Jeremy Hart spent much of his early adulthood chasing the American Dream: the idea that if he just worked hard enough, he would achieve great success.
For Jeremy, success looked like climbing the corporate ladder and gaining wealth. As a financial adviser in Colorado, he took on ambitious business ventures, always striving for more. He wanted to provide plenty for his family and look good doing it.
"I placed my value in what other people thought about me," says Jeremy. "[My life] had to look a certain way. We had to have a certain amount of money."
But, he adds, "It's just impossible to keep up with that."
Eventually, to stay ahead, he started making poor choices and stepping over legal lines. His family had no clue what was really going on behind closed doors. Around 2008, the economy crashed, and Jeremy's secret business dealings came to light.
His American Dream became a nightmare.
'I placed my value in what other people thought about me. [My life] had to look a certain way. We had to have a certain amount of money. It's just impossible to keep up with that.'
AN AMERICAN NIGHTMARE
In 2010, Jeremy was indicted on 31 counts of fraud. He couldn't bear the shame of his betrayal and the pain he had caused others. He tried to overdose on prescription pills mixed with alcohol.
The next morning he opened his eyes in bed, severely hungover and depressed. Then the phone rang. It was Jim—a pastor and former financial client of Jeremy's who had seen his case on the news. Jeremy would never forget that phone call.
"He started talking to me about what love looks like, what hope looks like, and what forgiveness looks like," says Jeremy.
Jeremy didn't know much about hope. But he could have used some on sentencing day when he heard the judge speak his fate: nine years in the Colorado Department of Corrections. He turned around to see his family's faces as they looked at him—"one of the hardest things you’ll ever do," he remembers.
After a few quick hugs, Jeremy walked from the courtroom into the holding room and sat down. His family was gone. He was alone.
For so long, Jeremy had found worth in others' opinions of him. Now, he'd ruined his reputation and destroyed relationships in the fallout.
'He started talking to me about what love looks like, what hope looks like, and what forgiveness looks like.'
THE CHANCE TO LIVE
In January 2011, Jeremy walked into a Colorado prison to begin his sentence. His anxiety medication wasn't helping. The facility deemed him at risk for self-harm and placed him on suicide watch.
Lying on his bunk one night, he heard an announcement over the loudspeakers. Three men from a local church were visiting to pray with prisoners.
"Something just got me up out of that bed and walked me into that room," Jeremy says. "The moment they just touched me to start praying, it all just finally came out—the emotion, the weight, I think, was starting to lift. I knew that that my heart was starting to realize what it meant to find the hope in Christ."
A few days later, on February 5, Jeremy responded to the altar call at a church service in prison. He received Christ as his Savior and never looked back. He dove into the Christian community in prison and eagerly studied God's Word.
As Jeremy's faith became real to him, he started to evangelize behind the walls. Men on the prison yard noticed his joy and peace, and it sparked conversations. Still, prison was a struggle for Jeremy. The hardest part was being separated from his children.
"To this day, that [separation] is still something that is kind of hard to grasp," Jeremy says.
'My heart was starting to realize what it meant to find the hope in Christ.'
KEEPING THE CONNECTION
Jeremy wrote his children letters once or twice a month. He never knew if they received the mail, but his chaplain encouraged him to keep writing.
During his second year in prison, Jeremy saw the flyer for Angel Tree®, a Prison Fellowship® program. He learned that through the program he could sign up his children to receive a personal message, the Gospel, and a Christmas gift in his name. Every year, Angel Tree volunteers from churches and organizations nationwide deliver these gifts to hundreds of thousands of children like Jeremy's. It was too good of an opportunity to miss.
"It just took me over," says Jeremy. "To have that ability to send a gift to my kids, as if it was from me. To think of the kindness of the church and the love of Christ to be able to do that. And to think that there could still be connection is invaluable."
Jeremy got to suggest gifts for his children’s age range and wrote a short personal message to accompany the gifts. Overcome with excitement, he helped spread the word about Angel Tree to other dads in his facility.
'To have that ability to send a gift to my kids, as if it was from me. To think of the kindness of the church and the love of Christ to be able to do that. And to think that there could still be connection is invaluable.'
ANSWERING GOD'S CALL
Jeremy came up for parole and left prison in the summer of 2015. He landed in Chandler, Arizona, and plugged into a small group at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. He also knew God had called him to vocational ministry, so he enrolled in seminary at Grand Canyon University. While he worked for his parents' company, he hoped to one day minister to prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.
Jeremy became a pastoral intern at Cornerstone, learning to do ministry and to counsel others. Meanwhile, he couldn't wait to go back into prison someday as a volunteer to mentor incarcerated men. When Jeremy finally received his Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) volunteer badge, he joyfully answered God's call and returned to prison to share the Good News.
"Everybody used to always say, 'Man, you want to get back in as soon as you can. You're crazy.' I'm like, 'I can't get back in fast enough,'" says Jeremy.
''Man, you want to get back in as soon as you can. You're crazy.' I'm like, 'I can't get back in fast enough.''
In May 2020, Jeremy graduated from seminary. In August, he became an ordained chaplain.
He has come full circle in ministry, facilitating Angel Tree to help other prisoners' families experience the same joy and connection that the program gave his family. Jeremy helps organize Angel Tree Christmas at Cornerstone Church and hosts gift exchange parties for families. In the summer, the church also sponsors Angel Tree children to attend Christian camp with Angel Tree Camping®.
"Angel Tree allowed me to realize how to offer love in a real way to my own kids," says Jeremy. "And then serving in Angel Tree allows me to unite those kids back to the parent. It is full circle. I mean every piece of it."
Holding his old prisoner ID in one hand and his DOC volunteer badge in the other, Jeremy is quietly amazed. If he could sum up his life in a word, he says, "It's 'grace.'"
'Angel Tree allowed me to realize how to offer love in a real way to my own kids. And then serving in Angel Tree allows me to unite those kids back to the parent.'