When Danny Duchene was 16, his parents left him home alone while they traveled for "business." He expected them to return home to Redding, California, on Christmas Day. But instead of waking up to presents on Christmas morning, he woke up to the shocking news that his parents were behind bars. They had been arrested in Mexico for attempting to smuggle cocaine from Peru.
Danny remembers the pain he felt in that moment. This harsh reality shook his foundation. "My response was, if this is what they’re going to do with their life, then that's what I'm going to do [too]," says Danny.
He began using drugs and alcohol daily to cope with the stress of his circumstances. Within a couple of years, he was expelled from school, homeless, and addicted.
MURDER AND A DOUBLE LIFE SENTENCE
Danny became desperate for the cash he needed to stay high. One day an opportunity presented itself to make money … but at the expense of human life. A few weeks later, Danny was arrested at age 18 for his involvement in a knife fight that left two men dead.
As he sobered up while awaiting trial in the Sutter County Jail, his mind raced. "The weight of what I did came crashing down on my conscience," Danny remembers. "I thought, 'OK, life is definitely over.'"
Volunteers from a local church that regularly visited the jail had a different message for him, however. It was a message powerful enough to change his life—if he could just believe it, that is.
'God had a plan with me wherever I would live for the rest of my life.'
FINDING FREEDOM AND DISCIPLESHIP BEHIND BARS
Danny faced several decades behind bars. But those volunteers told him that God loved him regardless of what he'd done or whether he was in prison. They said if he accepted Christ as his Savior, he would experience forgiveness. They explained that God had good plans for his life. Danny remained skeptical.
"It wasn't an instant hit with me. I was probably the most defensive ... kind of person that you could imagine. I didn't quite know how to trust," he admits.
But eventually, Danny let his guard down, seeing how much time and effort the volunteers put into visiting with him. "They were able to get it across to me that ... God had a plan with me wherever I would live for the rest of my life, however long, or whatever that might look like," he says.
One day, a volunteer asked Danny if he wanted to pray and receive Christ. He finally said yes. One week later, he took responsibility for his actions and pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder.
The transformation from addict to Christ follower didn't happen overnight. Danny would spend the next three decades growing in his faith during his double life sentence.
Gradually, he began to see changes in his life. He started to enjoy worship music and understand what he was reading in the Bible for the first time.
"It took a number of years of discipleship ... for me to relax and fully believe that regardless of [if I] attempt to do good or continue to fail, that God loved me just as I was," Danny recalls.
'I was probably the most defensive ... kind of person that you could imagine. I didn't quite know how to trust.'
In 2003, he reached out to Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California. Danny asked to use curriculum from Rick’s book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," for his church inside the Sierra Conservation Center, a prison near Jamestown, California.
Rick said yes and connected Danny to the resources he needed to lead Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered program for people struggling with "hurts, habits, and hang-ups." This would be the first time this program was taught in a California prison.
"You can go to Bible studies and church services several times a week and still remain very surface level," Danny says. But Celebrate Recovery gave him the safe space to really open up and face the unresolved issues that trigger relapses and unhealthy behavior.
Danny and the men in his in-prison church talked about their pasts and the ways they needed help. Through Celebrate Recovery, they saw lives transformed. "It was a huge success," Danny recalls.
But Rick didn't just help him with teaching materials over the years. In 2014, Rick sent a letter to the parole board asking for Danny's release—on the condition that he could immediately hire Danny as a pastor on the outside.
The plea was granted, and Danny was released after 32 long years in prison. Today, he is a pastor and national director of Celebrate Recovery Inside at Saddleback Church. Danny's team equips and encourages the 30,000 community Celebrate Recovery groups to volunteer in their local jails and prisons. There are currently more than 700 Celebrate Recovery Inside programs in correctional facilities. Danny says, "with more than 2.2 million prisoners in the U.S., we're just getting started with our mission."
Celebrate Recovery gave Danny the safe space to really open up and face the unresolved issues that trigger relapses and unhealthy behavior.
LIVING A NEW LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE
These days, Danny is once again behind bars, only this time, it’s as a free man. Through his ministry and his Celebrate Recovery role, he uses the insight gained through his own personal experience to encourage believers to face their pain and grow in community. He is a regular speaker at Prison Fellowship® Hope Events, and he has shared his story with Inside Journal® to encourage current prisoners.
"My life is involved with ministry because of outside volunteers," he says. "To come back inside and go through the process of getting your little tag and signing in and signing out ... it's very moving to me to be the one signing in and signing out and getting approval and all of those pieces, because now I'm the one that gets to go in and help someone else."
Danny is proof that God can transform the lives of those who allow Him into their hearts—no matter who you are or how many decades you spend behind bars.
'Now I'm the one that gets to go in and help someone else.'