Living As Equals

What color is the blood inside your body? Is it red? There’s a good chance it is, or at least I hope it is. You might want to check that out if your blood is not the color red!

love-one-another

In other words, we human beings are all equal. No one is better than anyone else. I’m not better than you and you’re not better than me. We are all the same on the inside. God created us in His image. The only thing that distinguishes us from one another is the way we look – the color of our hair, eyes, skin, or how tall we are.

Unfortunately, most of us do not always see what is on the inside. We judge others on what we can visibly see and/or know. The first ten seconds when meeting someone you are already judging them, based on their appearance. Before a word is even spoken, a judgment is already occurring. “Don’t ever judge a book by its cover” should apply to people also. Don’t ever judge a person before getting to know them.

I’ll be honest with you. I struggle with judging people. I’ve gotten tremendously better since coming to prison, but this is still one of my weaknesses. There are so many different types of people in this place. I seem to congregate towards the inmates who are more like me and have the same likes and dislikes, as most people do wherever you are. But in this small 1800 person community, I have become open-minded to the many other groups that take place in this prison. And it has led me to realize that we are all the same on the inside. Oh, our minds and attitudes are different; the issues of our hearts are different. But our bodies on the inside were all created the same.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of good decent people in prison. Yes, I know it says in the Bible that no one is good, not even one. However, there are inmates who are truly sorry for what they did and are doing everything they can to change and better their lives. I know I’m one of them. One day these “good” people will be free, living out in the community like a normal person with one difference. These people will have the title murderer, sex offender, or drug dealer hanging over their heads. They will be like sheep thrown into a pack of wolves, just waiting to get torn apart, mocked, or ridiculed because they are a felon. I will be included among this group.

Yes, you will judge us because of what you’ve heard about us. Some of us are not the same people before coming to prison. They have changed and want to have a normal life again. It will be hard because you will judge us. You might know a felon who lives in your neighborhood or even right next to you. I encourage you to take the time to get to know that person and help them become productive members of society again. Who knows? By helping them and being kind to them they will see Jesus in you and come to know Him better. Jesus says, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you also did to Me. Do not judge or you will be judged.”

Be open-minded. Take that initiative and be that example to let your light shine. After all, this is God’s command….to love one another. Love me, but please don’t judge me.

Advertisements

God’s Symphony

violon

As I start to write this post today, I have exactly four weeks until I exit Federal Prison for good, even less time when this blog gets posted. When I leave here, I will have done 64+ months behind concrete walls and razor sharp fences. I will have done time in three Federal Prisons and two County Jails. I will also have experienced living with the general population inmates and living in the specialized housing unit….also known as “the hole” (solitary confinement).

I would never have imagined that I would spend this amount of time in these locations locked up, let alone any time at all. However, if someone would ask me if I could change one thing about my life, my answer would be “nothing at all.” Do I regret some of the choices and decisions I have made in my lifetime? Absolutely, Yes! But both the good choices and bad choices I made define me as a person. It is who I am today and I would not change my life for anything. I have learned from my mistakes. I have grown and matured because of my mistakes. And I have led others to Christ where I am because of my mistakes. I know I have said this before, but this is by far the greatest adventure I have ever experienced in my lifetime.

I know this has been hard on my family, especially my parents. But we have all grown in some way, shape or form because of this. God has truly been with us every step of the way and has delivered us time and time again. Prison is the result of my poor choices. While God is disciplining me, He is testing my family and putting them through a trial. Some trials are short lived, while others are 64 months long. All of us in our lifetime will face really hard seasons when it seems as if the entire world is against us, when we think we just cannot win…..being stuck in the judicial system feels like it is a dead end road. But when we keep standing strong, following the Lord, and obeying His calling, He will see us through and keep us on His path. My family and I are definitely living proof of that truth.

My life and my family’s life will never be the same again. We will continuously go through struggles, tests, and ridicules as the result of my decisions and actions. But our question should not be Why Us? Instead, it should be What Now? I know more of who I am now than I did before I got arrested. My days will not always run smoothly. There will be times when I will put on a front and pretend smile just to get by even though I am hurting on the inside. There will be days when I will want to curl up in a ball and cry my day away. But these are the days when  God is rebuilding me. Like a bone that breaks and gets stronger when healed, God breaks us down only to build us back up even stronger. God empties our hands so we can finally reach for Him.

