Shonda’s Story: Not the Life I Imagined

Shonda blog photo I never imagined I would be the mother of a convicted felon. My husband and I celebrated the love of Christ with our children both in church and at home. We dedicated our sons to the Lord and taught them how to live according to Scripture.

I watched and learned from parents in our circle of influence. Their children did well in school, then proceeded to earn college degrees, find gainful employment, marry godly spouses, and start their own families.

Following the examples modeled for me, I made my loving mother checklist:

  • Christian education
  • Regular church attendance
  • Sports activities
  • Family vacations

I anticipated the same outcome I witnessed over and over again. After all, I stood on the promise of God that as a parent if I train them up in His ways, then they will never depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).

~~~

After my older son, Stephen, graduated from high school, he went to work and moved into his own apartment. His choice of friends raised concerns on my radar. When I shared this with other godly parents, they encouraged me not to worry as young adults go through a phase. “It will be all right,” they said. So, I turned my worries into prayers.

But then we got the call—he was in jail charged with serious crimes—murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Shocked, I couldn’t process the news.

With my heart ripped apart, my first prayer after learning about my son’s arrest came from Romans 8:28, which reads, And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (NLT).

I petitioned the Lord because only He could take something so traumatic and somehow turn it for something good.

~~~

Due to the nature of the crimes, there were those who suggested that I forget about him and let him rot in prison. But when I thought about my son, how could I let him go, just left to rot and waste away? What about God’s promises to me?

Standing at the crossroads of these two choices, I chose to love him as God loves—unconditionally.

Regardless of the consequences my son faced, even if that meant the death penalty or life in prison on this side of eternity, I did not want him to suffer eternal separation from God.

Because of His love for us, Christ took the death penalty for each one of us. And because of love, God promises to forgive us of our sins if we confess them. I wrote the promise from First John 1:9 on paper and sent it to my son. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness (NLT).

I cried out, “Lord, if I have to live separated from my son in this life, I don’t want to be separated from him in eternity.”

~~~

Love for my son compelled me to write letters to him five days a week sharing God’s love. Every day I sat with my Bible in my lap determined to receive an encouraging word from the Lord. As I read familiar passages, I saw God’s words through new filters.

The Bible is filled with testimony of people our present society would label as thugs and outcasts. Many biblical heroes started out as scoundrels. The Lord redeemed and restored the lives of liars, cheaters, adulterers, thieves, murderers, womanizers, prostitutes, and prisoners and used them to fulfill His purposes. This filled me with hope, and I shared this hope with my son.

Two months after his arrest, my son sent a letter with his decision to fully surrender his life to Christ. From that moment, I knew that no matter what happened, if we depart this earth or Jesus returns, we will be together in eternity. Peace filled my heart.

As we navigated the legal process with my son and his attorney, I noticed the Bible contains judicial themes. Particularly how we are invited to raise our petitions into the courtroom of heaven. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 4:16 NLT).

~~~

Because of the Lord’s unconditional love, He desires to show us mercy. God granted mercy to Stephen with a twenty-year sentence, though he was eligible to be sentenced to life in prison. Even as a lawful captive to the state, he lives in a freedom that does not depend on a location, but on the Spirit of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Stephen admits that our love for him led him to choose Christ and allows His light to shine through him in a place filled with darkness. He explained that inmates who are rejected by outside family often turn to gangs and violence.

Hebrews 13:3 says, Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Before this, I never thought about prisoners, but now I remember them, as a part of me is in prison.

Over these years, God has demonstrated His faithfulness. Step by step, I witness the amazing love of God working everything together for good out of an excruciating situation.

Though this is not the life I imagined for my son, the Lord called me to live my life as a love story.  Because of His love, I share His unconditional love at times and in places that some avoid or may never give a thought to it—loving those in prison and their hurting families.

Shonda Savage Shonda Whitworth writes, teaches, and speaks at conferences and retreats to share the hope of healing and restoration we have in Jesus. After her son landed in state prison, she realized the hardships families of prisoners encounter. She and her husband, Eldon, founded Fortress of Hope Ministries, a nonprofit organization that offers hope to families affected by incarceration. Shonda transparently shares her testimony of living with a son in prison at ShondaWhitworth.com and FortressofHopeMinistries.com.

Shonda book

Shonda’s book is also available at ShopLPC.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

 

Kevin’s Story: Leaves

My friend Kevin Spencer knows what it is to face the daily dreariness, and sometimes horror, of a life behind bars. Beginning in 1987, he spent seven years in the Florida Department of Corrections. From that dark time he has many stories to share, but one sticks out to me as a beautiful example of the profound simplicity of God’s presence in one man’s place of pain. Here is Kevin’s story…

                                                                           ~~~

I stood in a long shuffling line of inmates that slowly approached the prison mail room. The mail room was actually a separate building on the grounds of the Florida Department of Corrections. We were lined up in front of a small window where the officer assigned to handle our mail read, censored, and dispensed our contacts with the outside the world.

I was in prison, a victim of my own stupidity. It was Fall, the season which throughout my life had been my favorite time of year. Now, my spirits were at rock bottom. I had been here a little over a year, and despite my Lord’s promise to me that I would go home, I could see no end to my incarceration. I was stuck here. I missed home. I missed the changing of the seasons.

In central Florida, the seasons don’t change. Okay, that’s unkind. There actually are two seasons in Florida: The brutally hot green leaf season, and the not so warm brown leaf season. Here at the prison, we were currently in the transition between the two. I so missed seeing the leaves change color. It was bad enough seeing the outside world through a double chain-link fence topped with barbed razor wire, but to watch the distant Ocala National Forest just slowly turn from green to olive to brown was even more depressing.

My heart was empty. I didn’t think God was listening to me anymore, but as I stood in the line, I silently prayed again: “Please Father, I just want to go home. Please.”

Finally, I got to the mail window. I was fortunate in that my dad wrote to me almost every day. Sometimes just a couple of lines. Usually some clippings from the local paper about life at home in Raleigh, and later Lincolnton, North Carolina. Dad was great at writing. And the result was that I was in the mail line every day, and the mail officer knew me perhaps better than she knew some of the other inmates.

She looked up as I approached, and I saw something in her face as she saw me. She motioned me to step to the side door. This had never happened before, but I did as I was told.

She opened the side door, and told me: “I can’t let you have this, but I’m going to let you see it.” She handed me a large manila envelope. It was from my dad. When I opened it, out slid a handful of red, yellow, and orange leaves that Dad had evidently picked up in the yard. Knowing how much I missed the seasons, he had decided to send them to me. My eyes welled up as I fingered the leaves for a second, and I smiled at the thought of my dad walking through the yard picking them up like a little boy.

“I’m sorry I can’t let you have them,” the officer said. I struggled to keep back the tears and mumbled something about it being okay. And fingering the leaves one last time, I handed them back.

“Thank you,” I told her.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. And then, as she shut the door, she said, “Watch your feet.”

Glancing down automatically as the door clicked shut, I saw at my feet a bright scarlet Sugar Maple leaf. She had dropped it there for me. A small kindness. I scooped it up and stashed it in my Bible. I didn’t get to go home that day, but God had brought a small piece of home to me. I carried that leaf in my Bible until the day I was finally released. It served as a reminder that God’s love was with me even there in prison, and that He was listening to my prayers always.