As a former atheist and addict, I never thought I would ever be a Christian with over eighteen years of sobriety, much less a Pastor. I also never thought I would serve a life sentence in prison, but that’s exactly what happened to me.
While I was in High School, I drank on the weekends and smoked marijuana occasionally. Then when I went to college, the floodgates of alcoholism and drug addiction opened up. I was getting high and drunk all of the time. During my senior year, I tried cocaine for the first time and was instantly hooked. I couldn’t get enough of it, staying up for days at a time, and losing over forty pounds in the process.
In an effort to support my expensive habit, I started selling drugs. One night, one of my customers tried to rob me at gunpoint. Not wanting to hand over the drugs and money, I opted for grabbing the gun I had on me and started shooting at him instead. After the bullets ran out, I was still alive but he was not. I never thought my addiction would ever bring me to this point, but who does? Not wanting to be arrested, I tried to cover things up and deny any involvement if questioned.
The next three months were a nightmare. My cocaine use spiraled out of control until I was at the point of wanting to take my own life to escape the insanity. Eventually, the truth caught up and I was picked up and charged with murder.
The jury found me guilty of the crime and gave me a life sentence, with a chance for parole after fifteen years. I sunk into a deep depression and gave up on myself, enduring prison life and getting into some trouble along the way. In 2006, I served sixty days in solitary confinement for a drug-related write-up. I was unable to provide a urine sample in the allotted time given. I had not been using drugs or alcohol so the time in solitary felt even longer, but it was also a blessing in disguise. Little did I know what it would lead to.
Due to the write-up involving drugs, I got a letter from the parole board recommending I take a year-long Residential Substance Abuse Treatment(RSAT) program. I was not too happy about it, but what choice did I have? The only way I could get out is if the Parole Board granted me the privilege, so I figured I better do what they wanted.
My first few weeks I wanted to quit. I didn’t want to take responsibility for my past or confront it honestly. With the help of my peers and the twelve steps of AA/NA, I started to see myself in a different light. The only problem was my lack of belief in God. When I mentioned this to a friend, he said, “Don’t worry about God. God is doing fine. You just keep working the program and you will be contacted.” I laughed and said okay, not believing it.
Then one morning in my cell, I was contacted! In what I can only describe as a supernatural “Christ-Encounter”, I truly felt God’s presence. I literally went from an atheist to a Christian immediately. Once I knew Christ as my savior, I’ve been on fire for Jesus ever since.
I started studying the Bible, going to church services, and even pursuing a Christian Education through Bible College and Seminary. I earned a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s, and Doctorate in the field of Ministry, all while in prison! I can only attribute these accomplishments to God’s grace and hard work.
The next seven years flew by, with me helping other men find God and Sobriety. When my day to see the Parole Board came, I was hopeful and nervous at the same time. After all, the victim’s family would be there to hear what happened that night and have an opportunity to speak against me.
When I finished telling the Board about what transpired that night, it was the victim’s mother who was given the chance to speak first. I braced for the worst. She said, “Mark, I just want you to know...that I forgive you.” I was in shock and began sobbing uncontrollably. Her forgiveness meant the world to me. The Parole Board decided I should spend another year in prison before seeing me again. Strangely, I was at peace with their decision because I had something even better, her forgiveness.
The next time I saw them, I was granted parole. Since my release, my life has been one blessing after another. I am able to spread the message of faith and recovery all over the country, preaching and speaking at various events. One of my favorite times of the year is when I get to share the Word with the residents at Shenandoah Valley Teen Challenge. Their program is very similar to the one I was in, and it warms my heart to see people getting clean and living for God. The best part about my life now is not the physical freedom I have, but the freedom I have in Jesus. Amen