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HOW GOD REACHED ME IN PRISON

Written by: Garry W. Johnson

Originally published on his website Click here to learn more about Garry's advocacy.


“Is this your first time up?” It is the typical question posed when someone learns you are going up for parole. The well-founded belief among prisoners is that no one gets out their first go around – the Board of Parole just wants to harass you. In actuality, there is just too much risk. But nothing about my incarceration has been typical.


I came to prison in 2004, after having served almost 5 years in a county jail. That in itself is extraordinary – few prisoners do more than a year before their case is heard, but my preparation took longer than most. It wasn’t because I had a good case, or even that my charges were unjust. Something was happening in my 6' x 10' cell that many people experience, but few benefit from (Matthew 22:14; 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).


County jails are mostly setup for short-term incarcerations. The majority of offenders there are considered non-violent and placed in open dormitories. Troublemakers are segregated into more restrictive housing. The worst of those are sent to the jail’s Maximum Security Unit, which they refer to simply as “Max.” Finally, you have your pretrial folks.


Those who have yet to be convicted are housed according to their charges first, and then their behavior. Because of the severity of my indictments, I was placed in the Max unit and left there until my case was resolved. For me, that would only end when the prison transport bus arrived.


Max is a “23 and 1,” meaning prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours, and allowed to use the phone and shower for one hour each day. It gives you a lot of time to reflect but very little contact with the outside world. Visits are limited to thirty minutes a week, phone calls to thirty minutes each, and mail to whatever the jail official that day deems appropriate.


Televisions were allowed, but only what you could pick up over the airways. At that time TV was still analog so you could tune-in 12 channels on a clear day, but could only see about half of them. In such an environment it would seem unlikely that anyone would come in contact with an evangelist, or for that matter, be interested in speaking to one.


OMNIPRESENCE


I had been raised to believe that there is a God and had nominal Christian doctrine explained to me as a child. I attended church – Sunday school and other church activities – and quite enjoyed the experience.


As adulthood approached those seemingly simple experiences held less of a draw for me. I had already been baptized and, according to what I had been taught, was assured of entrance into heaven. So to continue with this practice of religion when the world had so much more to offer, seemed unimportant, even counter-productive. It wasn’t until that world delivered me into confinement that I began to wonder if I had missed some finer points of doctrine.


Not long after that question entered my mind, I was sent a Bible from a prisoner in a lower security level. The book came by way of a night-shift guard after a chance meeting in the corridor to the attorney booth. We had known each other from the outside before his run-in with the law, and I guess he felt sorry for me in my situation.


I thought the gift was quaint, and I would occasionally thumb through the pages. I didn’t take seriously the prospect that God was involved in any of this, but that question continued to haunt me: had I missed something in church? Was I really going to heaven if I didn’t make it out of this mess? Maybe the answers were somewhere in this book.


So I started to read it – parts of the New Testament, then parts of the Old. I decided that I needed a comprehensive view, so I eventually began at Genesis and worked toward the back. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I suspected I would know when I found it.


The book was familiar and yet strange. I found the stories I was taught as a child, but they seem to be different from the way they were explained to me. The context was all wrong, and I couldn’t find that switch-over from the Jewish God to the Christian One. I knew it was in there though, so I kept looking.


I began questioning the other prisoners about what they believed and writing to various churches for the Bible study courses that made their way to the back of the jail. The studies were interesting to me, and I found a lot of those familiar lessons I was taught as a child. I even found that explanation as to why I was going to heaven. But this time there was a problem, that Bible I was given didn’t say the same thing.


I became fixated on the issue. Study after study couldn’t satisfy my questions. I would write to the churches and ask why these words or those didn’t conform to their literature. And the answer was always that I just didn’t understand. I wasn’t highly educated, but I thought I knew the meaning of the very simple words in this book. Apparently in “church talk” many words have opposite meanings. That seemed acceptable to my correspondents, but it wasn’t satisfying to me.


I had exhausted several of these courses (and a few of their teachers) and crossed many denominational lines. I began to suspect that the modern church was a scam, though I did believe that true Christianity existed, or that it could exist, as it seemed to be laid out clearly in this Book. I felt like there had to be someone out there who read it and took it the same way I did, I just couldn’t prove it from my cage.


