It’s a two-hour drive from my home in Jacksonville, Florida. I left the interstate forty-five minutes ago. Not much is happening out here: I’ve passed only a few cars in the last half hour. A few homes dot the landscape, all in need of major repairs. The prison I’m driving toward is eighty years old, an imposing institution with sniper towers peering over the walls.
Rumbling over cracked asphalt, I review the road that brought me here, stretching back from today’s visit at a correctional facility to the morning I was shot at an ATM…
A gun pointed at me with the instructions: “Take out the max amount. I need it for crack.”
At 4:30 in the morning I was heading out of town for business. Standing in front of the ATM, I heard movement behind me and turned to say good morning, assuming it would be another bank customer. No words made it past a hard swallow. A gun pointed at me with the instructions: “Take out the max amount. I need it for crack.”
I attempted the transaction. My card was rejected. I inserted it again but it still didn’t work. The voice behind the gun got louder, more demanding, “Hurry up!” I tried again. No luck.
“There’s another machine at the grocery store up the street.” I knew the store was closed, but it seemed a better option than staying there the way things were escalating. The robber said he’d turn off my car. As he bent over in the driver’s side door I thought about running, but my legs wouldn’t move. And then he was done and hurrying back, my keys in his pocket.
Upon reaching the store, we found it closed. The gunman ordered me to return to the first machine. During the walk back, I remembered another credit card in my wallet.
While withdrawing money, I heard a noise like a loud clap. The gun, I thought, but as nothing hit me or ricocheted off the pavement or wall, it didn’t sound real. I retrieved two hundred dollars and handed it to the robber. He counted it, then stuck the gun in my side: “Let’s go.”
Jabbing me with the gun, he walked me down a side street. I suddenly remembered hearing that the chances of survival drop with every step in this situation.
I stopped. “I’m not going with you. Please just give me my keys and let me go. You have the money to get your crack.”
He reached into his pocket, looking surprised to find the keys there. Seconds passed, then he announced a new plan – to steal my car. He hurried away looking nervous and afraid. I watched him go, thinking, This is wrong. I’m out here making an honest buck, saving up to get married. This guy has stolen two-hundred dollars and is now going for my car, and his gun isn’t even real! On that conviction, I began following him toward my car. I raised my voice so he would hear me halfway up the block, “Come on. Don’t take my car. Don’t take my car!” He started running away. My mind raced. Then it jumped its track. I snapped; I was out of my mind, a madman. I don’t know the person I became in that moment, sprinting after him.
It happened so fast, finding I was wrong about the gun. The thief whirled around and a gunshot broke the pre-dawn silence. The hollow point struck, and my leg exploded. My shattered femur couldn’t hold my weight, and I crashed to the pavement as the shooter ran away. I tried to stand, but couldn’t.
“Help! Help!” I cried with all my might, over and over, for what seemed an eternity. At last I saw a car approaching. I rose up on an elbow to wave it down. The headlights came closer and closer, and then swerved to avoid hitting me. I watched the taillights disappear. All hope gone, images of my family and fiancé flooded my mind. But then a sense of peace washed over me, and a new thought emerged: I’m not dead yet. But then: The robber may come back to finish me. Looking around, I saw a deep shadow on the sidewalk. If I can crawl into it and keep still, and the gunman does return, maybe he won’t find me. I began dragging myself toward it.
Inching along, I finally reached the curb. Then I heard approaching sirens, and, suddenly surrounded by red and blue lights and crime scene tape, I was covered by an oxygen mask and hurried into an ambulance to be rushed to the emergency room.
Confined to a bed and in traction for months, I played a triple-R rated movie over and over in my head. I was the star, the hero who caught the robber, took him to a wooded area, tied him to a tree and beat him with a baseball bat. When not in the woods, I railed against God. “Why me? Why me? Why me?”
