While incarcerated at an Upstate New York prison Jake participated in one of our Residents Encounter Christ (REC) retreats. At the time he was a single man in his mid-20s serving a 30-month sentence for a felony. Now, he is a General Manager for a major Rochester facility, a loving husband, a dedicated father of three children, and an active member of a Christian church community.

Yet this description doesn’t tell you enough about Jake, says one of our longest-serving volunteers. She adds, “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.” Jake talks below about the prison retreat and its impact:

What REC did was give me an opportunity to take a pause from the daily stressors and challenges an inmate goes through daily in prison. When you go into a retreat environment -although its still a prison- is a place of calm, a place of peace. It gave me time to dive deeper into my heart, to let down barriers and truly open up my heart. An inmate cannot allow himself to be vulnerable while in the general population of a prison so having the opportunity for self reflection in a warm and welcoming atmosphere while living inside is of great importance and enormous worth. 

When I entered prison, I was in an identity crisis. I tried so hard and so long to be something I wasn’t. I made a lot of poor choices trying to live up to a persona I wasn’t. In REC I did a lifeline and told my personal story in front of 30 inmates. I described myself as “an asshole.” By identity crisis I mean I didn’t know I was a Child of God. I didn’t know God loved me.

On the inside I was reminded constantly of my poor choices and my little worth as a person.– it was palpable, tangible. My poor choices landed me in prison and the overall message was one resulting in low self esteem and little hope. So, when you have volunteers come in and they show warmth, compassion, sympathy, it lifts your spirits up. It gave me hope – I was due to be released within about eight months – that when I got released that there would be people who would welcome me. 

When I am asked how did having a change of heart affect me, I say there is the immediate impact and then there is the impact over time that is a gradual change and an on-going journey. Life is getting better the older I get. I say that jokingly but with all sincerity because my heart is continuing to change and I’m becoming closer and closer to the Light of Christ. We are all sinners but the daily change and the daily work to change my heart has a positive impact, including on those around me. Whenever I am at my wit’s end I just pray. It changes me and it softens me. I know that there is mercy and grace.

One can change their heart with the support of strangers from the outside who come inside in the name of Jesus. It really gives inmates hope and allows them to look beyond those prison walls and say, “You know what, there is something positive out there”. REC provided me with the hope and encouragement I needed so I could to look forward to that day when I could live my life differently.”