Finding Purpose in Helping Others
John Markle, a financial adviser, helps others move forward with their money management and financial goals.
As a highly valued volunteer at the Carol S. Vance and Jester Units in Texas, John also helps guide men toward their goals for a new future built on the Values of Good CitizenshipTM. Since 2010, he has logged more than 825 hours of service on more than 360 visits to prison.
Recently, he received the Governor's Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in recognition of his contributions.
Prison Fellowship® sat down with John to hear how he got behind bars—and what keeps bringing him back.
Prison Fellowship: When did you first go behind bars?
John Markle: I was leading mission trips for my church to [Central America], and on one of the trips, someone said, "Hey, I would like your group to go to one of the prisons."
The day before we were to go, we heard, "Something's happened at the prison. You may want to change your itinerary. [Three men were taken out of the prison we were scheduled to visit and placed in another with rival gang members.] When they got there, they were beheaded, and they set their bodies on fire. So the guys you're going to see are not in a very good mood."
I'm like, "Oh. Wow." I turned to my group and said, "What do you want to do?" And they said, "We're all prayed up. We want to go." So we went, and they locked us in there with these guys for four hours. We were in small groups with a Spanish speaker in each group. We talked to them about their families, their lives, and their faith. I witnessed one young guy accept Christ right there in the prison.
Later on, I asked the guy who took us in, "So what did they think of us?" He said, "You were the first group that's come in that didn't have any fear."
I came home, and God started working on me that He wanted me to do prison ministry in the United States. I thought, I don't know about this. I'm old. I'm white. I've never been incarcerated. I'm not going to have any credibility with these guys at all. [But] one prevailing thought just kept coming back: Don't worry about that. Just go tell them about Me.
What was your next step?
I called Prison Fellowship. The area director called me back. He said, "I'm starting [a new program called Transformation Ministry] here at a prison." I was one of his first volunteers. Later he asked me to be the program volunteer coordinator and keep things organized. I've been going there ever since because God directed me to do it. I just couldn't say no.
What do you offer to the men in the prison?
We teach life skills, but the life skills are all basically faith-based or Christian-based. We have some people that aren't Christians in the group, and we have some Muslims often in the group. I say to them, "Look, we're here to teach life skills. I come at it from a Christian point of view and so do the rest of my volunteers. We're not here to offend anybody. We're trying to help you men become better men. When you get back to the free world, we hope you're changed in a positive way and that God's directing your path." We're trying to rehabilitate these guys.
What are some of the most common areas in need of growth that you encounter?
I would say first and foremost they've got the wrong focus. As a result, they do things to please themselves, whether it's drugs, arson, stealing or whatever. A lot of them didn't have a lot of parenting skills or they weren’t a good spouse. We give them some skill sets so that when they return, they [can help their families.]
Also many don’t have a lot of financial [literacy]. I asked a program participant some questions about taxes. Some of the guys said, "We've never paid taxes."
I said, "You haven't paid taxes?"
"No, John, we were drug dealers. They don't pay taxes."
There are a lot of things they just don't understand about the world because so many of them have been involved in being drug dealers and leading a life of crime.
Do the people you meet in prison want to change?
The guys [in the program] are eager to learn. They say, "I want a change. I'm tired of being incarcerated," or "This is my first time, and I don't ever want to come back again. It's no fun."
We share God's love with them, help them become better men. God works through us—me and the other volunteers. We go in and encourage these guys to make positive changes in their lives through the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.
Do you ever encounter skepticism about those changes?
The response I [often] get [from people outside prison] is, "Hey, look. These people, when they get out, they're just going to go right back to doing what they're doing. They're not going to change. It's just a revolving door."
And I say, "Well, listen. You better hope that we're effective, because all the guys that I'm dealing with right now, they're going to be released into Houston in two years. You know?" And they all start laughing. They go, "Yeah, I see your point." I mean, you better hope I [and the other volunteers] can help make a change in their life.
What kinds of challenges are awaiting the people you serve after prison?
My wife tells the story about a woman who got out of prison. Her dad picked her up and took her to an apartment he had rented for her. She went and stood at the front door. Her dad said, "Well, what are you waiting for?" And she said, "Waiting for you to open the door." You don't open doors in jail. They open them for you. She had been so socialized to think, I don't open doors.
Recently I heard from some guys on the phone, and they told me, "Oh man, this is great out here. [But] it's a lot harder than we thought. There's a lot more we have to do [on our own]." In prison, they're told what to do, where to stand, where to do this, what they're going to eat, where they're going to work.
Do you often hear from men after they’ve been released?
Yes, I've talked to so many of them when they've come out. They've reconnected with their families—their wives, their sons, and daughters. They're out working, and they haven't gone back to the old lifestyle. They're going to church and are productive, and they're helping others. They want to go back in [to prison], and they want to share with the men that are still incarcerated what things are necessary to transition back to "the free world," as they call it. Some are falling back to the old patterns, but not as many, because they've changed [their] mentality. They've gone from a prison mentality to a godly mentality:
My purpose in life is to serve God and to be obedient to Him. Life's better with God than it is with trying to please the knuckleheads in my neighborhood."
It sounds like you find your work very rewarding. What is your response to receiving this more formal award from the state of Texas?
I'm glad to be honored, but it's not really me that's being honored. It's all the people that I work with: volunteers, Prison Fellowship staff, correctional officers, assistant wardens, wardens and senior wardens, the chaplains … I look at it as a validation of all the work that all of us are doing, not just me.
Sometimes the men [in the program] say, "Oh, thank you for doing this." I say, "Look, when you see me, you're not seeing me. So don't focus on me, focus on Christ." About this award, I say, "Don't focus on John Markle. Focus on the whole team of people [who serve]."
Fifteen years ago, it would be all about me. I'd be all puffed up, but not now. I've just learned so much through working with these men. I've become humbler over time. Now I see it's a collective award. We all work together to make this work.
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