I want to close out this post with a story I stumbled across just the other day. I had to read it a few times just to understand it. But when it finally did come to me, it hit me hard and opened up my eyes to God’s perfect plan and will.

When I was a kid I had a friend named Joey. Joey had been taking violin lessons since he was three years old. His parents were accomplished musicians who played with the symphony orchestra in my town. Sometimes they would take us to rehearsal with them, and we would run around the building while they rehearsed. The orchestra made a record, and Joey could play along on his violin flawlessly, in perfect harmony with the record, as if he sat in that orchestra with them. I wanted to be able to do that so when I was about ten I asked my parents if I could start taking violin lessons. They got me a violin. I practiced hard and learned “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When I got really good at it, I put on the record Beethoven’s Fifth. I tried to play along like Joey did, but I didn’t sound anything like what I heard. My strings squeaked and my notes were off key. Eventually, I gravitated back to Twinkle Twinkle and played that instead. But the record kept playing and Beethoven’s Fifth went on perfectly and never missed a note. Praying in God’s will is just like that. He tells us if we pray anything according to His will, it will be done. But our prayers aren’t always in tune with the symphony.

 I continuously pray. My family continuously prays. My friends continuously pray. We have been praying for that miracle of my release for the last five years. My release date has been changing for the last year and half. Even when I leave this place on July 31, the state of Wisconsin still might have custody over me until next fall. We just continue to pray for a miracle of freedom. We pray that it is God’s will to let me go. But you know, no matter what happens, my music always gets trumped by God’s symphony, and His symphony without a doubt is playing something much more beautiful. I want my life to be the symphony God has chosen, and not merely Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Why? Because His symphony, His plan for my life, is much grander than I can ever make it.

Coming to an End

As my prison time comes to an end at Seagoville Federal Prison in Texas, I look back at these last 63+ months and think about all I have been through. It has definitely been a roller coaster ride; the ups and downs, the good times and the bad times, the happy times and the sad times. My prison experience wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. It is what you make of it that determines how it will go. I refused to let prison get the best of me, but instead I got the best of prison. Believe it or not, there will be things that I will miss about prison. It’s like a whole new world in here, one I’ll never get to experience again, nor do I want to.

My love for sports has always been very high. I enjoy playing them, watching them, even coaching them. With the weather somewhat decent year round in Texas, sports leagues are constantly going – from softball to sand volleyball to ultimate Frisbee to pickleball. I will actually miss playing them.

Why would I miss prison sports so much when I can do the same thing outside of prison? You’re right….. I can do all these sports outside the prison walls. But in prison, the atmosphere is completely different. It seems like 90% of the inmates enjoy seeing someone fail. The negative behavior and comments outweigh the positives by at least ten to one. Since I have always leaned toward the underdog, I always cheer for the guys and teams that are being cheered against, which most of the time are the underdogs or the not-so-popular inmates. I guess that is why I love coaching the not-so-athletically -gifted inmates. It brings me joy watching them succeed.

The leagues here are very competitive, too. Inmates will do most anything they can to win, even bending the rules or cheating if they can get away with it. Let’s not forget about the constant complaining, too! I do my best to stay away from these types of people and get on opposite teams. I absolutely love beating these people and teams. Is that a bad thing?

That is why when I coach and draft people on my teams, I don’t always pick the best athletes, but the ones who like to have fun, listen, are good sports, and will work hard. Out of the fourteen softball and sand volleyball leagues I’ve participated in while here, my teams have won the championship seven times. The other inmates wonder why I win more than most. I tell them the same thing what I just said above…..that we’re out to have a good time and to encourage each other. Most just laugh and roll their eyes at me.

One thing I do love about playing sports in prison is that it gets my mind off prison life for that short period of time. I don’t have to focus or think about getting out of here or life after prison. I don’t have to think about the nuances or the mundane prison schedule. I feel free and focused on the game at hand. Sports put my mind at ease. It’s like a relaxer, a feel-good feeling.

