For a while, Rena seemed to have her life together. She was employed, attending college, and had a car. But under a façade of pride, Rena longed for a sense of wholeness she'd never known.
Growing up in an abusive family made it easy to put up with mistreatment from boyfriends later. "He would lock me in a trailer," Rena remembers of one boyfriend. "I thought these things were normal. I thought this was OK, because I didn't know any different."
The father of her four kids drank heavily and had a drug habit. Before long, Rena tried some—and became addicted. She sank deeper into drug dependence after she and her brother were in a car accident that left her brother dead.
"I thought these things were normal.
I thought this was OK, because I didn't know any different."
Searching anywhere for hope, Rena turned to the Bible. She realized how much she longed for a friend like Jesus. "I just wanted somebody to tell me that I had value," says Rena, "and tell me to stop sticking a needle in my arm."
"After reading the Bible for a year, I knew God was telling me to live more like Jesus," she adds. "I heard His voice, and I felt His Spirit with me. But I wasn't perfect, and I still chose to be disobedient to Him."
That disobedience continued with a new habit: shoplifting. She went to jail over a dozen times throughout her 20s. The final straw was the day she went to steal a fifth of vodka from the store.
"I felt something inside me telling me, 'No,' and I didn't listen," Rena says. "Now I know it was the Holy Spirit telling me."
But Rena went her own way. This time, her choices would send her to prison.
DESPERATE FOR HOPE
Rena's eyes brimmed with tears as she stepped onto the yard at Arizona State Prison Complex–Perryville. She thought of the little ones she had put up for adoption. She thought of how long she'd been shackled to addiction, living under a mask of pride when her real desire was for freedom, love, and hope. She was desperate for anything that might turn her life around.
Who's going to love a prisoner? Rena thought. Who would want me? Who would accept me?
When she heard about the Prison Fellowship Academy™, an intensive, biblically based life-transformation program, she eagerly applied and was accepted. Over several months, caring staff and volunteers patiently walked her through the program. Before each meeting, volunteers and students would worship God together through songs—one of Rena's favorite parts of the program.
"I have identity and value as an individual and a person."
In Academy classes, mentors guided Rena to target criminal thinking and behavior, addictions, life skills, and more. They helped her process difficult questions about identity and purpose. For the first time in a long time, she started to feel hopeful.
"It's amazing to see the support," says Rena. "[Volunteers] cared and showed they sincerely love me. That shows me … I have identity and value as an individual and a person."
Through it all, she experienced something bigger than herself, and that would change her forever. The mask of pride was peeling off, revealing a heart that had opened to Christ.
"[God’s love] … that's what saves us," says Rena. "My heart changed. … I grew to be humble, letting the Spirit move in my life, learning it's not about me anymore."
RENA'S NEW BEGINNING
After two and a half years in prison, Rena was released to a Christian halfway house. She continued her recovery and met regularly with her mentor, Brenda, who guided her through the challenges of reentry. Brenda's daughter and son-in-law even gave Rena her first car.
"She's very responsible," shares Brenda. "… I'm just really proud of what she's become. She's very humble and trustworthy."
Rena learned to rely on God during the challenges of reentry, and she saw His grace in so many ways. When someone t-boned her car, she received a replacement from a generous local church. When she wondered how her children were doing, she learned through their adopted mother that they were well and even knew Christ as their Savior. When she was ready to date, she found a Christian man who loves, values, and respects her.
Today Rena is living proof of second chances. She rents her own apartment, works for a newspaper company, and is actively involved in her church. In addition, she works part-time at Along Side Ministries, helping other women reenter society after incarceration. She also plans to go back to college to become a Christian counselor or chaplain. And she's not shy about sharing her new hope and identity in Christ:
I've lived a life of poverty and nothingness. A life of alcoholism and addiction. A life of being abused, having no husband, watching my own brother dying in my arms, having my children taken away from me, feeling unwanted and unworthy. God opened up a new beginning for me, saying, 'That is not you. Your identity is so much more. I love you.'
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