Jeff describes his old neighborhood and his upbringing in the same way: "rough." He was part of a large, blended family, with brothers, sisters, and cousins under one roof in Columbia, South Carolina. While his dad worked as a mechanic, Jeff's mom spent a lot of time on the streets, battling addiction. Her absence hit him hard.
In his neighborhood, violence and addiction were common. He remembers smoking marijuana on his walk to school at just 10 years old. Before long, he was smoking and drinking often. When he tried, Jeff made the honor roll at school. But more and more frequently, he got bored, slept in class, or skipped school altogether. As teens, he and his friends started partying and stealing beer from the gas station for fun.
Drugs were Jeff's outlet. Then, they became a source of easy income.
LOSS AND REGRET
One night, 14-year-old Jeff found himself surrounded by flashing red and blue lights from dozens of police cars. It was the first time the police caught him selling.
Jeff went on to be arrested repeatedly throughout his youth. In 11th grade, he was locked up for half the school year. Still, he managed to graduate on time. But that achievement was overshadowed by the death of Jeff's mother.
Jeff knew his mom had dealt with addiction and illnesses. Often, when she was sick, she checked into the hospital right up the street from where Jeff sold drugs. After her death, Jeff regretted not making more time to visit her.
"That [loss] taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life," says Jeff. "You got to cherish people while they're around."
After losing his mom, Jeff didn't know how to handle the grief. Life still brought some joy: At 18, Jeff became a first-time father to a little girl. But his grief drove him headlong into the street life he'd been dabbling in. He kept getting in trouble. Before long, Jeff was in jail again, just 18 years old and facing serious prison time.
And this time, Jeff had a feeling he wouldn't see his daughter or the streets again for many years.
Jeff's grief drove him headlong into the street life he'd been dabbling in.
'ONLY GOD CAN SAVE YOU'
For Jeff, the hardest part of incarceration was being away from his daughter. Once, while awaiting trial in jail, Jeff received a letter from his daughter's mother. Something she wrote that day stood out to him:
You are in so much trouble. Only God can save you now.
Only God can save you now. The mention of God startled Jeff. He had never even had a conversation with her about God. What could she mean?
Jeff couldn't forget what she wrote. Soon, he was sharing it with the men in his jail dorm who claimed to be Christians—guys that Jeff used to poke fun at for their religion.
When Jeff asked if it was true that God could save him, his Christian cellmates shared the Gospel with him. At first, he didn't understand. Jeff thought being saved just meant getting out of prison.
Soon after, Jeff attended a Bible study with the other prisoners. During the prayer time, the speaker mentioned Jesus' resurrection happening on the third day.
Jeff had never heard the story of Jesus' resurrection. But with his eyes closed, he says he saw an image of an empty tomb cracking open.
'Maybe God had to get to me like that ... because I would've been too skeptical. Maybe He had to do that to break through my emotional barrier.'
MOLDING A GOOD CITIZEN
While incarcerated at Goodman Correctional Institution near Columbia, South Carolina, Jeff met James Murray, a Prison Fellowship® field director and heard about the Prison Fellowship Academy®.
The Prison Fellowship Academy is an intensive, long-term in-prison program. The Academy takes incarcerated men and women at more than 100 facilities nationwide through a transformational journey. Using targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community, the Academy helps participants replace criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and life principles.
Jeff's next step of faith was to join the Academy.
"In prison, I did a lot of self-learning, studying by myself," Jeff adds. "But I also went to programs and learned from other people. And the Academy was, hands down, the best program I've ever been in. It was well-rounded. It teaches everything from spirituality, to finance, to leadership, to everyday life."
Guided by the Academy's Values of Good Citizenship™, Jeff developed and practiced the program's core principles: responsibility, integrity, affirmation, community, restoration, and productivity.
The Academy community helped mold Jeff into the man he wanted to be—a man who loved and followed God. His Academy brothers supported one another with prayer and accountability. In tough times, they offered encouragement.
“The Academy shaped my mindset before I came home,” says Jeff.
'The Academy shaped my mindset before I came home.'
FINDING HIS VOICE
While incarcerated, Jeff also developed his skills and talents in music. He started with freestyle rapping to pass the time. Soon, he was writing down lyrics. But as a Christian, he wasn’t rapping about street life.
"I never heard a gospel rap before then," Jeff says. "I didn't know there was such a thing—I just started writing what was placed on my heart."
Prison is where Jeff first listened to music by Lecrae, a Grammy-winning hip-hop artist who became one of Jeff's favorite musicians. Lecrae even influenced Jeff's own songwriting, during his incarceration and after.
Jeff was released from prison in August 2019. He still remembers the energy on the yard on release day.
"It was electric," says Jeff. "Everybody on the yard said, 'Dude, this is evidence that if you walk with God and do the right thing, He will work miracles in your life.' Even nonbelievers were saying that."
''If you walk with God and do the right thing, He will work miracles in your life.' Even nonbelievers were saying that.'
WHEREVER GOD LEADS
"A whole lot of people that know me [now] know what I used to be," Jeff says. "But now they can say, 'That's a real one that actually changed. That's somebody that actually came from the struggle and streets and made it out.'"
Today, Jeff is a regular performer at Prison Fellowship Hope Events in his home state of South Carolina, rapping about freedom and hope in Christ. In 2021, Jeff returned to the old prison yard he had left behind. He shared the stage with Lecrae to perform at a Prison Fellowship Hope Event™ on Easter weekend. Together, Lecrae and Jeff brought the hope of Christ through music to incarcerated men.
Jeff doesn't live far from the street he grew up on in Columbia, and his daughter Jayla, now 15, lives with him. They're making up for lost time and hope to travel together soon.
Meanwhile, Jeff works for an HVAC company and helps design his own clothing line. He's a proud alum of Columbia International University, where he graduated with a 4.0 GPA. And he has great hopes for his future, wherever God leads.
Jeff insists that God will work everything out for the good of His children. "No matter the timeframe," Jeff says, "no matter what you go through in between those times, in those hardships, He's going to cause His will to come to pass."
'No matter what you go through in between those times, in those hardships, He's going to cause His will to come to pass.'