Jeffrey Leonard never expected to be free from a lifelong cycle of crime and addiction. He envisioned himself going back behind the walls every time he was released. “The first thing I’d do when I left prison was buy a gun,” he confesses.
Softening a Stubborn Heart
Jeffrey candidly admits that his stupidity and hardheadedness prevented him from ever considering changing his ways. The 65-year old began a long career in crime when he was just a teenager breaking into a gas station to rebel against his dad.
The crimes worsened as the years passed. Jeffrey’s forgery, drinking and driving, and parole violations kept him bouncing back and forth between Texas and Louisiana prisons.
When a robbery went awry and the store clerk got hurt, Jeffrey got 30 years behind bars – his longest sentence yet. But the time behind bars didn’t faze him. He had already resigned himself to a fate of revolving in and out of prison gates until his final breath.
Jeffrey didn’t think he could ever change his ways – and he was right. Only God could change his stubborn heart – even if it would take two decades!
Giving up Crime for Christ
Twenty years and 13 parole rejections after he was incarcerated for his role in the robbery, Jeffrey couldn’t understand what was holding him back from release. He had taken all the rehabilitation classes and was 30 credits shy of a bachelor’s degree. “I was doing all the right things, but I just wasn’t making parole for some reason,” he says.
That reason crystallized when the chaplain approached Jeffrey and told him Prison Fellowship had accepted him into the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a values-centered prisoner reentry program based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Confused, Jeffrey told him he had never submitted an application. He didn’t even know what the program was!
Ready to jump on any opportunity that could get him closer to parole, Jeffrey enrolled right away. Soon he was transferred to the IFI unit in Texas, where the inmates greeted him with open arms and hearts.
“If I didn’t have those guys welcoming me and saying ‘God bless you,’ I wouldn’t have had nobody,” Jeffrey says.
Jeffrey always considered himself a Christian. But through the in-prison ministry, Jeffrey learned that it would take more than just believing in God for his ways to change. So he made the commitment to give up his life of crime entirely to follow Christ.
He even created and memorized his own mission statement to reflect his renewed life: “The Lord is the navigator of my heart. I will follow His lead and do His will,” he shares.
Through the help of Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers, Jeffrey stopped making excuses and blaming his dad for the decisions he made. Once a loner, Jeffrey gained a support network of godly men who helped him in his walk with the Lord.
“Before I was addicted to alcohol, now I’m addicted to the Lord,” he says.
Jeffrey completed the in-prison portion of IFI program after two years. And then a miracle happened – he was granted parole! At 65 years old, Jeffrey discovered that it’s never too late for a second chance with Jesus – he had new life thanks to the grace of God!
The last time he walked out of a prison gate, Jeffrey didn’t reach for a gun. Instead, he reached for God! “This time I got out of prison, I gave thanks to the Lord for opening that gate,” he says, “because that’s who brought me out.”
Now a caretaker at an adult-living facility, Jeffrey attends an IFI-Prison Fellowship “bridge church” that welcomes recently released men and women. “If I wasn’t being so close to the Lord as I am right now, I’d be lost,” he says.
“I’ve been a knucklehead my whole life,” Jeffrey admits. But now, redeemed, renewed, and released through Jesus Christ, Jeffrey adds with confidence, “I know I’m going to make it this time.”
How You Can Pray
Jeffrey has never seen his grandchildren, who live thousands of miles away. Please pray that God will reconcile him with his family and give Jeffrey the opportunity to bestow some grandfatherly advice to his grandkids: “I’d testify to them what to do and what not to do. I’m a living example that my ways don’t work.”