Tony Chantaca, 16, jumped from the stolen car in the wash of flashing blue lights. Mind clouded with inhalants, legs pumping against the asphalt, he ran. A policeman, hot behind him, sprang and tackled the teenager to the ground. Tony fought to pry the officer’s gun from its holster. But before he could press the barrel to the officer’s chest, another officer struck Tony from behind. The world went dark.
Tony’s troubles started early. When Tony was eight, his father took him from his grandparents’ home in Chicago to live in Dallas—a change that Tony resented. Though he had been a bright student, his grades at the magnet middle school plummeted, and he got in racial fights over his black girlfriend. “Every week,” remembers Tony, “I had to bring a note home explaining my bad behavior . . . But it didn’t seem to deter me.”
By the time Tony was 14, his father’s second marriage was careering toward divorce. Tony’s step-mom incited the adolescent to increasingly rebellious behavior. She would give the boy a car with a full gas tank and tell him, “Be home by dawn.”
Tony reconnected with his middle school girlfriend, an addict. He soon started sharing in her dangerous behavior and stole to feed a growing drug dependence. He often ran from home. Whenever he went missing, his father trawled the streets all night in search of him. “Then, I didn’t realize that he loved me,” says Tony. “I didn’t realize that he was showing me all he knew as a man . . . What I’ve grown to understand is that my father never gave up on me. He always came to get me.”
One night when he was on the run, Tony and two friends ran out of drug money. To get it, they robbed seven convenience stores with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. “We just wanted play money,” remembers Tony.
At the seventh store, the cashier reached for the phone. The boy wielding the shotgun fired, and the clerk went down, a red stain blooming on his flank.
After he was arrested for the convenience store robberies, Tony was released to his father’s custody pending trial. Before long he ran again, hiding from both his father and the police.
On February 1, 1989, high on inhalants, Tony fled from police officers in a stolen vehicle. Apprehended, he was certified to stand trial as an adult. In addition to charges stemming from the crime spree, Tony was charged with theft and aggravated assault of an officer. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in the Texas Department of Corrections.
When Lightning Strikes
As a child of four or five, Tony remembers standing in church and reciting verses about salvation in Christ. But a decade later, as he sat behind bars, whatever faith he possessed had dwindled to a faint memory of brimstone and catechisms.
“I was 16 going on 17,” he says, “and I wasn’t going to be nobody’s fool.” A hothead since his middle school brawls, he fought frequently with adult prisoners and earned the nickname of “Radical.”
Prison only honed his criminality; after 10 years of incarceration, he lasted four months on his first parole. Tony returned to a hole that no light penetrated—until lightning struck.
Tony’s pregnant Aunt Tina was hit by a lightning bolt at a family picnic. Though she survived, doctors recommended terminating her pregnancy. Tony’s Aunt Margie offered God her life if He spared Tina’s child. When Tina delivered a healthy boy, Margie surrendered her life to Christ.
Margie and her husband, Mark, began to visit Tony in prison, driving long hours from their home once or twice a month. He scoffed at their mention of a caring God, demanding, “Where is Jesus now? Where was Jesus during all of my trials?”
But their perseverant compassion began to wear down his defenses. “God started giving me a soft heart,” says Tony. “Things started changing.”
Tony began to pray before parole hearings. Repeatedly denied parole, he would give up on God with each adverse decision. But God never gave up on him.
One day, Tony got a call to come to the prison chapel. The grandfather with whom he had lived in Chicago, suffering from terminal cancer, was entering his last moments. The warden had agreed to allow grandfather and grandson one final phone call. Tony’s grandfather was unresponsive, but Tony talked to him anyway. Soon his aunt got on the phone. “What are you saying to him?” she asked Tony. “His heart rate is up and he’s moving.” Tony had made his grandfather this promise: “The next time I get home, I’ll be the man you always wanted me to be. I won’t let you or God down again.”
“Tired of the Games”
In 2006 Tony reviewed his note card with scripted statements to impress the interviewer at yet another parole hearing. But instead he threw it away; for the first time, he approached God without conditions.
“I’m tired of the games,” he confessed. “If I serve the rest of my term, that’s fine. I want to know the power that’s behind the people who come into prison to visit me. I don’t know what to say in my hearing. Just help me.”
Tony was shocked when he was offered parole and his choice of reentry programs: nine months of drug rehab or 18 months in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI), a reentry program developed by Prison Fellowship and based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
Though tempted by the shorter program, Tony remembered his request of God. Here was his chance to meet the Power behind his Aunt Margie and others. Breaking down in tears of surrender in the holding area, he went back in the office and asked to be sent to IFI.
“God Never Turns His Back.”
“He was just a different person,” marvels Margie, remembering the first time she visited Tony in IFI. On the four-hour drive back home, Margie and Mark wept tears of gratitude.
Tony grew to know God in IFI’s structured, values-centered environment. He also learned to release the pain of his childhood and to understand the consequences of his own choices. And when his business plan won at an IFI business fair, “it amazed me, and it gave me a new viewpoint of my capabilities.”
After his release Tony continued IFI’s post-prison phase. After a difficult job hunt, he finally found employment with Artifex Technology and was promoted to project manager. “I would trust him with anything,” says Artifex owner Jacob Cervantes.
Tony also married Annie Cervantes, a relative of Jacob, and became an instant father to her 11-year-old, Nathan, soon followed by baby Giovanni.
Giovanni’s birth left an awestruck Tony determined to make it on the outside. “Two nights ago,” says the dad, “I was holding Giovanni and the thought crossed my mind if there was a way I could earn some fast money. But he was just looking at me . . . and I realized that my son will look to me as the example.”
For his own example, Tony can look to his father, about to celebrate eight years of sobriety. They talk daily. Tony “understands what life is now,” says his father.
Tony helps to sustain other IFI graduates in his area. He has gone out in the middle of the night to change a flat tire, coordinated food donations for a hungry family, and even stood up as the best man at an IFI member’s wedding. He dreams of doing even more for other ex-prisoners, but for now he ministers to his family as a father and husband. Despite some transitional struggles, Annie says he’s doing “excellent.”
Day by day, he looks to God for strength because, no matter how far Tony ran in the past, “God never turns His back.”