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Some people are skeptical as to whether there is any benefit that comes from prison ministries. “Jail house religion” is a term used to describe the tendency of those who are incarcerated to turn to God for help. Some people believe the changes are only superficial and temporary. While it is certainly true that some former inmates are quick to return to drugs, alcohol or other addictions, we know that some men are truly set free by Jesus Christ – and are indeed new creations.
We also recognize the need for God’s continued forgiveness for our own sinfulness, and are glad that God’s mercies are new every morning. We see God’s Spirit reaches out to the broken, the hurting, and those who recognize their own need. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. God promises we will find Him if we seek after Him with all our heart. We see God work in amazing ways in the hearts of men we encounter behind bars. These are merely a handful of true accounts of the ways the Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of men we have been blessed to know.
DANIEL ROSE: Daniel was a gang member, from Centinela State Prison, who was spending some time in the East Facility while going to court for more of his crimes. He used to sit at the telephone banks to mock and intimidate those who had lined up for church. For a while he wondered what could possibly motivate these guys to even carry a Bible, let alone spend time reading it; but it really baffled him that they could withstand his taunting and still attend church to listen to a kindly, but old Chaplain Acres dressed up ever so neatly in his suit and tie. Eventually, Daniel decided to check it out for himself. He had never heard anything like the Gospel message, so he went back again…and again. Eventually, Daniel became a follower of Jesus Christ. He read through the Prison Bible the Gideon’s so generously provide the inmates of all our 7 facilities. He also completed the Fundamentals of the Faith course and was awarded a soft-covered Macarthur Study Bible provided by Grace Community Church. He read all of the books written especially for prison inmates by Dr. James P. Gills, a world-renowned cataract surgeon, and founder/director of St. Luke’s Cataract & Laser Institute. In the 2 years that I was his chaplain, Daniel read church history, theology, and Bible study books as fast as we could included them in our library. He became the dorm prayer leader and led many men to Christ.
The Tuesday evening after Thanksgiving 2008, Daniel told me that he had enjoyed the best Thanksgiving of his life. I asked him “Why? Did they serve something special in here?” He said, “No, but my mom came to visit on Sunday, and she told me that she and dad and my older brother sat down for a turkey dinner, held hands and prayed. In my whole life we never sat down at the table together as a family and we certainly never prayed together!” Since he had been in East Max, his parents and brother had become Christians because of the testimony of his changed life. His older brother used to be his “Homie” and now he has quit running with the gangs and is going to church and working for a living.
Today Daniel is back in Centinela, and he is following Christ and being a light to the lost men in prison. Daniel is also learning Greek through correspondence with Steve Gambino, the President and Manager of the Harvester Mission web site.
When Daniel returned to Centinela, now to face a life sentence, he was interviewed by the prison psychologist and put in solitary confinement under suicide watch, ostensibly because he seemed “too good with his life sentence.” He left there 3 years earlier a hardened Southsider Gang member and returned a well-adjusted Christian. Looking at his file made it hard for prison officials to believe Daniel was sane. They told him that he was going to have to see another doctor and be possibly be medicated as well. Eventually, he convinced them that he was “not hearing voices,” but that his chaplain back at East had simply taught him well concerning the providence of God, and he was “good” with his situation because he now had purpose in life. He convinced them that if it had been God’s will for him to have a lesser sentence, then that is what the judge would have had to give him. But if the gavel came down another way, it was as if God was commissioning him a Missionary to Centinela State Prison. The psychiatrist could not argue theology with Daniel so he decided to give him a clean bill of mental health.
CHRIS JOHNSON: One of Daniel’s protégés in East Max was a younger man named Chris Johnson. When I first met Chris, I had just replaced Chaplain Acres and was going from dorm to dorm to introduce myself to the respective Dorm Prayer Leaders. As I got to know Chris a little bit I wondered to myself, “How could a kid who has obviously been raised in the church, end up in jail?” Chris, like Daniel, was a voracious reader and he knew his Bible so well. He was also well respected by the other inmates as a Christian who walked his talk. On Daniel’s last night at East Max I asked Chris Johnson to join Chaplain Paul Vornbrock and myself up front to lay hands on Daniel as we commissioned him to do the work of a Missionary of Jesus Christ in the prison system. Thinking Chris was probably a preacher’s kid and used to religious ceremony of some kind, I had Chris lead usall in prayer.
