68 | John’s First Real Christmas

December 21, 2008
Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
Letter #68: John’s First Real Christmas


Dear Family,

Merry Christmas! I’m so grateful to God for each one of you … what a precious gift to me is the love given by my friends and family! In fact, the unconditional love and support that I receive is often at opposite ends of the spectrum, sadly, from what is reality for many of the other inmates. Take John, for example …

John lives only a few doors down from me, separated by a few handicapped inmates in wheelchairs (who eat at special tables), so he and his cellie, Mario, often sit at meals with my cellie and me. John has much in common with me: we’re the same race, age, and size, and he’s also good-natured, with a similar “middle-class”-style upbringing as me (no gang activity or drugs, etc.). The similarities stop there.

John is married, with a few children. His wife was verbally and psychologically abusive to him, telling him he was worthless and a loser. He’d saved to buy a work truck and tools to start his own handyman business, taking a year to acquire everything. Just before launching on his own, he came home from work to find the truck gone. His wife had the junkyard come and get it, the tools, and a set of new tires, saying she was tired of waiting for his “stupid dream” to never happen. She said that he could have a dog instead. His wife bought him a stuffed dog from Build-a-Bear—plus animals for her and the kids, spending more than $500.

Christmas is hard for John. When someone told John at dinner (here) that John could have his piece of cake—then changed his mind, deciding to eat it himself instead—John just laughed, saying, “It reminds me of my wife.” Turns out, she’d get mad at him and the kids on Christmas Day and pack up all the gifts to return them all the next day. Birthdays too.

John had a big family, but not any more. After his arrest, his family was so “appalled and embarrassed” that they’ve all rejected him—except his dad, mom, and sister, who take turns sending him $18 a month to buy toiletries and a few food items. He’s been in prison two years and never had a visit. His wife? Well, just a month after his arrest, she wrote to John to tell him she was dating a “great new guy” who “the children love more than they ever loved you.”

After one of my weekly visits, John asked me if I liked the visits. What?!? He said that his parents (divorced—living in Washington and Florida) were planning a possible visit this coming spring. John says it stresses him out to even consider it—that he can’t imagine a visit going well. I reassured him that I could prepare him ahead of time with suggestions on how to help make it a good visit. John said, “I just wish I could experience the kind of love that your family has—just once.”

Well, John is one of the guys I’ve taken on as a “project”—someone I’m committed to investing in. Just this week, John joined the church choir. At his first practice, we gave him a three-verse solo for “Away in a Manger” in our Christmas Eve production. He’s a nervous wreck but excited to be involved.

My choir guys have warmly received him, and John is coming out of his shell. I spent some one-on-one time working with him at the piano this last Tuesday, and I’ve decided to include him in an a cappella quartet that is singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” with me, James, and the Choir Director, Darryl. His humility and enthusiasm make him perfect for the tedious extra hours of practice that will be needed in the next few days.

John attended church with me today, and I introduced him to many of my friends: “Keith, this is my buddy, John,” etc. As the baptistry was being prepared, John told me he’d decided to be baptized: “I was baptized as an infant, but this is my decision,” he told me.

I took him up front, quickly added his name to the list with five other guys (including my pal from Delano, Mike Guerra, who had taken over the Bible Study when I left). John knows what baptism means here: you’re seriously sold out to Christ. It’s a big step.

John made wrong choices that led him here. Along the way, he’s faced rough relationships and rejection. But now, coming to the foot of the cross, he’s been welcomed with open arms into God’s family, choosing to forgive and be forgiven, and moving ahead. I’m privileged to be here to experience John’s first real Christmas … as part of my family.

I love you all.