One day I walked over to Robert's cell and watched as he smiled and danced around while sweeping the floor. My first thought was that he had scored some drugs. But when I asked why he seemed so different, I was unprepared for his response. "Shon, I'm with Jesus now," he said. Within days Robert had forgiven the man who had testified against him. Today Robert is back on his farm with his family, and once a week he treks back into prison to lead a men's Bible study.
Robert was neither the first nor the last prisoner I saw experience a complete and utter life turnaround. These inmates had a great effect on me because I saw how grace can transform everyone, even prisoners—perhaps especially prisoners.
I was finding it harder and harder to rationalize myself away from God.
I was released from prison in April of 2009, during the heart of the recession, when no one, let alone a former inmate, could find work. But within months, another grace arrived: I found a position at a leading printer of Supreme Court briefs in Omaha, helping attorneys perfect their briefs.
When Annie and I got engaged, we decided that we wanted my friend, pastor Marty Barnhart, to officiate the ceremony. God bless him, Marty wouldn't agree to do so until we had gone through his premarital counseling.
Our first counseling session was, in a word, memorable. Instead of discussing marriage, Marty asked what we believed about Jesus. When he talked about grace, that free gift of salvation, I listened, especially when he said that I could be forgiven. "Yeah, even you, Shon," he said.
The next day I couldn't escape the feeling that God had been pursuing me for a long time and that if I'd just abandon my stubbornness and selfishness, and hand everything over to him, I would find redemption.
What does it mean to be redeemed? And how do you redeem yourself after robbing five banks?
The answer is, you don't. The answer is that you need some help.
In Ephesians 1:7–8, Paul writes that in Christ "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us." To put it differently, because of our sins, none of us—and surely no former prisoner like me—can be redeemed on our own. We need the gospel of grace, which says that each of us matters and has worth because we're made in the image of God. Grace says we are not defined by our failures and our faults, but by a love without merit or condition.
God's grace was enough to redeem me.
Nearly five years have passed since I made the most important decision of my life: to surrender to this grace. Annie and I got married, and she too became a believer. We were baptized together at Christ Community Church in Omaha. We had a son whom we named Mark, after my father, a man of faith who passed away after a long battle with cancer while I was still incarcerated. And a few years later we had a baby girl, whom we named Grace.
We moved from Nebraska to Seattle so I could attend the University of Washington Law School on a full-ride scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. During this time, I've volunteered and served toward a goal of ending mass incarceration in the United States. I'm motivated by the belief that prisoners are not beyond the grasp of God's redemption. And we've been nourished by our church, Mars Hill in Seattle, where we have met Christians who live out their beliefs with grace and compassion.