This past week my sports career at Seagoville came to an end. My softball team, which consisted of only three returnees from last year’s championship team, won the league title again this year. And for the third year in a row, my three-man sand volleyball team, with every year being a completely different team, won it all again, too. People say I carry the team. But I strongly disagree with them. It’s the hard work, effort, want, and drive by all members of the team, regardless of athletic ability, that results in winning.

The days remaining on my prison sentence continues to get fewer and fewer. It’s been quite the adventure, one I’ll never forget. God has definitely been with me, protecting and caring for me every step of the way. But He’s not quite finished with me yet, as He needs me to take a pit-stop in Wisconsin for a few months before heading to St. Louis to begin my real life. And all I can do is trust and obey. I know I’m in good hands.

Coach

It was the first year I was eligible to play Little League Baseball. My dream of playing in the Big Leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals was finally underway. I was so excited! I would be wearing an actual uniform, playing with real umpires and pitchers, even playing under the lights on some occasions. The majority of the boys in my first grade class all signed up together to be placed on the same team. What a fantastic way to start my career, I thought.

The only problem…..we had no coach. Who would want to take on the daunting task of coaching a bunch of seven-year-olds how to play the game of baseball? Some of the boys in my class were natural athletes, while a few of them couldn’t even walk and chew gum at the same time. To turn the newly formed team into a success was a near impossible task.

Fortunately, there was on individual who jumped at the opportunity to teach us how to throw, hit, and run bases. He was loving, caring, and showed a whole lot of patience. He quickly jumped at this opportunity to make a difference to a bunch of scraggly kids. That person was my Dad!

As a 7-yr-old I thought my Dad knew everything and was the coolest person ever. (Actually, he still is pretty cool today, even at the young age of 68, and still does know quite a bit!) When he told me that he was going to be the coach of my baseball team, I just about jumped through the roof. I knew I was in good hands with my professional career. I was already anticipating a roster spot to open up for me in about fifteen years with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Of course, that did not happen. The season came and went. I can’t remember a whole lot about my first season of baseball other than we lost more games than we won. But what I remember the most was the time and effort my Dad put into that team. It was not a paid position; all voluntary. He sacrificed countless hours out of his own time to teach us how to play the game of baseball. He didn’t coach us because he had to, but because he wanted to. He wanted to make us not only ballplayers, but also better individuals in life as well, even at the young age of 7 or 8. He taught us sportsmanship. He taught us teamwork. And most importantly, he taught us respect. He took time and helped each one of us individually to develop our skills. When one person failed, he never gave up until that player succeeded. He was loved by many and liked by all. He ended up coaching our team for six years. We had our ups and downs. But we also had a lot of fun!

Whenever a coaching opportunity arose during my grade school and middle school years, my Dad was also the first one to volunteer, not just for me, but also for my older sister and two younger brothers as well. Yes, he had a fulltime job, but was also a full-time father, putting his family first in life. He ended up coaching baseball, soccer, basketball, and track and field through many seasons for my siblings and me. Even today, when he runs into some of his old players, all grown-up now and in their 30’s, they still call him “Coach.”

He does not coach anymore. But he still is an inspiration and role model to many, especially me. Thank you, Dad, for being such an amazing father. You’ve been with me through all of life and have taught me so much. I strive to be like you someday. You truly are the #1 Dad in the entire world. Thank you for making a difference in my life. Happy Father’s Day! I love you!DSCF3972 (2)

