My faith journey started at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC. Sentenced to life imprisonment and arriving there on a cold, dark, sleety February morning in 1988, I was bereft of any source of comfort or reassurance. My last image of my wife had been as she broke down in tears watching the car I was in drive away. That image haunted me as I was stripped of anything of my old life (I’d already given my wedding band to Kathy); all my clothes including my handkerchiefs were boxed up to send home and I was left naked before my keepers. Dressed in my prison clothes and led to my assigned bunk in a room flooded with lights from the spotlights on the wall surrounding Central Prison, I was horrified at what I had done that brought me to this place and recognized that this is where I belonged.
Sleep was impossible; I fully expected to be raped and killed by the predators that prowl such places looking for fresh fish and sought comfort in a Bible Kathy had included in my belongings that they had allowed me to keep. Someone sleeping not far from me had his watch stolen that night while he slept (what he thought he was doing bringing an expensive watch into prison I have no idea), just another introduction to my new life. Unable to sleep, I read through the Psalms, finishing just as the lights came on for morning count. During the next few days, I began to assimilate to my new life ‘inside’ and had made several acquaintances (a few of whom would become friends in time). Many were familiar with my crime having watched the news and read about me in the paper; thankfully I was not bothered or threatened in the first weeks, and I did settle into a routine that kept me busy while being processed into the system.
Keep in mind that I’d always considered myself a Christian, but as they did not have any Catholic services and the Protestant service was only on Sunday morning, I went to it. By my second Sunday at Central Prison, I’d established a routine that kept me out of the most dangerous parts of the prison at specific times.For example, after money draws on Friday, you went into the Maximum Security Building, where the library, computer lab, and barber shop were, at the risk of your life. The third Sunday, Chaplain Eugene Wigelsworth preached and to this day I cannot recall what passage of Scripture he spoke from or any other detail of the service except for the invitation at the end. I did go forward and spoke briefly with Pastor Wigelsworth and surrendered my life to Christ; almost immediately the darkness and gloom of Central Prison seemed a bit less, and a small seed of hope began to grow in my heart.
In the following weeks, Pastor Wigelsworth met with me to encourage me, offering study material or addresses where different ministries provided such for free to those who were in prison. As I grew in the faith God had given me; I became excited at the prospect that all that I surrounded me with was not forever. The richest billionaire and the most destitute beggar all have this in common; one day the life we now see will be over. What follows for the disciple of Jesus is beyond imagining. Within a few weeks, I’d been asked to join the choir, which I gladly did as this offered an outlet for the wonder I felt at Christ reaching out to me as He did. We met in a classroom in the Maximum Security Building on Friday (yeah, nothing had changed externally to the threat that lay in wait on that particular day, but inside me, something dramatic had taken place).
We always opened each rehearsal with prayer needs and I shared about a man I had met while in K-Dorm (processing) who had been a Baptist preacher but had done something (never asked, that just wasn’t done) to get a life sentence. He rejected his belief in Christ and became a Satan worshiper ( a very active group of guys would meet in an undisclosed part of the prison for their ‘services.'). I felt that we needed to pray for him to turn to Christ and be delivered from the bitterness of heart that had led him to where he was now. Every week, when we met, we would pray for him as I continued to do so every day. One day I had to leave rehearsal a bit early to get to work and found myself confronted with this same man (did I mention that he was over 6’5” and weighed over 200 pounds?). He was in a rage and screamed at me that he wanted me to stop praying for him. When I asked, “Why?” he just said that if I refused to stop he would kill me; as he said this he brandished a long piece of rebar that he had made into a shank. What happened next amazed even (especially?) me; I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m not afraid of your shank, why are you afraid of my prayers. You’re just threatening me with heaven. Go ahead; send me Home!” At this point, he threw down the shank and stormed off, filling the air with all manner of invective. After it was over, I sat on the floor for a few minutes trying to calm my heart rate and praying for my attacker and thanking God that today was not my day, but grateful for the peace he’d given me.
Getting back to Pastor Jay’s question; a long life is, in my humble opinion, the worst that can happen to any Christian. Had this man killed me that day, I would have instantly been with my King. Yes, I was relieved, but also really disappointed. Remember that I was just starting my sentence and that time stretched out before me did seem never-ending. Through the trials that I went through (some my fault) while in prison and since this memory keeps me focused on what is really important. This life, no matter how filled with pleasures and things that can bring comfort, is still a mud pie in place of a trip to the seashore (as C.S. Lewis once stated). I don’t know why I am still here, why He chose me and what is in store for me today. One thing I do know;
and at the last He will stand on the earth.”