When Dillon Shaw was a little boy, he'd go outside and stare up at the night sky. The world faded away as he marveled at the ordered, twinkling expanse above him. Dillon dreamed of being an astronomer someday. But within the walls of his home, life wasn’t about beauty or dreams—it was about survival.
From the time he was 5 years old, Dillon experienced verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. His father, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with an addiction that he hid from the family. Dillon's family attended weekly services at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation, but their daily life was violent and chaotic.
One night, Dillon and his eight siblings watched their enraged father assault their mother, choking her as he dragged her into a bathroom. One of Dillon's brothers broke into the bathroom window from the outside and intervened. She was safe, but the marriage was over.
WAITING IN VAIN
"The divorce plunged us into poverty," Dillon recalls. "It was a dramatic shift. My mom had no skills, no training or higher education, so she was forced to jump into factory work. I hated the feeling of being poor."
The Shaw family heated their home in Cedar Springs, Michigan, using the fireplace with all the siblings sleeping on the floor of the living room. Dillon remembers being mocked at school for wearing the same secondhand clothes day after day.
But worse than the cramped conditions or the tight budget was the pain of missing his father. Sometimes Dillon’s dad would call and say he was going to come pick up his children and spend time with them.
"I would have a suitcase, and I would sit on the front stoop for hours waiting for him to show up," Dillon says. "He would never show up."
'I would sit on the front stoop for hours waiting for him to show up. He would never show up.'
DARKNESS AND DEAD ENDS
Dillon's mom had little knowledge of how to discipline her children. She punished them physically with no explanation or follow-up. Dillon resented this treatment. When he turned 14 and started to fill out, that resentment turned into an aggression he unleashed on whomever happened to be nearby—especially his siblings.
"That darkness took very deep root in my heart, and I started to perpetuate the brokenness that I was experiencing, that was being pushed upon me," he explains. "I started pushing it back out at people. I became a very violent individual."
Around the same time, Dillon began hanging out with an older kid across the street—a "ladies' man" who seemed mature and cool. Dillon's life became characterized by drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and criminal behavior.
"Money was a functional god to me," he says. "I did whatever I could do to get money, and then I would waste it on drugs and alcohol and partying—but also on nice vehicles or clothes. You try to get stuff to feel valuable because you don’t really feel valuable. That kind of stuff just feeds a hole, but it never satisfies. So it got worse and worse and worse."
Despite his bad behavior, Dillon performed well in school. When his peers started talking about college, he longed to follow that path—but he didn’t know how to pursue it. His mom—who was working three factory jobs and had little education herself—had no idea how to help.
'That darkness took very deep root in my heart, and I started to perpetuate the brokenness that I was experiencing, that was being pushed upon me.'
BROKEN BY LOVE
When Dillon was 21 years old, a friend approached him with a problem: His girlfriend was pregnant with someone else's child, and they needed money for an abortion. He had a risky idea; Dillon was hesitant, but he agreed. Together they committed a series of armed robberies that ended with a high-speed chase and a shootout with police. Dillon was arrested in August 2007 and charged with 11 felonies, including weapons charges, armed robbery, and assault with intent to commit murder. He pled guilty to five of the charges and was sentenced to 13–47 years in prison.
Soon after Dillon went to jail, he met another prisoner named Matt. Matt was a dedicated Christian who invited Dillon to pray and read the Bible with him. These times together became a regular routine, and Dillon’s heart began to soften. To Dillon's disappointment, Matt was shipped out suddenly one day. But three days later, Dillon received a Bible that Matt had asked his wife to send him. It was inscribed with Dillon’s name and a personal note. Dillon was floored.
"I grew up my entire life being treated like I was worthless," Dillon says. "For decades, I fought to try to feel valuable. This man treated me like I was worth something, and it just broke me. I wanted to know the God behind these people. I wanted to know the God that they know."
As Dillon read his new Bible, God met him in a powerful way. Suddenly, Dillon felt loved, valuable, and complete for the first time in his life.
"God woke me up," he says. "He saved me. He gave me a new life, and it started at the outset of the term of my incarceration."
'This man treated me like I was worth something, and it just broke me. I wanted to know the God behind these people. I wanted to know the God that they know.'
RENEWING OF THE MIND
For the first four and a half years of Dillon's sentence, he lived in a one-man cell for 22 hours a day. But he wasn't bored. Along with his salvation, God had given him an insatiable hunger to learn about Him.
"I wanted more of the Word, I wanted more truth, I wanted more understanding," he says. "I wanted more knowledge, more ability. And so, I started digging into the Word hard, heavy, studying daily."
God brought Christians into Dillon's life who sent him materials to deepen his study: concordances, Bible dictionaries, Greek and Hebrew lexicons. His understanding of scripture and his personal experience with Christ burgeoned by the day.
During these years, Dillon's father would write him letters intermittently. I love you. I miss you. I'm going to move closer to where you are and take care of you. Eventually, Dillon asked him to stop writing. It was just too painful to read promises that were never fulfilled.
'I wanted more of the Word, I wanted more truth, I wanted more understanding.'
A SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY
In 2012, Dillon noticed a poster about a new Prison Fellowship® program. Prison Fellowship had contracted with the Michigan Bureau of Corrections to open a faith-based dormitory at Muskegon Correctional Facility. The dormitory would house 160 men, 130 of whom would attend Prison Fellowship Academy®, a year-long program designed to replace criminal thinking with biblically based values. In addition, 30 men would participate in The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), a four-year intensive biblical studies program facilitated by Prison Fellowship in partnership with World Impact. TUMI teaches and equips prisoners to become Christian leaders in prisons and in the communities to which they will return. Dillon applied immediately.
"The first couple of months or so after I sent in the application, I didn't hear anything back," Dillon recalls. "So I started to get a little concerned because I had gotten my hopes up already. And I asked a mentor of mine to contact that facility. He did, and after that conversation, I received a notice, and shortly thereafter, I was told to pack up. I was going to Muskegon."
Dillon arrived to participate in TUMI in February 2013. The dormitory buzzed with enthusiasm—everyone was thrilled to have been accepted and excited to begin their studies. Dillon was impressed by the field director, whose outgoing, charismatic personality spurred him and the other participants to jump in wholeheartedly.
The dormitory buzzed with enthusiasm—everyone was thrilled to have been accepted and excited to begin their studies.
GROWING IN FAITH AND SOWING SEEDS
Dillon loved the time spent in class, digging deep into spiritual truth and discussing it with the other participants. He built relationships with volunteer facilitators like the retired pastor he describes as "an incredible storehouse of wisdom and biblical knowledge." But more than anything else, Dillon says he was changed by the opportunity to pass along what was being invested in his life.
The warden, a Christian herself, could see the impact that TUMI was having and the way the men were growing in their faith. She had a vision for their influence on the greater prison population—so she opened doors for TUMI participants to facilitate groups outside their unit. This had been previously unheard of.
"This was probably one of my greatest steps in my development, because it gave me the practice to develop the skills I needed to communicate the Good News to diverse groups of people in compelling ways," Dillon says.
Along with some of his TUMI colleagues, Dillon led men through small group studies on manhood and parenting. He ministered to people trapped in addiction. He even led some to Christ.
"We were able to sow seeds into the lives of the men in that prison regularly, and it carried a certain measure of credibility because we were one of them," Dillon says.
'We were able to sow seeds into the lives of the men in that prison regularly, and it carried a certain measure of credibility because we were one of them.'
A VOLCANO OF RAGE
From the beginning, Dillon's walk with Christ was characterized by an intimacy that he treasured. But soon after coming to Muskegon Correctional Facility, that suddenly seemed to evaporate. Dillon fell to his knees before God.
I'll do anything I have to do, he prayed. But I'm not going to eat, I'm not taking a shower, I'm not getting up, until you tell me what's wrong. I'll do whatever I have to do.
An image of a volcano came to Dillon’s mind. In that moment, he says, God spoke clearly to his spirit.
You have a massive volcano of rage and resentment against your father in your heart.
"It had been influencing tons of decisions my entire life, but I never really realized how deep and how severe it was," Dillon says. "But I realized it that day. And I wanted the healing."
Dillon wrote a long letter to his father, expressing every way he felt damaged or hurt. As he wrote, he was careful to refrain from seeking retaliation through his words. While he detailed the decades of pain, he felt healing begin.
Dillon sent the letter and received one back. His father expressed a desire to come visit. But this time, he actually did.
Their two-hour visit was awkward. Dillon was happy to hear that his father was now a Christian, but they struggled to connect. Dillon wondered if he had missed an opportunity.
Two months later, he received a letter from his dad in which his father apologized for his negative impact on Dillon's life and sought forgiveness.
"It was the last piece to really being able to let go of it," Dillon says. "I realized in that moment that I’d always wanted, my whole life, just for him to own it." At last, Dillon was completely free.
At last, Dillon was completely free.
TRUE LOVE, NEW LIFE
At one point during TUMI, Dillon believed that being devoted to God with his whole heart would mean he would be single forever. But as he observed married couples serving God together as volunteers, his mindset began to shift.
A high school friend told him about a woman named Sarah. In 2015, he sent Sarah a letter introducing himself.
"It was saturated with Jesus," Sarah remembers.
For the next four years, they cultivated a deep friendship through correspondence and then visits. Sarah's church friends wanted to meet the man who had become so important in her life, and several of them began to visit Dillon, too. Those relationships with brothers and sisters in Sarah’s church became precious sources of encouragement and edification to Dillon.
On September 1, 2020, Dillon was released from prison. His new church family, Christ Church in Muskegon, Michigan, welcomed him with open arms. By the end of his first week out of prison, he had a full-time job working construction with a member of the congregation. And two months later, he and Sarah were married.
Today, Dillon serves as the director of adult ministries at Christ Church. His main role is leadership development, and he attributes his strength in this area to the seminary-level training and practical opportunities he received in TUMI. He loves connecting church members to service and evangelism opportunities.
In their free time, Dillon and Sarah enjoy playing pickleball—an outdoor game similar to tennis—as well as hiking and camping. Just like his childhood self, Dillon still loves to stargaze. But now he knows the One who made those stars: in his words, "a Father to the orphans, to the fatherless."
Now Dillon knows the One Who made those stars: in his words, 'a Father to the orphans, to the Fatherless.'