THE SPOKEN WORD


So I continued in this mode for some time, reading religious material, watching religious television, and hoping to reconcile these annoying scriptures. Most of the television programs seemed even more placative than the studies. I always felt good after watching them, despite being a little annoyed by the “gifts” they sold.


One Sunday morning I stumbled across a guy I hadn’t seen before: white-haired, sitting behind a desk talking about God – I thought he was a preacher, but he didn’t seem like one. He was talking about the return of Jesus Christ and how He would implement the death penalty on those who oppose Him. “What?! Jesus would never do such a thing! Who is this Bozo?!” I’d never been angry at a preacher before. They always told me about how Jesus just forgives everyone. “I can’t believe they let this guy on the air!”


Interesting thing about the truth, sometimes it makes you furious. But if you are called, or being called, you get over the anger. The truth won’t leave you alone, and neither will God. I found myself watching this guy again, just to see what he would say, and if I could come up with some text to disprove his outlandish remarks. I’m still looking.


THE WRITTEN WORD


The max unit in the county jail consisted of two “tiers” or “walks,” one over the other, of seven cells each. The last cell on each walk turned 90 degrees at a corner, allowing for a view of the other six cells on that level. During my time there, I occupied both of these cells, the top tier being the preferred, and by this time my continual residence.


The two incidents are so close in time that my memory won’t allow the distinction of which was first. But about the time I discovered Garner Ted on television, I would have another unexpected reaction to religious material.


The cell catty-corner to my enclosure would soon house a new resident, one who was particularly unsociable. During one of his “breaks” from confinement, he received some news on the phone he found particularly enraging and proceeded to thrash around in his little box. The tirade continued as I made my way down to the shower and phone. Once my hour-long reprieve was over, I found the walkway in front of my cell littered with magazines and magazine-size envelopes … and my neighbor grinning at the mess he had made.


I shuffled the material into a little pile just inside my cell, and pulled my door till it locked shut. I knew they were “religious” booklets, and thought I might look them over if my neighbor didn’t demand them back.


I don’t recall how much time elapsed before I read one, but I do remember the emotional response I had. The Gospel of the Kingdom explained why I couldn’t find that distinction between the Jewish God and the Christian God, and I felt my heart melt as I realized, finally, that I wasn’t alone.


OMNIPOTENT


No matter how heart-rending and challenging I found this television show and these printed materials I had to wonder, “Why now, and what difference does it make?” My life, as far as I could tell, was over. What could God possibly want with me now? Furthermore, was any of this even real or was I just another “jail house convert” grasping at straws on my way down the chute?


It seemed that the only way any of this made sense is if it could be applied. But most of what this book was saying could never work in my surroundings – “Bless those who curse you” … Really? Have you seen these guys? Well eventually, if you believe it’s true, then you have to find out.


I was soon presented with a situation where a guy really had it in for me. He had aggravated me and harassed me to the point where I really wanted to do something bad to him. But that instruction kept coming into my mind, “Bless those who curse you,” followed by my fleshly rebuttal “This is not going to end well for you!”


For the first time, I overrode my own understanding for a directive in a book I was beginning to believe was real. I helped him for no other reason than believing it was what God wanted me to do, and I was blessed for my effort. God turn an adversary into an advocate, and for the first time the law of God began to make sense. And things that had remained a mystery to me slowly became evident.


TRANSFORMATION


A considerable amount of time would elapse before I discovered the common thread between the avenues God used to reach me in that small box in the back of that local jail. As I grew in the knowledge and application of God’s Word, unexplainable things began to happen in my life. He began to repair breaches that I didn’t know were fixable, and He built a hedge around me in a place that doesn’t allow for protection. He accepted me into His family in 2010, and His family accepted me into their company seven years later.


I spent 17 years and 5 months inside of state correctional facilities: I was never assaulted, never seriously injured, and never had anything taken from me by force. I consistently found myself at the best facility, at the most appropriate time, with the best job that place had to offer – and none of it is explainable beyond Divine intervention.


Yes, it was my “first time going up” on a 48-year sentence. No, I should not have made it out in January of 2018. No, I should not have been called, I should not be writing this to you now – nothing about what our Father can do is typical. And He can do it anywhere.

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