Only later did I find out that, like so many inmates, Chris didn’t even know his father and had never seen the inside of a church. His mother, however, had done her best to move her only son out of Watts and into a good middle-class area of the San Fernando Valley. He got a good education and had a good job at a bank and at the age of 20 he had already been promoted as a loan officer.
But that was not good enough for him and his girlfriend. They needed a bigger apartment and more things, so they played like Bonnie and Clyde and robbed drug dealers instead of banks. They thought, “how bad could that be robbing bad people,” but once he became a Christian he saw himself in a different light. He told me that in court he had to watch himself on camera, because many of his robberies were captured on video in 7-11 parking lots. He said, “The Christian man you know now is not the “wild animal” that once waved a gun in the face of scared men and women who thought they were about to die.” He told me that he never actually physically hurt anyone, but that he deserves to go to prison for his crimes. Truly repentant people take responsibility for their actions. Jailhouse conversions can be real, for the living God actually removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a new repentant heart and their lives are changed from the inside out!
MARCUS CHRISTIAN: Another prime example of God’s power to change the hearts of criminals is a very young man named Marcus Christian, who came into my office one week to talk of his new faith in Christ. He told me of the burden of guilt that had been lifted from his heart and that for the first time in his life he was happy. He said that he finally felt like a free man even though he was in jail.
The next time I saw him his smile was gone and he again felt the weight of guilt on his shoulders. I asked him why the frown? His response was that he was still glad to know Jesus, but that he now had a new problem. He had received word that someone was going to be arrested for a crime that he had committed and his lawyer did not want him to say anything about it in court since he had not been arrested for that crime. He asked for my advice and, unable to give him legal advice, I simply told him to let his new conscience be directed by Christ first, by the attorney second. Of course, I did not even know what kind of crime this 20 year old was talking about.
A few weeks later Marcus came to me with a smile back on his face and told me that he had done the right thing in spite of his lawyer’s objections. Surprisingly, the crime he had confessed to was murder. This is the action of a new man with a new heart, a new conscience. “lf any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things are passed away; behold new things have come.”
LLOYD AVERY II: Lloyd was in North County Correctional Facility awaiting trial for the murder of two drug dealers. He was raised in a Christian family and had a good education and upbringing. Movie director, John Singleton cast Lloyd in his Oscar nominated movie, Boyz N the Hood, and some other movies as well. Lloyd also had a bit part in the T.V. show, Doogie Howser, but somewhere during this short acting career he lost his innocence and got involved in drugs.
In a magazine article, people talked about Lloyd's scary look, but they were only seeing an unconscious expression of his old nature. They were not seeing into the soul of the new creature God had made him. In NCCF, as his chaplain, I spoke to him about that very thing. I would see him in the dorm, with his face looking mean even while he was on his bunk reading his Bible. When he would see me at the bars he would smile big and come over and talk about what he was just reading. I told him that even in his most pensive moments he would do well to be aware of his facial expression, since it didn't reflect well the love inside him. From that time on, his face softened. He wasn't aware of how he looked when he was thinking. But his smile would light up a room and draw men to him. And that was who Lloyd really was, a light to the world around him. So, the King Magazine readers were looking on the outward appearance of an actor, but God looks upon the heart. And it is the heart of Lloyd that I knew best.
We became good friends, as I knew him in L.A. County Jail for about two years. His Bible was thoroughly worn because of his passion for God's Word. He was a testimony of God's power to change a man by giving him a new heart. Whatever he was before I met him, even if the worst stories were true, Lloyd was a new creation in Christ--old things were passed and what I beheld was a beautiful new man.
Lloyd and I met 2 or 3 times a week, face to face at his cell or in my office. He always sat in the front row during our Bible study, or in church on Sunday, and I remember a man whose eye was focused on learning of Jesus Christ and living for Him. His life was a witness to God's love and forgiveness; he was a witness to those around him and many lives were affected for the good by his being celled up with them.
Later, he wrote to me that he was witnessing about Christ to everyone he was coming into contact with at his new home: Pelican Bay State Prison. This place is home to some of the worst of the worst and I quickly wrote back to him that Jesus warned that he should be more cautious about where he “casts his pearls,”because some swine don’t deserve your pearls and some swine bite!
