Five years ago, I worked as a defense attorney, advocating for children. One day I walked into the break room of the office I shared with a few other attorneys and found a new coworker eating lunch. Darryl (not his real name) wasn’t a typical legal assistant. He had recently been released from prison after serving an 18-year sentence for murdering his roommate. Darryl was 20 years old when he was sentenced to prison. I’m not sure why he committed this murder, but I know he was involved in a local gang. After Darryl was denied parole over and over again, his grandmother asked a coworker of mine to represent him in a hearing. My coworker agreed, and Darryl was released. Now, at age 39, he worked as an employee in our office—his first legal job.
Darryl wasn’t accustomed to having friends—not positive friends, anyway—so I often stopped by his office just to say hi. I sat and chatted with him at lunch, and I always offered my help if he had any questions. As time went by, I found opportunities to share more about my faith and ministry. He asked about my weekend and evening plans, so I talked about the local homeless shelter where I served and the Bible study I attended. I told him that I would travel to local jails and prisons telling women about a God who loved them.
One day he asked me, “Do you think God could love someone like me after all the horrible things I’ve done?” I told him yes and described to him the amazing, forgiving love of God. After a few weeks, Darryl came to my office with a new question: “How do people become Christians?” On this day, we forgot that I was an attorney. We forgot that we were at work. We were just two sinners in need of a Savior. I shared my story with him, about a broken little girl who needed someone to love her. I told him about the pain I had experienced, and about a God who walked with me every step of the way. I became vulnerable, and I asked if he was interested in following Jesus. He said, “I guess that’s what I’m trying to do right now.” We prayed, he confessed, and he decided to follow Jesus. He looked as though a weight had been lifted from him.
I invited him to my church that night for Bible study and introduced him to some godly men. In a conversation with one of them, he said he wanted to be baptized. I was surprised, but thrilled. They informed him that he could do it at a later date, but he was adamant. So our baptism team asked Darryl several questions, took time to explain the importance of baptism, and prayed with him. Then they prepared him with baptismal garments.
Darryl was large, so he and the men were concerned about the logistics of submerging him in the water and raising him up again. Soon an army of men appeared. They told Darryl not to worry; they would get him down and back up. With a look of determination, he said, “Let’s do this.” My friends and I waited by the baptismal pool, clapping and cheering. We sang, “Come and take me to the water, take me to the water, take me to the water, to be baptized!” When he came up out of the water, he smiled and shook his head as if to say, “What just happened to me?” We were moved. We were speechless. We were thankful to God.
I invited Darryl to join us for church on Sunday. For several weeks, Darryl accompanied me while I picked up people for church and Bible study. In my car, he told me stories from his childhood. He was neglected and abused as a child. Both of his parents were addicted to drugs and alcohol, and they spent much of his childhood in prison. Because of his weight, he was a victim of bullying. Children tied him up, pushed him over, and called him “piggy.” His depression turned to aggression, and in his teens, he became a hit man for a local gang. Each time he shared these stories, he regressed to the hurting child he once had been.
On one such car ride, as we delivered people to church, Darryl received a number of phone calls from people asking where he was. I could tell something heavy was on his mind, but he was afraid to bring it up. I pressed him, and finally he asked, “Can you drive me to see my grandmother? I need to say goodbye.” Darryl believed his grandmother was the only person who ever truly loved him, yet he felt like he’d only been a burden to her. Now she was in hospice and wasn’t expected to live much longer. We sat in silence most of the way as I struggled to find the right words. Once we arrived, I asked if\ he needed me to go in with him, but he wanted to do it alone. So I prayed for him and left.
After that, the men in my church advised me that it was not wise for Darryl and me to drive to church together. Although my intentions were good, they said it was better for him to come to church with another male. I also switched jobs around that time, and because of these developments, my contact with Darryl diminished.
We met for lunch once and had a great time catching up. He was grateful to be out of prison, but struggled to live this new life. As we ate, someone approached him wanting to talk. Darryl greeted the man quickly and brushed him off. I grew concerned that Darryl was regressing. Still, I remained hopeful that he was on the right track. But about a month later, I received a short, vague email from Darryl saying that things weren’t going well. It was the last I heard from him.
One morning, a month after Darryl sent his email, I got up and turned on the news. Two teenage girls had been shot—one dead and the other in critical condition. The alleged suspect was on the run, and police were searching for him. Tears blurred my vision when I saw the suspect’s picture. It was Darryl.
Reports indicated that the slain teenage girl was the daughter of Darryl’s ex-girlfriend. The injured girl was her niece. The media reported that Darryl shot the girls after his girlfriend had discontinued their relationship.
For weeks, everywhere I went people talked about the monster who committed this heinous crime. They had no idea I knew him. They didn’t know his story or his brokenness. They didn’t know the internal battle waging within my heart and mind over the facts of the case.
When the police arrested Darryl, he apologized to everyone in front of the news cameras and asked people not to judge other prisoners for his actions. While he was in the county jail, I sent him Scriptures and encouraging notes. I also sent two of my dearest male friends. They assured me that Darryl had received my cards and that he knew I loved him, but they informed me that he was severely depressed. He was inconsolable over what he had done.
My heart ached. What could I have done differently? Did I do enough? Did I abandon him?
Then one day I received a phone call from one of the men who visited Darryl. “They found Darryl dead in his cell today,” he said. “He’s gone.” I sobbed and screamed as if he were my own brother. It was a pain I had never felt before. Was he in heaven? Was this God’s will? The pain reached deep into my soul.
I judged myself. I judged my ministry. I wondered if I should have done more to disciple him. He had trust issues. Was handing him off to other people the right thing to do? Or should I have connected him to my male friends earlier?
Discipleship doesn’t always go the way we think it should. When the people under our care grow into great men and women of God, it is glorious. But when they have setbacks or turn away from the faith, it can be heartbreaking.
My former coworker who gave Darryl the job told me we did everything we could. We helped him find employment and an apartment. We invited him into our lives. Still, I wonder if things could have turned out differently.
In my current place of employment, I work to protect children who have been abused or neglected. I recently posted Darryl’s picture in my office to remind myself why I fight to protect children. Darryl was abused and neglected. He needed love and support. He needed adult role models to show him a different way of life.
I will continue to love with reckless abandon. I will still walk alongside those in jail, prison, and shelters. I will face disappointments. But I will not become cynical. As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17). I still believe anyone can change through God’s power.
Carmille Akande is a licensed attorney and minister who spends her time visiting prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, and nursing homes sharing the love of Jesus. You can follow her on Twitter @CarmilleAkande.