When 10-year-old Derrick Ervin came home early from family vacation, he knew something was going on. Then he learned the news that changed his life forever: His father had died unexpectedly.
Derrick says his father was his “Superman.” He remembers his dad as the man who woke up at two in the morning, worked all day as a truck driver, and came home by six in the evening to organize team sports for local children.
The youngest of six children, Derrick grew up in a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood near Birmingham, Alabama. It was a close-knit community. His parents, both hard workers and people of faith, taught their children about Jesus and raised them to respect others.
“Everybody looked at my mother and my father as their mom and their dad, because they raised so many children in our neighborhood,” Derrick says. “Those are some of my fondest memories, when I speak of my family.”
The sudden loss of his father devastated Derrick. He remembers how the pain overcame him: “I’ll never forget going into my bedroom that particular day when I found out, and I just let out this loud cry. I remember saying to myself, ‘I’ll never hurt again. No one will ever hurt me again.’”
A CRY FOR HELP
When he walked out of his bedroom that day, Derrick didn’t know how to bear the weight of his pain. His deep grief cast a darkness over his life, but for some time, nobody knew the depth of his struggle.
Derrick kept up appearances for a while. He earned good grades in school, excelled at sports, and received a football scholarship to attend North Carolina State University.
But even with a change of scenery, Derrick felt broken. He struggled to cope with the loss of his father. Then, when Derrick was 21, his mother died of a brain tumor.
Heartbroken and angry at God, Derrick realized his past wounds had never healed. After college, Derrick worked many jobs and married a woman named Shemelia. But soon he was hiding a double life, dealing drugs. He convinced himself he was providing for his family at all costs. Before long, he was staring down a long sentence for offenses related to dealing large amounts of cocaine.
When the judge spoke the words “life without parole,” Derrick heard a loud cry across the courtroom. It was his oldest son, who was 10, the same age Derrick was when his father died. He remembered being that 10-year-old boy crying out in his bedroom. Now, his own son was about to lose his father to the prison system.
Derrick says, “It broke me, because for the first time I realized that the choices I made not only affected me and impacted my life, but everything that was connected to me.”
'MY ONLY HOPE'
Alabama’s St. Clair Correctional Facility felt like another hopeless stop on a long, dark road for Derrick. The loneliness and despair of incarceration weighed on him daily. But the hardest part was being separated from his family. He was desperate for a way to cope with his sentence, especially when he had no release date.
Alone with his thoughts, Derrick remembered the faith of his parents and how they brought him up to serve others. He longed for purpose and direction. With nothing else to hold on to, he felt a nudge to take a “leap of faith” and pray.
“I had an encounter with the Lord that transformed my life miraculously,” Derrick recalls. “I never received the Lord to get out of prison, but I received Him because I knew that I needed a change. I knew that something in me had to be broken and put back together again. I felt [Christ] was my only hope. I tried everything else; it just didn’t work.”
Derrick began his new journey with a question: Who is this “Jesus” that his parents had believed in? He longed for a faith that was his own. He dove into the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New, where he encountered the living God—the One could transform his life from the inside out.
Every day, Derrick spent hours poring over scripture. Soon, he also enrolled in Prison Fellowship Academy®, a yearlong program that helps participants embrace biblically based Values of Good Citizenship™. Learning to live in healthy community, he unlearned old destructive habits and began to heal the emotional wounds he’d ignored for years. Mentors like Jeremy Miller, a Prison Fellowship staff member, came alongside Derrick in his journey to transformation.
“We began to hold each other accountable, right there behind prison walls, to be men of standard,” Derrick told The Birmingham Times. “The concepts of accountability, fellowship, and brotherhood form a beacon of hope in a difficult setting.”
In the Academy, Derrick found a safe place to be transparent and to grow in community. After graduating the program, he made good on his promise to be a better man. He was no longer getting into trouble but setting an example. He coached others as they worked to obtain their GED. He served as a hospice worker and worked in the chapel, cleaning floors on his hands and knees with a toothbrush.
And he stayed involved with Prison Fellowship, even attending his facility’s first Prison Fellowship Hope Event™ featuring hip-hop artist Lecrae. Every Prison Fellowship Hope Event introduces prisoners to the hope of Jesus Christ through yard events featuring inspirational speakers, musicians, and other attractions. With each Prison Fellowship program and yard event, Derrick held on to hope that his life had meaning.
'We began to hold each other accountable, right there behind prison walls, to be men of standard.'
FREE AT LAST
Then, the miracle: In 2019, Derrick’s sentence was reduced. There was no explaining it apart from the work of God.
On Derrick’s release day in 2020, fear and anxiety overwhelmed him. Not long after he walked out of the prison gates, he went to Walmart to purchase necessities and almost had a panic attack.
Derrick faced many challenges upon reentry. He struggled to relate to his sons, who were 19 and 24 when he was released. He wanted to rebuild their relationships, but he knew it would take time and patience.
Derrick also had to learn to be a present, devoted husband. Shemelia had been surviving on her own for so long and even started a business, Cleaning Concepts Plus, while Derrick was locked up.
'For the first time I realized that the choices I made not only affected me and impacted my life, but everything that was connected to me.'
Shemelia held the business intact on her own for many years. When Derrick came home, he made it a point to support her and help the business continue to succeed. Through that commitment, they developed a vision to help other returning citizens receive a second chance. Their model involves providing well-paying jobs so people can support their families and feel stable. Derrick also plans to create support groups to help people strengthen their marriages.
With contracts in 37 states, Cleaning Concepts Plus is thriving and helping others thrive in the process. “We’re giving back to the communities. We’re helping youth. We’re helping those who are struggling,” Derrick says.
Just recently, one of Derrick’s employees expressed his gratefulness to be working at his company. The employee wanted to end his life before he met Derrick and found a job through Cleaning Concepts Plus. To him, Derrick’s story means redemption is possible. And now, that employee feels a sense of hope and purpose.
“When I was a chapel worker, I used to have to clean the bathroom,” Derrick remembers. “I’d get on my knees … clean the floors with a toothbrush. Now here I am in the cleaning business. It reminds me of Jesus, how He takes us—something so dirty—and almost gets on His knees with a little toothbrush to make sure He misses not one spot, to clean us up.”
A HOPE DEALER
In 2021, not long after his release, Derrick had a chance to volunteer at a Hope Event. He even purchased the stage for the event. It was a special case because of the COVID-19 pandemic: The performers and event volunteers remained socially distant and set up the event stage outside of the prison perimeter fence. Inside the fence, attendees gathered to hear the Gospel message and raise their hands in prayer.
For Derrick, volunteering was his chance to give back, even from the other side of the razor wire. “Although he was outside, he came back and showed the people on the inside that he still cared and hadn’t forgotten about them,” says Prison Fellowship Field Director Jeremy Miller.
Derrick will remember those men. He knows their story, because in many ways, it’s his story. “There were times that I wanted to go back [to prison] because I didn't think I could make it out here. But the grace of God, man, it saw me through it all. It saw me through it all.”
In June 2022, Derrick was diagnosed with a serious health condition. Please join us in praying for his complete healing and for comfort and peace for his family.