“I was born to Sixto and Yolanda Carrion in the age of heroin.”
Thus begins the story of the Dr. Rev. Michael Carrion, an energetic man hustling between meetings in the Bronx, where he is the senior pastor of a church and the CEO of a charter school. Raising his voice above the clamor of a passing train, he goes backward in his memory, back to the time in his early childhood when his parents cooked heroin on the kitchen stove.
“My sister and I were the ploys,” he says. His addict parents would knock on the doors of elderly apartment residents and ask if young Michael, 5, and his two-year-old sister, Latischer, could use the bathroom or get a drink of water. Once inside, the adults would tie up their victims and ransack the residence for valuables.
After one of their victims had a heart attack and died – in front of young Michael and Latischer – the children’s parents were arrested and sentenced to prison.
Michael and Latischer went to stay with their grandparents, Puerto Rican immigrants living in Spanish Harlem.
Young Michael felt awash in abandonment and fear. What did I do? Is this my fault? he asked himself.
“He Brought Jesus”
One day, an African-American man knocked on the door of the Carrion home. He was a volunteer serving with Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship®, and he carried presents for the children – a board game for Michael and a doll for Latischer – both delivered on behalf of their incarcerated father.
They loved the gifts, but Michael remembers most what happened next.
“Daddy loves you, and so does Jesus,” the volunteer reassured the hurting children. Then he got down on his knees and prayed for the Carrion family.
“I felt the presence of Jesus come into that hallway,” says Michael. “[The Angel Tree volunteer] didn’t just drop off a gift; he brought Jesus into my life.”
An Unexpected Connection
Despite the annual blessing of Angel Tree deliveries, Michael continued to struggle with resentment toward his parents, who revolved in and out of prison. He developed an addiction to cocaine, a curse only broken when he enrolled in Teen Challenge, a Christian recovery program for troubled youth. Michael gave his life to Christ, was trained as a minister, and began a successful and varied career.
Michael crossed paths with Angel Tree again in the early 1990s while serving as a youth pastor. The senior pastor of his church instructed him to contact Ken Bell, a Prison Fellowship director in New York, so that their congregation could get involved in Angel Tree.
Michael didn’t associate Prison Fellowship with the volunteer who prayed in his home, until he dialed Ken’s number and introduced himself.
“Michael Carrion. Michael Carrion,” Ken repeated back. “Is your first name Sixto?”
Stunned, Michael replied that yes, his legal name was Sixto, just like his father’s.
“I knew your father when he was in Green Haven and Sing Sing!” said Ken. “He was used mightily behind the walls to preach and teach.”
The hairs on Michael’s spine stood up as he realized that Prison Fellowship had ministered to his father in prison and had facilitated the Angel Tree program that blessed him so many years before.
A Family Reconciles
After that phone call, Michael began to serve Angel Tree children in his community.
But the story of his own Angel Tree family, full of pain, was not yet complete.
Even as an adult, Michael remained estranged from his parents. He describes them as “institutionalized” people who went back to prison time and time again, unable to cope with the challenges of drug addiction and reentry into society.
“Crime and drugs has run heavily in my family,” he says. But, he notes, “so has the grace of God. How you start is not necessarily how you end.”
Michael’s mother, Yolanda, finally stayed out of prison with help from a local reentry organization. She went to work there, and by the time of her death in 2004, she earned a six-figure income lecturing across the country and managing government contracts.
Michael’s father, Sixto, walked into Michael’s church one day in 2007. He told his son that he had terminal cancer, initiating a period of grief and loss, but also a time of profound reconciliation and joy. Sixto expressed the love and pride he felt in his firstborn son, emotions he had never expressed before.
“The last two years of my father’s life were the best years of our relationship,” reflects Michael.
Growing up in poverty with two incarcerated parents, Michael knows that the deck was stacked against him. When people hear about his background, they often ask how he ever survived, much less thrived.
Michael has a ready answer: “I don’t think I would be doing anything I’m doing today if it weren’t for someone willing to drop off a gift and say, ‘Daddy loves you. Jesus loves you.’ A generational curse was broken that day.”