Robert* was going home—if he could figure out how. An ex-prisoner who encountered Christ behind bars, he felt led upon release to start somewhere new. He sold his possessions, scrounged up $500, and set off in a donated van with no fixed destination. But the van broke down. When repairs cost over $499, Robert sat stranded on the Michigan-Indiana border with two quarters in his pocket, asking God what to do next.
Robert’s road home had begun decades earlier in a stoic Michigan farming community. Always the “odd man out” among his siblings, he suspected his parents of adopting him. Beginning at age eight, he suffered repeated sexual abuse, a violation that warped Robert’s sense of how to express affection and filled him with confused anger.
“I had no outlet for expressing what was happening. I had a lot of hidden rage, and I stuffed it down,” he recalls.
The abuse stopped only when Robert left for college. After graduation he sewed together a life, supporting his wife and adopted son through a tailoring business.
But Robert still carried his deeply lodged anger, and one day, he did the unthinkable. He committed a crime of sexual abuse that destroyed his family and thrust him behind bars.
“It was devastating to be uprooted from everything you know about what life is,” Robert recalls. ”But mostly I just missed my family. I was tormented by the knowledge of what I’d done . . . of the damage I had caused.”
The True Home
In prison, Christian inmates approached Robert with the Gospel, but “I wanted nothing to do with it,” he says. “I was hurting too much.”
Eventually, however, their genuine peace both attracted and astonished Robert. He wanted what they had.
“Lord,” he prayed, “I’m willing to do this, but it has to be 100 percent. It’s got to be real.”
Robert began to read the Bible and attend worship services. One worship service would change him profoundly.
During that service, Robert suddenly felt as though he were standing on the edge of a wide, deep cavern.
“My feet were hanging off the edge,” he recalls with gripping detail, even 16 years later, “I felt the Lord’s hand on my shoulder . . . He whispered to me, ‘If you would follow Me, you must jump.’ ‘Are You crazy?’ I answered. ‘I would be smashed to bits.’ And the Lord said, ‘If you jumped, you would never hit the bottom.’ ”
And then, Robert says, he finally understood the vision. Once he finally stepped out and fulfilled God’s purpose for his life, instead of following his own plans, everything he had relied on for security before—home, family, money—wouldn’t matter anymore. The Lord would be his only security, his true home.
“From that point,” he says, “my whole life radically changed.”
Soon Robert discovered Prison Fellowship. He joined a PF Bible study and, though transferred to various prisons within Michigan, he always found a PF presence. “The volunteers without exception were warm, caring people. It was like coming home to family,” he remembers.
Volunteer Dan Pearson became his friend and mentor. “Dan always came in and shared his personal life. I even met his wife a couple of times. I felt like they were close, personal friends, and Dan obviously felt the same way.” Even now, years later and miles apart, the two stay in touch.
Robert’s newfound faith helped him make the most of intensive sex offender therapy targeting the roots of his offense. “I was able to use the therapy available to my best advantage, only because I trusted Jesus to guide me through it intentionally,” he explains. “I am now aware of the anger and able to control it, rather than let it control me.”
After serving his sentence, Robert came out of prison in 2005. That’s when he felt pulled to set out in the van with $500. And that’s when he broke down.
Robert stayed with friends in a nearby town while pondering his next step. There he met a pastor who pointed out that churches—including his own—often assisted stranded travelers.
Now knowing where to get help, Robert set off again. He drove southwest, looking up churches in local telephone directories. He stopped at 32 in all, and each one helped him continue his journey.
The thirty-second church stood in Kingman, Arizona. Feeling an immediate affinity for the church and the town, Robert recognized God’s prompting to stay put.
Robert has lived in Kingman ever since. Today he’s thriving, but challenges have arisen as people have learned of his record. Mobile home parks have threatened to call the police. One church made the difficult choice to ban him from its campus; he left another voluntarily to avoid the sidelong glances. While temporarily homeless, he slept in the back of his van and failed to register an address, resulting in two years of probation—which he successfully completed.
But Robert has seen God at work amidst challenges and is finding a home at last. Robert joined a new church in Kingman through its Celebrate Recovery program—a 12-step, Christ-centered approach to break free of destructive habits. Weighing his past, the church discerned that Robert had experienced an authentic transformation and, within appropriate boundaries, posed no threat to their community. Since then, he says, “no one has said anything further to me about my past. Instead, several went out of their way to make me feel more welcome.”
Robert works to live a life victorious over his former offense. While on probation, he participated in relapse-prevention therapy for sexual offenders, exceeding the minimum requirements. Ann Rooney, his probation officer, was impressed. “Robert takes his recovery seriously,” she says.
Recently, Robert received a call from Ann. She had an ex-prisoner, Dennis*, coming out with no community connections. But she knew about Robert’s successful carpet-cleaning business and hoped Robert could give Dennis a job and “be a good influence.” While Robert could not employ Dennis full-time, he has provided Dennis with a cell phone, a car, and a listening ear.
After years behind bars, Robert could have hidden away from men like Dennis to banish painful memories, but his relationship with Christ demands more from him. “The person who went into prison was totally disconnected from the world and from himself,” he explains. “Now I know who I am and what my purpose is. Now I want other people to get to the same place of connection, whatever their circumstances are.”
Because God has shown this ex-prisoner the way home, his heart beats to do no less for others.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of ex-offenders, their families and their victims.