January 29, 2017
Sunday, 6:00 p.m.
Letter #465: Freedom
This week marked another fun, important milestone for me as another one of my closest friends got to leave this place and restart his life beyond these walls. Art, who really became friends with me back last June when I was moved into his dorm (after the “Skittles” incident), has finally completed his four-year prison term.
In some respects, four years seems like so much less time than the fifteen years doled out to me … maybe because it is? Probably. But in many ways, they’re the same. Families are shattered, careers lost, important events missed, trust broken, and a felony gets attached to your record. On top of that, everyone still has years of parole to contend with, and many of us will also have to register as a sex offender for the rest of our lives—even a buddy of mine who only served six months in here.
So, I don’t unfairly compare my story with others. Instead, I’ve learned to have compassion for them. In Art’s situation, he’s been married; he has children and grandkids he can’t wait to reestablish relationships with. We have done our fair share of planning and preparing and praying for this day and the rest-of-his-life that happens next. We got excited over the past couple of months as Art’s release plans—what I like to call his “Exit Strategy”—really began to take shape.
As the de facto Lead Elder for the church here, he leaves behind a gaping leadership hole that will surely be felt. Art took an active role in my efforts to build a partnership of sister churches between the church here and Redemption Hill Church in Richmond, Virginia. Friends of mine who are members of Redemption Hill, worked tirelessly to reach out to a church in the Los Angeles area that is now ready to welcome Art to their church. In fact, the church has offered to put Art up in a nice hotel for the first month he’s out as they continue to try to locate more permanent housing for him. This generous offer makes Art’s transition home so much easier, but the most inspiring part of it all was how we got to see this incredible church (part of the “Acts 29” network of churches) pull together to figure out how they could best welcome someone they’d never met who is in need of a church family connection.
Friends also worked to help Art get established in his own company, doing the legwork on everything from setting up an LLC and a corporate bank account to registering the name and creating the digitized logo. Their love and generous expenditure of time, energy, and resources are truly a gift from the Lord and a humbling reminder to both Art and me that God knows all that we need and will accomplish His purposes in our lives. What a challenge then for us to be found faithful with the opportunity!
As the day of Art’s departure drew nearer, the church finally united to send him out with their blessing. As his closest friend, I had the privilege of actually “praying him out,” as all of the church leadership laid hands on him. It was an emotional moment for me. Art and I have grown so close, going through many trials, joys, and sorrows together. The Lord has used us in each other’s lives, for which we’re grateful. These events have caused us to truly care for the other. I knew letting him go would be tough.
The night before he paroled, I gathered a group of Christian brothers in our dorm, and we each took turns praying for Art and his family. We have watched as God has brought him closer to his sons and daughters, even in just this past couple of months, and we prayed for God’s continuing restorative work within Art’s entire family in the days ahead.
Early in the morning of his parole date, an officer woke him up so he could get his belongings together and packed up. We hugged for what will probably be the last time for several years, and he was off to the “R&R” department (Receiving and Release) to wait for his son to pick him up. Art followed the tradition of nearly everyone before him and gave away almost all of his belongings to those who could really use them. Someone got his thermal shirt, another got his pillow—a rarity here—and I got first pick of everything.
At precisely nine o’clock, I made a call to Art Jr.’s phone … and Art himself answered! It’s a weird, fun feeling to call someone you’ve known only in person for months and months, a feeling I’ve experienced on many, many occasions as so many of my former cellies and good friends have paroled, many of them picked up at the gate by my parents. This day was special, as Art wanted me to be a central part of it all the way.
His first day was spent reconnecting with a couple of his kids. A big dinner gathering didn’t end up working out at the last minute, but it is really obvious that God is working to restore Art’s family relationships. Of course, it won’t be easy, and it will take time, but over the next few days, we got to see his family come out of the woodwork, making significant contact with him. Tears, hugs, apologies, love.
The next number of weeks and months will be difficult, but Art has a great support team behind him, and my buddy has a ton of drive. He’ll be doing great—I know it—and I look forward to seeing all that God does in him and through him. Thank you for your prayers!