I was too late. Lloyd’s cellmate was a “devout” Satanist who had already threatened to choke Lloyd if he didn’t shut up about Jesus. My letter came back to me unopened, the envelope reading, “OBIS-DEATH”. The very word "witness," that the Bible uses to express what we are doing when we share the Gospel with others, is a word from the Greek (the original language of the New Testament) that describes more of how we live than what we say. That Greek word, "martuse," though it is typically translated to the English word "witness," is the word from which we get our word, "MARTYR.” Another movie Lloyd acted in was, “Poetic Justice” and some have said it was simply poetic justice that a murderer had died at the hands of a murderer in a prison cell. I see his life and death differently. Lloyd lived his life for Christ while in prison and died a martyr's death because of his witness, the sharing and demonstration of his faith to others. The Bible says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for others.” Lloyd loved his cellmate more than life itself and ignored the threat. So, I am sure Lloyd’s witnessing drove his cellmate to kill him.
We can ask why a Christian gets sent to Pelican Bay and celled up with a Satanist, but what happened may ironically be God’s will. For, in His infinite wisdom--as He did for John the Baptist who was incarcerated with a punishment not suitable for the forerunner of Christ—God apparently saw fit to take Lloyd home rather than let him languish many long years in Pelican Bay. Lloyd's facial expression may have been misjudged by some and his body mistreated by one, but his soul was welcomed up to Heaven and Jesus probably held Lloyd's beautiful face in His nail-scarred hands an told him, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the glory of your reward." Believe what you want to about Lloyd, his life, and his faith in Christ, but if you could have heard Lloyd talk about his love for God and his love for his family and fellow man, you would only have wanted him to be quiet if you had no tolerance for his message of love and light and would rather remain in the unbelieving kind of darkness that his murderer knew and loved.
MANUEL GARCIA: Like Daniel Rose, Manuel Garcia, is in Centinela State Prison. He too was saved in our L.A. County Jail system. As a 7-year-old boy, Manuel would come home from school where the nuns told him stories about Jesus, and he would set up his toys and stuffed animals on a table and give little baby sermons to his pretend audience. His mother’s new husband, however, robbed little Manuel of his innocence by repeatedly raping him. He would call him a sissy when he was too hurt to go to school. When Manuel’s prayers for protection from this animal were not answered he eventually grew angry with God.
Manuel ultimately attached himself to a street gang for protection. As he moved into a position of authority in this gang he determined some of the rules they lived He formed a sect in this gang that actually memorized Scripture. This odd ritual was not for good, but was actually a way of expressing his anger toward God by actions instead of mere words. They would take their twisted knowledge of God’s Word out to the hood to quiz street preachers, and if the preacher’s answers fell short, they would receive a beating by Manuel and his fellow gangbangers.
Before Manuel ended up in prison he had been stabbed 7 times and shot twice. Once he was dumped in a trash dumpster and left for dead. When the paramedics revived him with the defibrillator, he woke up screaming at God, “God, you couldn’t save me when I was a kid and you can’t kill me now!”
I met Manuel in the North County Correctional Facility. His stepson had been arrested about 6 months earlier and Manuel saw him coming out of a prayer circle as he first entered this dorm and angrily challenged him about hanging with Christians. His stepson told him that he had accepted Christ as his lord and savior.
How could this be that Manuel would be placed in the same dorm as his son, even if they did have different last names? There are 5 other jails that he could have gone to. There are 3 other sections in NCCF, each with 16 dorms holding over 100 men. Though this was Manuel’s first time in jail, his high ranking in the Southsider Gang system put him in the position of “Shot-caller” of the dorm. That meant that he was in charge of everything these men did, including prayer and Bible study time. If he wanted to allow it or cut it off, he could. Eventually, after Manuel cooled down, the irony of this apparent coincidence was not lost on him. He was being set-up by God. He flashed back to many other strange phenomena equally anointed as this. So, he listened to the heavily tattooed former gang members who had shared the Gospel to his son. They bravely shared the message of God’s love and forgiveness with the man who could have had them beaten up or even killed.
