"Not too far from where I live there's a sign," Joe Avila says as he begins his story. "And it says, 'Please do not drink and drive.' And then there's a smaller sign underneath that reads, ‘In honor of Amy Wall.'"
Joe pauses briefly before speaking in a firm voice:
Amy Wall was a young lady that I killed in 1992 while driving drunk on the freeway.
It's a shocking statement, but Joe is calm. He explains how that tragic night brought an end to his life of alcoholism and addiction, yet it took the life of a teenage girl.
After the accident, Joe fled the scene. He does not remember that night, but he remembers what came afterward; he was booked for second-degree murder at the Fresno County Jail. In the days that followed, he was overcome by what he had done. "I was just looking for a way to kill myself," he says. "I was afraid, I was angry, [and] I was sad."
Two lives were destroyed the night Joe Avila killed Amy Wall, but God wouldn't let their story end there.
While preparing for his murder trial, Joe checked into a six-month sobriety program with the Salvation Army. It was there that, as Joe explains, God "put some people in my life who made me understand what reconciliation was and forgiveness was." A few months into the program, he came to a decision that would impact him, his family, and the Wall family, too.
Just before Easter of 1993, he entered the courthouse and changed his plea to "guilty."
Although Joe expressed remorse and went to rehab, the judge still had little faith that Joe was saved from his alcoholism. "I'm sentencing you to maximum time in prison, which is 12 years," the judge ruled, "and I just hope that you will change."
For the next seven and a half years, Joe was incarcerated at California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, California. Choosing to make the most of his life behind bars, Joe spent his time serving the prison's hospice patients. Through Prison Fellowship Angel TreeTM, Joe was able to remain a presence in his daughters' lives, creating a bond no bars could separate. And he served in the chapel, sharing the Gospel with his fellow prisoners—the highlight of his incarceration.
During his incarceration, Joe chose to make the most of his life behind bars.
On Jan. 6, 1999, Joe Avila went home to his family and friends.
Returning citizens face many hurdles when they first get out of prison. Having a strong community to support them is a must. Thankfully, New Hope Community Church was ready to welcome Joe and his family with open arms. "The pastor had been preparing the congregation for my return for several months," Joe says.
Oak trees surrounded the church. "Every one of those trees had a yellow ribbon around it," Joe recalls. "And there was a big banner at the entrance of the church that said, 'Welcome Home, Joe.'"
When Joe saw this, he knew that New Hope would become his home church, and he's been going ever since.
AN UNEXPECTED MEETING
Not long after Joe's release, his mentor called to say that Amy's brother, Derek, wanted to meet with him. For years Joe had prayed that God would help him reconcile with Amy's family. Even so, Joe was nervous about the meeting.
That first meeting with Derek was several hours long. Derek told Joe about all the things he and Amy used to do together, how much he loved her, and that he had thought Joe was a monster who should get the electric chair for what he had done.
But then Derek explained that his family had been following Joe's progress behind bars. They knew he was trying to make his life better.
Joe told Derek something he had long wanted to say: "I'm really sorry for what I've done, and I hope that someday you can forgive me."
Later, Joe's mentor called again. This time, Rick Wall, Amy's father, wanted to see Joe. During that meeting, something miraculous occurred.
Rick told Joe about the two days a year when he visits Amy's grave—on her birthday and the anniversary of her death. And then Rick said, "Joe, I know what you've been doing for a long time now, even when you were in prison, and I approve of it."
Joe's prayers for reconciliation were being answered. "Rick Wall, Amy's father, forgave me before I even asked him to forgive me," Joe says.
'Amy's father forgave me before I even asked him to forgive me.'
'A TESTAMENT TO THE MIRACLE OF RECONCILIATION'
He next met with Amy's mom, who asked him to watch a three-hour video of Amy's life before their meeting.
"I really got to know Amy that night," he says, "and how precious she was and what a tragedy happened when I took her life."
Joe admits it was painful to seek forgiveness from the Walls, but he knew God could use the situation for His glory if he did.
His relationship with the Wall family continued to grow, and both Joe and Derek were asked to participate in a Restorative Justice Council event in front of hundreds of people.
The night of the event, Amy's father approached Joe, hugged him, and said, "I love you, Joe." Years later, Rick's actions and words that evening still affect Joe.
"I killed his daughter," he says, his voice thick with emotion, "and he was able to give me a hug and say, 'I love you.' And that is a true testament to the miracle of reconciliation and why Christ did die on the cross."
'I killed his daughter, and he was able to give me a hug and say, 'I love you.''
A SECOND CHANCE
Joe Avila has not let his second chance at life go to waste. Instead, he's found a way to give back with Prison Fellowship®.
He first began as a volunteer. When he met Chuck Colson in 1999, Chuck saw Joe's potential. The following year, Joe became a Prison Fellowship area director. "I was responsible for all ministry [in my area], including in-prison programs, evangelism, and Angel Tree. I recruited all volunteers and churches for ministry."
Since then, Joe has continued to faithfully serve the incarcerated and their families, investing in them as others have invested in him. Joe saw their needs, and because of his vision and desire to make a difference, several of Prison Fellowship's ministries are possible. His work has contributed to the creation of Hope Events that share the Gospel with thousands of prisoners each year, in-prison Celebrate Recovery programs facilitated by Prison Fellowship volunteers, and Angel Tree® sports camps for children with an incarcerated parent.
Through it all, Joe has remained active in New Hope Community Church, serving as an elder and with his wife as Angel Tree coordinators.
Joe says he changed his life for one reason:
I wanted to honor my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and at the same time, I wanted to honor Amy and her life. I wanted to make sure that her life was worth something ... and it was.
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