On one of my last Saturdays of high school, I drove myself to the state prison. With fingers crossed behind my back, I surrendered my freedom. But I had no skin in the game; this was a risk-free elective assignment for my civics class.

DeShon Lawrence has been at Walker State Prison for over six years. He’s served 27 years of a life sentence, long-ago completing the two-year character program at the prison. Today he is a mentor to new residents, a teacher’s aid, and facilitates the Lifers Bible study.

I was led into the prison chapel and locked inside with a dozen guys wearing the emotional scars of their recent arrests. Our hosts were grim, muscled inmates who wasted no time intimating that they were in control—dressing down each of the youths who were there by court order and tricking the high school students into breaking the rules of engagement we’d promised the guards to uphold. I left the prison fascinated yet detached. I’d felt the same about touring a dairy farm or a soft drink bottling company—it was neat to see but had nothing to do with me.

Thirty years and 921 miles down the road, I returned to prison. And like the first time, I was escorted into a dark chapel to sit in a folding chair. Across from me sat an inmate, wearing stark white prison garb from his neck to his ankles.

DeShon Lawrence has been in prison about as long as the gap between my visits. He was bursting to talk about the faith- and character-based program at this prison, the role the Messenger plays in his daily life, and the joy he receives from pouring into the lives of new arrivals.

DeShon answered my questions in such a soft voice that I had to lean in to hear every word. “I tell them all the time that I thank God for bringing me to prison,” he said, “Because it saved my life.”

After the interview—when we stood in better lighting—I noticed the white speckled throughout DeShon’s hair. He was older than he looked, and when I asked his age, we discovered we were just months apart. His incarceration began in April 1991—one of my last Fridays of college. When I peel back the years, an album of milestones dances before me: one job leading to another, becoming a career; one date leading to another, becoming a marriage; one child leading to another, until I’ve become a father to five. These are the moments DeShon has missed.

“One of the things I didn’t mention,” he told me as we stood talking, “I have a 27-year-old son. He’s a college graduate. Two college degrees, man.” He shook his head, like he was still having trouble believing it. “I think I imparted in his life that your life is your own. I wrote him all the time to try to steer him clear.”

Inmates stand at attention next to their bunks in one of six dormitories at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. At this character-based prison, their personal items are secured in locker boxes with paper locks, an acknowledgement that they are living in community. (There are approximately 400 inmates in the prison.)

There’s gravity to his words—a consequence of the heavy doors and bars that keep him confined to his thoughts, so that nothing gets said that hasn’t first been parsed for untold hours. I know what it’s like to keep company with an internal dialogue that can be sharp and accusatory, prone to get stuck in an unforgiving groove. But how does it feel when every day is framed by your worst choices?

My idea of how my life ought to look and how to be a father was always just across the dinner table from me, or behind the wheel of our car. I never had to look for family or try to earn my place. But this was a luxury DeShon didn’t have, and so he went into the world and on to the streets to find it.

Was he set up to fail, and I set up to succeed? There’s no accurate tally of how many advantages my youthful life had when compared with his. If this life were our only measure of things, how unfair it would seem. But Scripture tells of a future when we will no longer groan in our earthly tent. It’s a future when all things will become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). And we walk in it even now, albeit with eyes veiled (2 Corinthians 3:14). This future was secured by a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3), who in not counting our sins against us, reconciled us to God.

I was wrong to think that those men in prison all those years ago had nothing to do with me. In Christ, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. And just as He brought us to the Father, we must implore others to come, using love and time for currency. We do this because Christ loved us, and because even if they have very different stories, they have everything to do with me.

  John VandenOever

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