Notice that I had not even come into the picture yet. Though our ministry plays a roll in men coming to Christ, much more ministry happens behind the bars as men simply read their Gideon’s Bibles and the Holy Spirit convicts them of sin and calls them out of darkness and into the Light. Manuel was introduced to me by my mentor, Mike Gildroy. He was the chaplain who actually prayed with Manuel to accept Christ. Talking with Manuel after church one Sunday, he asked me if he could share some of his testimony the following week. I told him that I needed to hear what he was going to tell the men, so we scheduled a meeting for Tuesday in my office.
Though lives are changed when men come to the end of their rope and seek Christ, these miracles are still in the context of a concentration of evil. So, when Manuel entered my office on Tuesday he was no longer at peace. He was clearly rattled and not able to focus on the planned topic, consequently, I didn’tget to hear his testimony that day. Instead, he told me that while he was at church on Sunday, a few young gang members challenged his authority and tried to kill a young man who had come to him for protection. He had been accused of being a snitch. Manuel believed differently and ordered that he be left alone. Instead, they took advantage of Manuel’s absence to throw this kid over the balcony and he was sent to the hospital, barely alive.
In our meeting, Manuel was trying to explain to me, gang hierarchy, by pushing pieces of crumpled balls of toilet paper around my desk so I could better understand his predicament. He was expected to get even with these three upstarts who countermanded his authority. If he did nothing about it, he would eventually be in trouble with shot-callers up in prison, maybe even the Mexican Mafia. He is telling me all of this as if I could help him decide what to do! Though I had been a volunteer for a few years, doing Bible studies on Tuesdays and preaching on Sundays, I had just become a chaplain and had too little experience counseling inmates to know what to tell him.
I was certainly in over may head that day and was just about to say so, when Manuel suggested we pray. “Good idea,” I said, thinking to myself as we bowed our heads: “I should have thought of prayer, at least, because I surely had no wisdom to offer him.” After we said amen, Manuel said, “Well, what comes to me is “Let the dead bury the dead.” I thought, “Hey! I’m the chaplain here, I should have come away from prayer with that inspiration.” Well, at least I was able to confirm the message he had received must be from God. I told him that everyone was watching him to see what he would do. “Here you are, a very powerful gang member, who now declares for Jesus. People want to know if you are for real or just a poser. Right now, jail and prison politics have you sitting on a fence of indecision. You have one foot in the Kingdom of God and one foot in the ugliness of the kingdom of this world. Manuel, ‘choose this day, whom you are going to serve.’”
He left my office at peace, seemingly intent on serving God not man. No sooner had he returned to the dorm, than inmates from prison who were in our jail--supposedly to testify in court—told him that he had to make a decision in this situation. They challenged him to either require justice or he would receive justice, and a hit was put out on him. Quickly, he was put in the “Hole” for his protection.
Manuel was told that he would have to be moved to Central Jail in Los Angeles, for long-term protection. I didn’t see him again for several months. I wanted to check in on him, but after a reminder from our supervisor in the Office of Religious and Volunteer Services, that God could minister to Manuel just as well through the chaplains at Central Jail, I realized I needed to learn to let go of men as they moved on, and trust God to protect and grow them. One day, maybe 4 months later, I checked the computer to see if he was still in C.J. To my surprise, Manuel was back at Wayside in NCCF. I found him and was happy to know he both remembered me and had grown as a Christian.
Upon his conversion, he had committed his hands to God, and while at C.J. he was tested. He was beaten up 3 times and 3 times he held his hands to his side, choosing to keep his commitment to Christ that he would never again use his fists against another human being. This literal example of turning the other cheek, allowed him opportunity to share the Gospel with a distinct credibility and men came to know a new way of living in Jesus. When I was finally able to let him share his testimony at a church service he told the other inmates attending that he had just received 17 years for his part in kidnapping and beating, an enemy gang member. But he also told them that if they were going to name the name of Jesus as Lord and Savior, that they could not do so and then go to court and try to con the judge. Instead, Christians should confess their guilt and fall on the mercy of the court, accepting its judgment as coming not from the Bench, but from the Throne of God. Then he sang beautifully, the hymn, Amazing Grace. To this day he signs his letters to me in beautiful script, “Amazing Grace, Your Disciple and Friend, Manuel Garcia.”
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” Nathaniel asked in the Bible? Can anything good come out of prison, many still ask? Sadly, this ministry is the bestkept secret in the church. These are just a few of so many stories of God’s powerful work in our jails and prisons. I could actually write a book of just my own encounters with inmates responding to God’s call in such powerful ways. Manuel was just the first. He is presently in a Bible School program and very involved in the church in Centinela State Prison.
