Growing up, Carlos* went to confession every Saturday and mass every Sunday. For the most part, he stayed out of trouble. But, at age 24, he found himself sitting in the county jail for his part in an incident that injured a family member. He faced two serious charges.
While in jail, Carlos wasn’t thinking about God. He didn’t believe anything he learned in church could apply to his life—especially now, as he stared down a long prison sentence.
Now, Carlos realized that no one—not his church background nor his family nor his attorneys—were going to save him from this mess. Being Hispanic, he was afraid he would be pressured to join a race-related prison gang. He even imagined dying in prison.
What now? he asked himself. This can’t be it.
A LIFE ON LOCKDOWN
The county jail, home to rampant gang activity, was often locked down. There were no chapel services to attend, and the few prisoners who read Bibles did so quietly. But one day, Carlos’ bunkmate turned to him and said, “Hey, have you ever read the Bible?”
“No, I haven’t,” Carlos admitted.
Carlos’ bunkmate handed him a Bible and told him to start in the book of John—an account of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. The words he read renewed his hope. “It was just life-giving,” Carlos remembers.
After leaving the jail, Carlos spent the beginning of his 12-year prison sentence in a dangerous maximum-security facility. He managed to evade the gang violence around him, and he learned from lifers who had been following God in prison for decades. But he struggled to find Christian resources.
“There was nothing really other than chapel services, which usually got canceled because of whatever was going on, on the yard,” he shares. “Really it was just reading the Bible and whatever books we could order in—if they ever made it in.”
A PLACE TO THRIVE
In late 2012, at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Carlos met Audrey Fay, a Prison Fellowship® director of The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) at the time. TUMI is an intensive biblical studies program developed by World Impact and facilitated by Prison Fellowship volunteers. TUMI was just getting started inside the facility. At first, Carlos felt uncertain of the opportunity. When he heard Audrey’s description of the program, he thought, Oh, man, this ought to be perfect.
Carlos wasn’t disappointed. He eagerly joined a classroom with TUMI volunteers and other men who desired to deepen their knowledge of the Bible.
“We had great volunteers,” he remembers. “Very encouraging, very motivating.”
Through the courses, Carlos felt equipped to share his faith with others, including Jovani, the young son he left behind when he became incarcerated. The boy was only about 6 when Carlos went to jail.
'We had great volunteers. Very encouraging, very motivating.'
Carlos’ relationship with Jovani’s mother was strained. But Carlos’ parents would bring Jovani for frequent visits, and Carlos wrote Jovani letters—even when the boy didn’t write back. Carlos also registered Jovani for the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ program.
“He always got super cool presents,” Carlos remembers. “I think it actually helped keep the relationship normal, in some sense, like, ‘Hey, I'm getting something from Dad.’”
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
In 2017, Carlos was released from prison. He remembers it as one of the best days of his life—but also a nerve-wracking one. He had seen too many friends get out only to slip up and return.
Carlos was released to a transitional home in San Diego. He worked five jobs in his first year out. He did everything from making paper plates to working in a cousin’s gas station. But Carlos was patient and persistent. Eventually, he found stable employment and completed his parole.
Carlos continued working on his relationship with Jovani, too. He brought Jovani to church with him and answered some of Jovani’s questions about faith.
One day, Jovani asked Carlos, “Dad, does God forgive anybody anything?”
Carlos thought and answered, "Man, God took the cross for anybody. … God forgives anyone, even the mass murderer. That gift is for anybody." Soon after, Jovani told Carlos that he wanted to become a Christian.
Today, Carlos lives with his wife in California, where he has landed steady work. Recently, he had the privilege of attending Jovani’s wedding. They visit each other frequently and go fishing together. Although they rarely catch anything, they don’t mind; they’re just happy to make up for lost time.
'Man, God took the cross for anybody. … God forgives anyone, even the mass murderer. That gift is for anybody.'
* Name has been changed.