Anthony was going to prison, and God was going with him.
When Pastor John Panico boarded a plane to New York for his friend Anthony's sentencing in February 2017, he carried with him a letter written for the judge on Anthony's behalf. It wasn't the first time Anthony had been at the mercy of a judge. He'd spent time in prison for importing heroin 20 years prior.
But this time, something had changed.
John says, "There are some people who are upset that they got caught. What I saw with Anthony was different."
SEARCHING FOR SIGNIFICANCE
Anthony had searched for significance in all the wrong places. Growing up in Queens, he started burglarizing homes with an older friend at just 13. Fueled by the allure of wealth and power, Anthony would eventually become involved in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in Long Island history. Meanwhile, he was "playing church," but keeping God at a distance.
"Looking back, I know I always felt God's hand tugging on my life, even though at that time I had no clue who He really was," Anthony explains.
Once the Ponzi scandal came to light and his business empire crumbled, Anthony fled to Florida intending to start afresh. For a while, it looked like he had succeeded—Anthony landed a new job and joined a church. But he still had to deal with the consequences of his past, and one morning in April 2012, he found the FBI outside his gym waiting to indict him.
Anthony was taken into custody while he awaited sentencing for charges related to the Ponzi scheme.
"I was missing my son tremendously. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming. I remember being in a cell by myself and just crying out to God … then I finally stopped to listen to Him. I could hear God say, 'Great, you are going to Bible studies and going to church. But I want your heart, your commitment. Your life is not your own. I want your story to show what I can do with your life. I want you.'"
While awaiting his trial, Anthony sought Christ and shared his faith with others behind bars. Soon he discovered that his facility participated in Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship® that connects prisoners and their children and helps to strengthen family bonds. Every Christmas, Angel Tree volunteers deliver gifts, the Gospel, and a message of love to children on behalf of their mom or dad in prison.
"I admired the mission behind it and was drawn to it," Anthony remembers. No longer driven by selfish gain, he participated in Angel Tree sign-ups, helping other parents register their children to receive a gift on their behalf.
"I knew in my heart that prison ministry is where God wanted me to serve," says Anthony. "As I prayed, it was clear that Prison Fellowship and Angel Tree were who I needed to serve with."
Then Anthony was released on bond with help from his family. He called it a miracle. As soon as he was allowed to remove his ankle monitor, he reached out to Prison Fellowship—this time, for the chance to serve on the outside.
Anthony volunteered with Prison Fellowship throughout his entire pretrial period. He stepped up as an Angel Tree coordinator for Palm Beach County and recruited churches to partner with Angel Tree. "They granted me the opportunity with open arms," Anthony says. "I felt extremely privileged at the opportunity then and still do now."
At Calvary Chapel in Delray Beach, Anthony connected with people like Pastor John Panico and began working with troubled youth and adults. "He was just really not wanting to see people go down the same path that he did," John recalls.
Finally, in February 2017, where Anthony received a sentence date after having pleaded guilty to his charges. As John recalled, Anthony's sincerity was instantly apparent.
"When Anthony went in there, the prosecutors were on his side," shares John. "They were giving him hugs—even people who were leading the investigation. You would've thought they were representing him."
Anthony prays with Angel Tree kids.
SERVING TIME, SERVING GOD
That following May, Anthony reported to a federal prison camp in South Carolina to begin his sentence. By November, he had transitioned to a halfway house, much sooner than expected. Then came home confinement. Then ... freedom.
"That season was a time to heal and to spend time with God," Anthony says. "He made it clear that He had bigger plans for me and comforted me with a sense of assurance. I am very thankful and determined to move forward in God's will. This is a glimpse of God's story—God's transforming power through organizations like Prison Fellowship."
Transformed and restored, Anthony is now spreading God's Word wherever he is—whether it's Angel Tree Christmas or Angel Tree Sports Clinic™, or Calvary Chapel, where he serves as an elder. He currently is studying at South Florida Bible College and Seminary to earn his master's in divinity. He also volunteers as a Justice Ambassador with Prison Fellowship's advocacy team to support justice that restores.
Anthony is making the most of his second chance, John says: "He came up to me a few years ago and asked, 'Do you think it would be possible that God has called me to preach the Gospel?' I said, 'Absolutely.' I saw a calling on his life immediately and a heart for Jesus."
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