Chew was an infant when his parents moved their family of seven to the United States from Laos. His childhood home stood on a main street in St. Paul, Minnesota, just a few houses away from a fire station. Every night, he heard fire truck sirens wailing as they passed, their lights glaring through his windows.
He was young the first time he saw police lights flashing in front of his house. When officers came to the door for his brother who was caught up in crime, Chew was caught up in the excitement. "Not understanding why, or what it was for … I wasn't shocked or scared," he admits. "It was just fascinating."
A string of bad decisions led Chew to juvenile centers in his mid-teens. He found a sense of belonging in gangs. Living "free" on the street and running from the law, he chased the highs of money, power, and drugs for years.
This wasn't the American Dream his parents had crossed an ocean to find. This wasn't the freedom they had hoped for.
"I'd become so accustomed to that life," Chew admits. "… It wasn't frightening, until … I finally realized that life that I was living, it wasn't the life that I thought it would be."
This wasn't the American Dream his parents had crossed an ocean to find.
This wasn't the freedom they had hoped for.
A RUDE AWAKENING
Prison wasn't an immediate wake-up call, even though Chew ended up staring down nearly 40 years behind bars for second-degree murder. The reality of prison took years to set in.
Chew's children were 5, 3, and 2 when he left for prison. They didn't fully understand what kept their father away, but they learned to adjust. While they grew up without their dad, Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® made a pathway for the family to connect at Christmas. Chew's children received gifts in their father's name, delivered by volunteers, through Angel Tree ministry.
"I wasn't the best communicator, father figure," Chew remembers. "But [my kids and I] always had a connection. … There was always a close-knit, tight relationship."
Chew began evaluating other areas of his life, in addition to fatherhood. He had been a steady follower of shamanism for years, but it left him spiritually empty.
Eventually, the novelty of prison wore off, and Chew began to feel the loss of his freedom. He had never felt more alone. "I finally realized that life that I was living wasn't the life that I thought it would be," he explains. "The sentence, the law enforcement, the whole legal system started to have an effect on me. I was living on the wrong side. I was doing the wrong thing. … My reality of what life looked like, before a prison term, was like a false impression. So, that was my rude awakening."
'I wasn't the best communicator, father figure, but [my kids and I] always had a connection. …
There was always a close-knit, tight relationship.'
THE PATH TO CHANGE AND PURPOSE
Chew didn't know where to begin, but he needed a new path. He took steps to quit smoking, drinking, and using drugs. He walked away from his gang and even questioned his religion.
"I was walking by myself, on a journey," Chew says. Soon he gave up shamanism entirely. "I stopped [practicing]. But I wasn't searching for another faith; I was just searching for myself."
Chew had an opportunity to interview for the Prison Fellowship Academy®, a 12-month program guiding prisoners to take ownership of their transformation. The Academy teaches men and women to lead lives of purpose inside and outside of prison. Chew enrolled in the site at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Lino Lakes, knowing he would regret not taking the chance.
When Chew joined the Academy, he focused on educating himself. He had more to learn about living free than he realized. Chew discovered deep-rooted identity issues he’d never faced. He reflected on his addictions and habits that imprisoned him. "[The Academy] helped me understand why I chose to do some of those things," he says. "I was seeking to find myself. Drinking, drugs, the gang, women, money, power, pride … I thought that that was who I [was]. It made me who I [was]."
Chew paid close attention to the Academy program counselors and what they taught. Witnessing their compassion and sincerity astonished him. He believed their words were true. They exuded the kind of confidence and love that Chew wanted, and in time, he found a new sense of identity and peace.
"[How volunteers] nurture us, and guide us through this journey … it touched me in such a way that nobody or anything has ever touched me," says Chew. "So, that was my 'aha!' moment, to be open to Christ."
'I wasn't searching for another faith;
I was just searching for myself.'
Chew didn't join the Academy intending to adopt a new faith. The program became a safe place for deep conversations about faith, and program staff patiently fielded Chew's questions. And Christ became real to him like never before.
In December 2012, Chew accepted Christ Savior. Eventually he was looking at an early release date. Now, he had inner freedom, regardless of circumstances. Every day awaiting release became "just another day."
Upon release, Chew was eager to be home with family and left prison with a new dream and fresh hope. He sought guidance from Christian friends and mentors to keep him on track.
Today, Chew still lives in Minnesota, working and regularly serving his community. In St. Paul, he leads a weekly reentry program for more than 30 people. He mentors several Academy graduates who were recently released from prison. On some weekends, Chew supports his sister's plant nursery, helping her sell floral wreaths at a local farmers market.
Chew thrives on discovering how to be a loving brother, a better father, and a humble man. He says that's the joy of living free—always learning, always growing.
God helped me to understand, to enjoy life for what it's worth, whether I was inside the walls, a fence, or out here [in society], and that was free.
He freed me, internally.
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