Officiating

When I was growing up I always thought being a professional umpire or referee would be an awesome and great profession. One of the perks I considered was that you would be surrounded by all the elite and famous professional athletes, and you could get whatever and whomever’s autograph you wanted. Plus watching unlimited games and visiting every stadium around the country would be pretty exciting, too. If I wasn’t going to make it as a professional athlete, I wanted to be as close to the action as possible. And what better job to have….none other than an official. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize that if I ever became an official, I could not be bias towards my favorite team. I had to be fair and equal to all. But I wasn’t thinking at all of that as a kid.
As I got older, being a professional athlete or professional official slowly left my mind. Although my love for sports was always there, doing it as a full time job was not what I wanted to do. However, whenever an opportunity arose I officiated at a much lower level whenever possible.
I first started officiating in college during intramural volleyball games. I can’t recall how much I got paid. I know it wasn’t much. But being a poor college student, any amount of money was more than enough. It might have even been just a free t-shirt I was working for. HA! I refereed my fair share of intramural volleyball games throughout my college years, as well as Middle School games while I was student teaching. When I became a teacher after graduation the unwritten rule at all the Lutheran Middle Schools where I taught was that any PE teacher/coach had to become an official. I had no problem with that, and was excited to take on the responsibility. Depending on the situation, the level of games, and the school determined if I was to get paid or not and/or how much. The amount of money didn’t matter. I enjoyed what I was doing. Plus, the more and more I officiated, my proficiency improved drastically.
During my nine years of teaching, I refereed and umpired soccer games, volleyball matches, softball games, basketball games, even track and field meets. So when I came to prison and sand volleyball officials were needed, I jumped at the opportunity immediately, not thinking what I was getting myself into before I started. Sand volleyball rules and hardcourt rules have a few minor differences, but nothing too drastic. But going from Middle School volleyball to prison volleyball was a big change. In Middle School, the athletes are still learning the game and while skills are being developed. They listen to the officials and abide by the rules. They respect the referee’s calls when an error is made.
In prison it’s a whole new ballgame. Inmates already know everything, or at least they think they do They can’t stand when a penalty is called against them. They think they play perfectly and that they can’t possibly do anything wrong. They will argue, argue, and argue, and try everything to bend the rules and give themselves an advantage to win. Every other word that comes out of their mouth is a curse word, while encouraging and uplifting words are seldom said. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been threatened to get taken into the bathroom for a beatdown or to get shanked (stabbed) over a call I made. Officials are the bad guys on the volleyball court.
Thankfully, though, throughout the years, I’ve earned the respect from the other inmates, as they realize that I do know the rules, can play the game well, and am eager to help them out. Officiating volleyball games outside of prison I would be making $25 per match. Inside these fences, though, I make a whopping 25 cents per match! I referee anywhere between 10 to 20 matches per week, so I’d be rolling in the dough if this was my after work hobby in the evenings outside of prison. But paying for a few phone calls while in prison to my loved ones is all I need to do what I enjoy.
As my time here winds down, I will miss the opportunity to officiate sand volleyball matches. It has definitely helped me develop more patience, my communication skills, my character, and control my emotions. Once again, another positive outlook on life that has happened to me while in prison.

 

Mothers

love you forever

When you scraped a knee or got hurt as a kid, who did you run to? When you were sick, who did you turn to for sympathy? When you were hungry and needed something to eat or clothes that needed to be washed, who did you ask? Who is the first person you would say Hi to if you made it in front of a television camera? If you haven’t guessed it by now, the answer for all of these questions is “Mom.”

How important are Moms? In my opinion they are one of the most important people on the face of the earth. Everyone needs a Mom. They are the nurturers, caretakers, and caregivers of the family. The Moms I know, including my Mom, give 110% when it comes to being a Mom. They will do anything for their family and make incredible sacrifices. We all have a Mom or have had a Mom. Most of us know our mothers pretty well. From day one they have been with us every step of the way. Their love is unconditional, and cannot be denied.

I love my Mom very much. She has shown her love and support for me at all times, especially these last 6+ years while dealing with the judicial system and while I’ve been in prison. Was she disappointed in the choices I made that put me in prison? Absolutely! She was very hurt. But she forgave me, and continues to love me. It seems like she works non-stop in dealing with judges and attorneys in trying to get me released and back home. She never gives up, and won’t stop until I’m free. I’m very thankful and appreciative of her. I’ve never once heard her complain. If I ask her for help, she does it with open arms. A phrase she would pin up to each of our bulletin boards growing up was, “No matter how I’m acting on the outside, I keep loving you on the inside.” She is a leader, a role model, and an inspirer. I strive to be like her.