When human brokenness causes human suffering, God is with us.One day a Jewish chaplain visited. Seeing my struggle with the “Why me?” question, he told me, “God doesn’t shoot anyone. God’s doesn’t hurt us to heal us. When human brokenness causes human suffering, God is with us. God helps us through, if we’ll just give God the chance.” These words resonated in my soul. A few sleepless nights later, a more life-giving question arose. How do I find peace in the midst of this? My prayer changed: God, help me; this is a tough deal; give me the strength to handle this with grace.
Soon I began receiving messages about forgiveness — through a story in a book, a conversation with a nurse, and thoughts that seemingly arose from nowhere. I knew I was being called to forgive and went on the offensive in a heated argument with God.
“Forgive the robber? No way! I can’t do it, won’t do it, not after what he did to me. If I forgive the robber, I’ll be saying what he did is OK. I’ll be saying anyone can walk all over me and I won’t do a thing about it.”
As I resisted God, I kept praying for help and strength. The forgiveness messages got louder, as if the volume of God’s still voice within was being turned up a notch at a time to get the best of me. One day I talked to a detective about the gunman, who was very young — a teenager. Since the robber said he needed the money for crack, the detective explained how addictive crack is: “If you smoked crack today, you could be addicted tomorrow and likely do something criminal to get more if you didn’t have other options.”
During this conversation, I remembered being offered a beer when I was thirteen, from an eighteen-year-old down the street. Had I been offered crack instead, I can’t say I wouldn’t have tried it and wound up high instead of buzzed. As I saw myself in the shooter, God’s message of forgiveness took on new meaning: forgive the robber for being human, just like me.
The next time I entered the first scene of “my movie” a few days later, something was different; something had changed. I was in the woods; the robber was tied to a tree; he was begging for mercy; the baseball bat was in my hands…
This time, I couldn’t swing it. The juice was gone. I restarted the movie but it wouldn’t play; it was as if the film was broken.
By the grace of God, there I was, confined to the same bed, surrounded by the same four walls, on the same hall, in the same hospital, surrounded by all the same people. My physical environment hadn’t changed one iota, but everything was new because a livid young man opened to God’s invitation to live in love. God did all the rest to release me from my self-made prison.
I need God as much as anyone wearing a DOC jumpsuit, and my own story is the reason I’m driving today on the road towards a Florida prison, as I do every week to lead classes in my prison ministry, Restored Life Journeys. In God’s classroom, while I might teach or lead a discussion one moment, I find myself a student in the next. I often see more peace in inmates than I do in myself or in others on the outside, including some who seem to “have it all.”
We prayerfully come together each week for healing and to restore peace in our lives and world. Our hope and intention is to participate with God in slowing the revolving door of prison recidivism, creating safer communities with fewer crime victims and less taxpayer burden associated with incarceration. We open to God so God can do what we cannot do alone, and we are never disappointed.
The process begins with victims of violence sharing their stories with inmates. Although the inmates are not the direct perpetrators of the offenses they hear about, the stories show them the devastating impact of crime on individuals, families, and communities. Inmates hear the voices of those they have hurt and see that the pain they have caused can last a lifetime. They see their own families in the stories they hear. They become aware of the pain they have caused loved ones; how they have hurt themselves; and how they’ve been hurt in life — by hardships, wrongdoing, crime, unhealthy environments, substance abuse, addiction, betrayals, and childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect.
As empathy is awakened and compassion grows, a safe space is created for inmates to share their life stories, including the events and choices that landed them in prison. Through these conversations victims and inmates open themselves to receive God’s healing, forgiveness, guidance, and formation.
I am humbled to be with survivors of violence and inmates as they surrender to healing and reconciliation, and blessed in seeing inmates’ desire to stay out of prison after release, as I watch them take necessary steps to restore peace in their lives, relationships, and in their community...
The prison sign seems to appear from nowhere, a reminder of how God has brought me full circle.
As we begin the session I tell the inmates, “If you’re not willing to commit to these requirements, be honest now so your seat can go to someone on the waiting list; now is the time to raise your concerns and ask questions.”
“I need to know something.” Stanley’s words follow mine. “I signed up and then someone said we’ll be talking about God. I decided to drop out, but he said ‘No, just go. It’s cool.’ So I came today.
