Michael Vander Horst still recalls the sound of rain on the roof of his Chevy Cavalier, the night of his crime years ago. The night of the burglary that changed everything. The car was stuck in the mud, and the passenger’s seat was empty. Will, his partner in crime, stood across the driveway, pointing a pistol at the young couple who had just returned home.
No one was physically hurt that night, but life as Michael knew it was over. After a brief time on the run, Michael spent months in county jail. In a plea deal, he finally told the truth about what he and Will had done, despite the pressure normally felt by those behind bars not to inform on their accomplices.
I was not prepared for maximum security prison. When the metal cell door clanged behind me, I was locked in with a complete stranger, in a room the size of a broom closet, for 21 hours a day. There was no TV or radio to distract me. … For long hours of the day, I lay stretched out on my bunk, thinking about my life and how I got here.
Lost and alone, Michael hated watching his parents pass through metal detectors on visits, their shoes being searched for contraband. Tearfully they told their son, "We love you," in a room full of watchful eyes, and his pain only grew. Soon he couldn't stand his own reflection in the mirror.
And every day for a decade, he lived looking over his shoulder for Will, knowing one day they might meet again.
'I was not prepared for maximum security prison.'
AN UNEXPECTED MEETING
It was a snowy night on the Muskegon prison yard, when, under halogen floodlights, Michael saw Will approaching and braced himself. Because Michael had agreed to the plea deal 10 years before, Will was serving even more prison time.
I knew that one of us would be leaving in an ambulance that night. There was no other way out. … But something happened. Will asked me to forgive him. To forgive him? He told me that he had wanted to kill me for years. But now, he had accepted Jesus in his heart and wanted to ask forgiveness for ruining my life. Ruining my life? Nearly speechless, I nodded my head and left the yard, not knowing what to believe. I chose to believe Will, to believe forgiveness was real, and to believe I could forgive myself, believe I could love myself and others. These choices became the vehicle of my own transformation.
While at Muskegon, Michael enrolled in the Prison Fellowship Academy® to continue his transformation journey. With evidence-based practices and life-changing curriculum, Academy participants develop and practice the biblically based values of Good CitizenshipSM.
I found a new identity in Christ, and my faith was real for the first time. This was not about sacraments or legalistically checking off boxes. This faith was a simple call … to love because all people are created in the image of God. This was not just theology—it was real.
Michael left prison with a new set of values and God-given purpose. Having learned the importance of Christ-centered community from the Academy, he got involved in a church on the outside and took a job in full-time ministry. At church, he met Alisha and married her about a year later. Reentry had brought many blessings.
It also brought challenging roadblocks.
'This faith was a simple call … to love because all people are created in the image of God.'
TAKING STEPS TO SERVE
Not long after their honeymoon, Michael and Alisha stopped by Biggby Coffee in Owosso, Mich.. They sat and talked about next steps for Michael's career and God's will for their family. Michael felt prompted to ask the barista, who was steaming milk for drinks, if Biggby was hiring. Before long, Michael stood behind the counter wearing a Biggby apron and taking orders.
A coffee shop. A former prisoner. Michael realized ministry doesn't always look like a pastor speaking at a pulpit.
There were amazing opportunities each day to interact with my community and to love people. I wasn't trying to get anyone to do anything. I was just able to love people. Love them for who they were, wherever they were at in their life. This felt like purpose, and I was able to just be me.
Michael excelled as a barista, not only serving coffee, but also serving customers with the love and joy of Christ. But the reality of life hit hard. He had bills to pay and a future to plan for, especially if he and Alisha were going to have children. The couple had been preparing to move to a new home. Soon, Michael accepted an HVAC job and put in his two weeks' notice at Biggby. On one of his final shifts, Michael shared his life story with Kyle, the franchise owner.
During his first week at the new job, Michael sat in a packed moving truck and went to turn the key in the ignition, when his cell phone rang. It was Kyle, offering Michael a position as general manager at a new Biggby location. Michael accepted.
'I was just able to love people. Love them for who they were, wherever they were at in their life.'