Growing up, I think she spent 24 hours a day in the van, driving all four of her kids to and from the countless number of activities we participated in. And yet, she still found time to cook dinner for us at night. Her relaxing time of the day was spent quizzing us for upcoming tests before we went to bed. And unless someone was deathly ill, she made sure the entire family would attend the 8am church service, followed by Sunday School, which she taught as well. And every morning before anyone else got up, she would spend her time with God. She always put God first, and still does today.

My Mom is the best because no matter what I do, how I act, what I say, or where I am, her love for me will never fail. She loves me unconditionally. The words of a song she used to sing to me while reading a book when I was a kid goes like this:

I’ll love you forever   I’ll like you for always

As long as you are living   My baby you will be.

Mom, I couldn’t ask for a better Mom. You are definitely one of a kind. You are loving, caring, forgiving, helping, nurturing, guiding, protecting, supportive, kind, gentle, encouraging, uplifting, motivating, trusting, and faithful. Thanks for all you do and for helping me grow into the Godly man you wanted me to be. Words will never be able to express how much you mean to me. Mom, I’ll love you forever and always. Happy Mother’s Day! Wish I could celebrate with you.

I Will Remember

When the other inmates are asked what is one thing that they will remember most about prison when they leave this place, their common response is “Nothing. I don’t ever want to think of this place, what I did to get here, or even the judicial system ever again. I want to sweep it under the rug and move on with my life.”

I always find that a little shocking……because if they are ever going to learn from their mistakes, they are going to have to remember where they’ve been and remember what they went through to change their way of thinking, their behavior, and their lives.

When I’m asked that same question, my response is not of the ordinary. I always tell others that I’ll remember that I made a difference to a vast number of people I crossed paths with…..from officers, to inmates, even to family and friends. My time is not and has not been wasted. I chose to put forth the effort to better my life and to help better other lives as well.

I will remember everything about the number of walls and fences I’ve been behind.

I will remember the sleepless and stressful nights.

I will remember each of my cellies, their names, their habits, likes, dislikes, and what kind of person they were.

I will remember the fights I saw and the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah I lived in.

I will remember the chow hall food and the commissary lines.

I will remember the visitors who came to visit and the quick 15 minute phone calls I made to my loved ones.

I will remember the 17 cents hourly wage and the 25 cents I earned to officiate volleyball matches.

I will remember the laughs, the cries, the smiles and the angry times that came upon me.

I will remember the sports leagues and the prize bags won for competitions.

I will remember the popcorn and snow-cones that were given out during the summer holidays.

I will remember the days we could not leave the unit or even the cell, except to use the bathroom.

I will remember the court rooms, attorneys, prosecutors, and judges.

I will remember the orange jump suits, khaki uniforms, and grey workout clothes.

I will remember the inmates that made an impact on me and the ones I led to Christ and will see again someday in heaven.

I will remember the crime I did that put me here for the past five years and counting.

I will remember getting arrested.

I will remember the first day and night in jail.

I will remember entering prison for the first time.

I will remember the death threats and going to “the hole” for protection.

I will remember the people I hurt by my actions.

I remember. I remember. I remember.

I also remember God’s hedge of protection around me 24 hours a day. I remember surrendering my life wholeheartedly to God. I remember breaking down and crying out to Him. I remember the peace He poured upon me. I remember the prayers I sent up to Him and the answers He gave me. And I remember the forgiveness He bestowed upon me.

I remember. I remember. I remember.

To be honest, I would not have asked for a better life. In my 38 years on this earth, this prison experience has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. God got my attention. He hit me across the face when He disciplined me. He grabbed me by the collar and told me to change my ways.

And I listened. God came back into my life again. I put Him first. I’m doing His work and leading His ministry right where He has me. I am that light in this dark place. I have that joy. I have that happiness. I have that love.

That is why I’ll remember everything about this prison sentence. Prison has made me into what and who I am today. Coming to prison was not part of God’s plan. But transforming me, molding me, and using me to further His kingdom while I was in prison was part of His plan. And for that I will always remember.