RICHARD PAWL: I came across another young man at NCCF who was on trial for murdering his wife. When I met him he had been in jail almost 2 years. I met him because many other inmates had asked me if I had yet met Richard Pawl. These other men were excited that I meet him because he was having such a profound affect upon their lives through the testimony (witness) of his life and the Word of God.
In other words, he talked of God and he walked his talk. That is very important to the men behind bars. Imagine that! Inmates value greatly men who walk in integrity! In jail and prison, liars and fakers surround inmates, so if one of their own talks of God, but walks like everyone else, his testimony will have no credibility. You cannot easily con conmen for they are a naturally suspicious group.
By the time I met Richard he had made a project of memorizing Scripture and had a list of nearly 300 such verses very neatly written in very tiny lettering in the blank pages of the front an back of his Bible. The murder of his wife, he claimed, had been an accident. “Of course, I thought to myself, another innocent inmate. Is nobody guilty in this place?” His fellow inmates may have respected him, but as for me…the jury was still out. But, after getting to know him better, he proved to be who people in jail said he was: a genuine child of God with great integrity.
Before his arrest, Richard had been an electrician who worked for a large electrical construction company. He was also a trained helicopter pilot and was hoping for a future in commercial helicopter work as he continued to work as an electrician. Oh, did I mention that he was also a gun enthusiast and an alcoholic? Every night he and his wife would watch television, drink, and sometimes fight until they went to bed. One night, while they were sitting on the couch watching television, he was cleaning a handgun and he shot her in the head and killed her.
Ultimately, after 3 years in our facility, the forensics proved the shooting to be just as Richard claimed, an accident. However, the judge still gave him several years in prison for having unlicensed weapons in the house, which was a violation of his probation for something else he had done. Before he left for prison, Richard and I were talking about the providence of our sovereign God. Richard was hoping to study while in prison and maybe get a degree in Theology before he got out. In the course of that conversation I was telling him about God’s providence in the life of another electrician who is now the Head Senior Chaplain of all 7 jails in Los Angeles County, including mine.
His name is Dave Casebeer and like Richard, he was once a very heavy drinker. Now he has a Masters in Divinity, supervises 6 other Senior Chaplains, dozens of other chaplains, and hundreds of religious volunteers while personally ministering to thousands of inmates. Richard was more than encouraged; he was intrigued! “Was this Dave Casebeer married to an Asian lady, he asked? Was he once a supervisor for a large electrical construction company?” After I answered "yes" to all of his questions, Richard told me that he used to go on daily lunchtime beer runs for our Head Senior Chaplain when they were both terribly lost sinners. Dave Casebeer was his former boss, who taught him all he knew about commercial electrical installation…and cussing and drinking.
When I told Dave about Richard and his situation, he remembered him and came from the Twin Towers facility to visit him at the North County Correctional Facility. They talked for a long time about old times and new times; about the old men they once were and the new men in Christ they had become. And, they might also have talked about their common ministry of reconciliation: how God loves us and works in strange ways to bring us wandering sinners home to Himself.
A deputy once took me aside and respectfully asked me to indulge his curiosity. “Why do you do this, he asked?” In other words, why do you waste your time on men such as these? I told him, “First of all, had I ever been caught, I could have been an inmate myself as a young man. And, so could my boss, Chaplain Mastrolonardo have been arrested for things he had done before he was saved. And quite possibly his boss, Chaplain Casebeer might have been arrested on a DUI before he was saved. Many of our very best chaplains and volunteers were not so lucky, but were saved in prison or jail--some even in this very dorm.”
I do not know if my answer was the demonstration of God’s grace I intended or merely a reinforcement of his belief that our work a waste of time, but I had made him aware that even our workers were weak and humble servants of God. There are a lot of stories of God’s grace amongst the inmates, because God is also working his grace and forgiveness in the storied lives of many chaplains and volunteers. Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, God has been in the business of reconciling his lost creation unto Himself. And, by the power of His Holy Spirit, He has chosen to use the weak and broken to confound the so-called wise and wonderful amongst us. Only God can make spiritually broken men whole, but those who think more highly of themselves than they ought will remain lost in their pride and sin.