THE POWER OF A SECOND CHANCE
Even with the job at Biggby, Michael kept seeking next steps in his career.
I went into temp agencies, and they found out I was a felon. They told me, 'Oh, you can only come in on Wednesdays from 10 to 11 to apply.' And I'd say, 'I'm here right now.' They're like, 'No, people like you come on Wednesdays from 10 to 11.'
There's a lot of movement towards equality in different areas, but when it comes to people that are returned citizens, we're still the lowest echelon in society. You check 'boxes,' and you can get denied employment, and [it] doesn’t matter how long ago [your crime] was. It didn't matter that [my crime] was 14 years earlier.
The challenges Michael faced were taxing. In time, his position led to another opportunity at Biggby's corporate headquarters in Lansing. He had proved his worth and excelled in a management training program. Still, when he applied to work in Biggby's sales department, he didn't hold his breath.
I didn't have sales experience. I didn't have a whole lot going for me, other than I knew the system, I knew our stores, I knew about the brand, I was passionate about coffee. [Still] when it was all done, they took the chance. It's been a hard year of training and learning in sales … You're always learning.
Last year, at a franchise meeting, Michael shared his story for an audience of hundreds—a full room of franchise owners, managers, baristas. He imagined the questions that arose in their minds as they listened. What does a second chance mean? Do "convicted criminals" deserve a second chance?
But they didn't just see Michael as a "convicted criminal." They embraced the man who stood before them, proof of the power of second chances.
They didn't just see Michael as a 'convicted criminal.' They embraced the man who stood before them, proof of the power of second chances.
LIVING BY GRACE
Michael treasured his colleagues' responses to his testimony:
This is part of your story. It's part of our story. It's not something that anybody has to be ashamed of. We believe in second chances.
To Michael, a second chance is freedom. It's hope. He admits that it hasn't been a smooth ride. Michael struggled with things many people don't think twice about, from big cultural shifts to using an iPhone. He just learned what Instagram is. "Social media wasn't a thing before," he mused.
But Michael takes it all in stride. He still remembers that snowy night on a prison yard, the moment he was surprised by grace from someone who had every reason to hate him. But that's how he tries to live today: by grace, one step at a time.
As a prisoner, you think you’re living a good life. Like you're [living] 'right' at the Academy. You're doing everything you can, following the Lord. You think you're pretty well adjusted, but you don't realize all of the work God has to do in you and how little you know. I mean, that's the humbling part of the last few years. … You're still just catching up.
That's how Michael tries to live today: by grace, one step at a time.
THE DREAM MATERIALIZED
While Michael was climbing Biggby’s corporate ladder, he was also closing the cultural and technological knowledge gap he faced. Life was challenging but good.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Biggby laid off about two-thirds of its employees. Michael was one of them.
He considered starting his own business. Instead, he secured jobs doing everything from roofing and plumbing to delivering parcels and pizza. “I ended up getting a job at Planet Fitness as an assistant general manager, which was a pretty good position,” he says.
I went through seven different jobs because [I] was just trying to pay the bills and put food on the table. All that time, you're thinking about the guys back inside [prison]. You're thinking about the influence that Prison Fellowship had on you and all the different volunteers and the programming. There is a passion there to want to go back and to serve and to be a part of that.
But, Michael quickly learned that wasn’t what he wanted to do long-term. Although he had only been at Planet Fitness a few months, he admits, “[I had] been stalking the Prison Fellowship employment tab for a good five years. … I always thought, There's a few organizations I would love to work with. Prison Fellowship is one of them. But it was always the dream.”
So, when he saw an opening for an Academy graduate program manager, a newly created Prison Fellowship® role, he thought, I’ll put this [application] in. I don’t have anything to lose.
On April 5, 2021, Michael’s dream materialized. As an Academy graduate program manager, Michael will help to design the next phase of the journey for Academy graduates, so that they will be empowered as alumni to live out the Values of Good Citizenship TM in their communities. Michael says, “That's not just a dream fulfilled. It's a dream expanded.”
In some areas of his life, Michael may feel like he’s still catching up. But in his career, he’s climbing up.
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