“Thing is, I’m not sure about God stuff; I don’t pray. Sometimes I watch the Buddhists and the guys in the Native American circle, but I don’t read the Bible or anything like that. I don’t like the way those people treat me. They come around with the pressure talk, saying I better do this or that to get straight with God, acting like they’re better than me. Like I don’t know all the messed-up stuff church people do. They don’t even know me; don’t even try. Anyway, that’s why I don’t know if I should be in this class.”
After saying all this to the floor, Stanley suddenly looks up at me. “What do you think?”
“Well, I appreciate your honesty. You need to know that we will talk about God. However, this program isn’t about trying to get you to do anything or believe in a certain way. Whatever your religion, faith, practices — this class meets you exactly where you are, no questions asked. Strong faith, weak faith, no faith, it’s all perfect in here. We’ll use some stories from the Bible and you are expected to read and discuss them and reflect on your life — where you’ve been, where you are, what kind of life you’d like to live in the future. Does that help?”
“Yeah, I can roll with that.”
At the end of class I ask if someone would say a prayer. Ted leads us, thanking God for bringing us together and asking for help to be more like Jesus.
Before leaving the room, Stanley pulls me aside and whispers, “I just need to make sure of something; I won’t have to pray, right?”
“No,” I reassure him, “not unless you want to.”
Whenever God is the topic of discussion over the next few weeks, Stanley remains quiet.
We hear the most from him when he shares his story. It starts with a lie. “I’m a mistake.” Stanley is the youngest of four children by ten years. His father went to prison when he was a baby, never to return. He remembers going to church with his mom, who buttoned him up every Sunday, put a Bible in his hand, and told him to behave. Stanley hated doing that, especially around his abusive Sunday school teacher. She sounds plain mean: she’d grab his hair and turn him around and get in his face.
When Stanley quit school in the tenth grade he also quit church and moved in with his older brother, Jimmy. There he learned all sorts of new things that would get anyone in trouble — how to drink, smoke, snort, steal, and shoot. His spent his first major stint in prison after sticking up for Jimmy when he got in a bar fight with the bouncer’s brother. The fight rolled around on broken beer bottles before surging outside. There, the bouncer got involved and one-on-one became two-on-one.
Soon, Jimmy was in the dirt, covering his head to avoid a flurry of fists from one brother and stomping boots from the other. Stanley moved to jump in, but the bouncer pulled a gun and stuck it in his face. Stanley backed away, ran to Jimmy’s truck, and reached under the seat to return with equal force. A gunfight broke out. Stanley and the bouncer hit the ground. Both guns were emptied and a few more people went down. The crowd scattered. Then Stanley heard yelling: “Get in, let’s go!” Stanley reached up to grab Jimmy’s hand to pull himself into the front seat. They sped away with Stanley’s feet dangling out the door. After a quick stop to get him all the way in, they spoke of hiding out, but realized that Jimmy needed a doctor and Stanley needed a trauma team. They raced toward town to the hospital. Stanley says, “I thought it was over for me. I kept telling God, ‘Please don’t let me die like this.’ That’s one of the last times I prayed.”
Stanley tells of serving twelve years; getting released; working on and off in construction; meeting Renee, the love of his life; Renee and their baby being killed by a drunk driver; and the events leading to his current sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
The assault happened one day when Stanley, his sister, and his mother were sitting outside the trailer: “Two lowlifes came by trash talking about what they wanted to do to my sister. Mom told them to stop; they told her to shut up.” Stanley’s eyes are red now as he tells us, “No one disrespects my family like that.”
He asked around and learned where the men lived. Then he paid a visit, kicking their door in, carrying a shotgun. No one was home, so Stanley went berserk and trashed the place. While leaving, he saw one of the guys walking away and chased him down. “I got that weasel on his back and shoved the shotgun down his throat. I should have pulled the f---ing trigger.”
Seconds pass. The silence is interrupted by Ray, who’s doing life without parole. “If you had pulled the trigger you wouldn’t have a release date.”
