, when I saw volunteers who chose to spend their free time bringing warmth, compassion and sympathy to a cold prison, it lifted my spirits. REC gave me time to dive into my heart, to let down my barriers and truly open up.
An inmate cannot show any weakness while in the general prison population, so having the opportunity to attend REC and engage in honest self-reflection in a warm and welcoming atmosphere changed my life. REC gave me the chance to escape – even for a short time – the relentless hammering of prison life and discover who I really was. REC taught me I was a Child of God. I was loved just for being me. I did not have to act like someone I wasn’t.
REC gave me the hope and encouragement I needed to live life differently. My heart began to change with the support of total strangers who came inside prison in the name of Jesus. I began to look forward to the day I could be a different person – especially when I would get out of prison. I was due to be released within about eight months. REC gave me the hope I needed to survive those eight months. That hope also allowed me to see the goodness within myself and to be able to believe there was something good waiting for me out there.
REC CHANGED ME in a powerful way. My “change of heart” was immediate. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to be a part of something good. I began to realize there were daily choices I could make, and I began to understand the consequences of my choices. I wanted to help more and hurt less. What started at REC was having a ripple effect on my daily life. I had more self-esteem. My relationships began to improve. My whole outlook AND my behavior over time improved because of my change of heart.
What started out as a short series of steps is now a lifelong journey. Life is getting better the older I get. I say that jokingly but with all sincerity because my heart continues to change. I’m living and acting like the person I was born to be – a Child of God! I’m getting closer and closer to living in the Light of Christ.
We are all sinners. But the daily work to change my heart has a powerful and good impact on me and on those around me. Now, whenever I am at my wit’s end I just pray. It changes me and it softens me. I listen to my heart. I try to follow Christ’s example and live by His Word. I am reminded daily of God’s unending love, mercy and grace.
Note: Today Jake is a General Manager for a major Rochester facility, a loving husband, a dedicated father of three, and an active member of a Christian church community. These descriptors, however, don’t tell you enough about who Jake has become. One of our longest-serving volunteers explains: “Everyone loves him. He’s like a magnet for people from all walks of life. He is a man of character who lives a faith-filled life every day. Recently Jake was heard telling an associate what his priorities are today. “Three things guide my life. First, My Faith in God; next, My Family and third, Everyone Else.”
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” –Romans 15:13