Robert speaks next. “When I look back on my life and all the years I’ve spent in prison, there are about five times,” Robert holds his hand up, fingers spread, palm forward, and moves it back and forth, “Five times where, if I had just stopped to think, my whole life would be different. Stanley, you not blowing that guy away reminds me of that. When I’m acting stupid I need to pay attention to that voice that says ‘Stop.’ I need to listen instead of saying ‘f--- it’ and going ahead with what I’m doing.”
Stanley rolls his eyes. “Oh c’mon; you get in a mode out there. You need to maintain respect and do certain things to survive the streets. You gotta do what you gotta do.” Stanley goes on and on about this, repeatedly saying, “It’s just the way it is.”
I’m getting irritated listening to him argue for his limitations. “I don’t buy it.”
Stanley stops cold, startled by my intrusion.
Ted jumps in, “Bill wait…” Then he turns to Stanley: “How long have you been running the streets?”
“Basically my whole life, when I wasn’t in here. But this place is a lot like the street.”
Ted looks back at me. “There’s a lot of conditioning there; you don’t just turn that off like a switch!”
“I get that,” I say to Ted, “but here’s the thing…” Turning back to Stanley, “…It sounds like you’re saying you don’t have a choice. That’s what I don’t buy.”
Stanley is silent for a few seconds, then, “No, I know I have one. I know I can choose.”
I am relieved. “OK good, because if we lose sight of that…why are we here?”
Stanley says nothing. During this pause, Robert’s words won’t leave me alone. “Let’s return,” I say, “to what Robert said about paying attention to the voice that says ‘Stop’ when we’re full-blown reacting and headed for trouble. Where does that voice come from? Could it have something to do with God?”
Stanley isn’t rolling his eyes anymore. We discuss noticing this voice. When it comes it can be loud and clear, or quiet and as easily missed as a whisper at a rock concert. We discuss how God speaks to us with this voice, reminding us that we can choose to heed or ignore his invitation.
I remind everyone of things I noticed when I was laid up in the hospital: the chaplain’s words, the messages I received about forgiveness, the cards on the hospital room walls, and conversations with other patients. A few inmates share examples of how God has helped them stop, turn around, re-focus their attention, and make life-giving choices.
The conversation falls off. Stanley stares at the floor in deep thought. When no one has anything left to say, he speaks. “Maybe that’s why I didn’t pull the trigger.”
Many of us understand how we build our own holes of solitary confinement and lose our life in them.In the silence that follows, I reflect that some prisons have nothing to do with living behind bars. Many of us understand how we build our own holes of solitary confinement and lose our life in them. We know the discomfort of sleeping on metal cots made of fear, worry, and doubt. We’ve been trapped in anger and resentment; confined by false beliefs and ignorant prejudices. We’ve been convinced that we are victims of our circumstances, powerless to choose another way and stop the madness. We’ve careened down that slippery slope many times and crashed into walls of self-imposed suffering. As God waits for us, we remain locked up in inner prisons, unable to experience his love while sitting in the midst of it.
Our silence takes us past the allotted time. Our instructions are to finish promptly, three minutes ago. I don’t want to interrupt what the Holy Spirit is doing, but I also don’t want to lose the privilege of returning. None of the inmates have noticed the time, though most usually do; everyone is still hanging on Stanley’s words, including Stanley.
With great reluctance I interrupt the eternal moment. “I’m sorry to do this, but we need to wrap it up. Who would like to lead us in prayer?”
No one volunteers. A few more moments pass. Still nothing; I decide to pray. As I’m about to begin, someone clears his throat. It’s a prompt for the rest of us to bow our heads. We do so with reverent surprise, as Stanley leads us. “God, some of us really do want to change. Please keep helping us do that. Amen.”
Bill Dyer is the founder of Restored Life Journeys, which aims to create safer communities by connecting victims of violence with inmates in ways that foster healing, rehabilitation, and reconciliation – thereby reducing the recidivism rate, number of crime victims, and taxpayer burden. This piece was adapted from his book, Doing Time with God.