Finding God Behind Bars

By Christine Hurley

Eddie had been arrested several times before, but this time was different. This time the charge was attempted murder. He and his buddies broke into a home. On finding the owner armed, Eddie shot him. Shortly thereafter, this handsome 20-year-old found himself locked behind bars with a dark future staring him in the face. Yet God looked at him with love, although it sure didn’t feel like love.

Incongruous though it may seem, the moment Eddie fired a bullet into his victim marked the beginning of an internal transformation. When describing the crime and aftermath, he clearly recalls his first thought after jumping into the getaway car: “I hope I didn’t kill the guy,” a thought that grew not from fear of being charged with murder but from heartfelt concern for another person. God was working in his soul.

A drug user since age 14 and a high school dropout, Eddie had continued drug use and heavy drinking until it eventually got him kicked out of his mother’s home. Needing a place to live, he moved over 1,000 miles away to his grandmother’s house, the one place where he knew he would be accepted.

Grandma’s house sat right across the street from a Catholic church. Years before, Eddie had been introduced to Catholicism through a high school friend. It interested him, but not for long: He chose atheism. Ironically, he prayed his first Rosary as an atheist when his friend suggested he try it. Eddie was not impressed and considered it “lame.” Now that Eddie lived within a few steps of a Catholic church, he wanted to see what this church was all about. One day he made his way over for weekday morning Mass, but it made little impression. The priest noticed Eddie in the small gathering, but the angry-looking visitor never returned. That was several months before the break-in and shooting.

Following his crime, Eddie was incarcerated at a maximum security prison. With plenty of time for soul-searching and reading, he explored Buddhism. But then two fellow inmates invited him to join them for the Liturgy of the Hours, which led him to study Catholicism. On one of his grandma’s visits to the prison, Eddie told her he wanted to see a priest. Grandma, a devout Lutheran, had come to know Fr. Kevin, the pastor at the local Catholic church, where she played the organ at funeral Masses. She gave Eddie his phone number, and a guard called Fr. Kevin to arrange a visit. 

Knowing that Eddie was in prison for attempted murder did not put Fr. Kevin at ease as the two of them sat alone in the locked room. Eddie’s initial courage when requesting a meeting had evaporated, leaving him unable to look the priest in the eye. Father Kevin began by asking if he was Catholic, and Eddie replied that he was not but would like to be. Father Kevin, nearly 25 years a priest, was skeptical, but of course he listened as Eddie got up the courage to tell his story. 

Over the next two hours Fr. Kevin learned that Eddie had read the entire Bible twice and had thoroughly studied theCatechism of the Catholic Church. His answers to questions proved that he had indeed read and absorbed the material. Eddie had been spending time in prayer and had been trying to cultivate an appreciation for the presence of God in each moment and situation of every day. In the course of their discussion, Fr. Kevin recognized that God had drawn Eddie closer to Himself. It had been a gradual process, but now Eddie was confident that he wanted to be part of the Church he had grown to love, and he shared his strong desire with Fr. Kevin, who suggested regular visits during which he could teach Eddie more about the Catholic faith. 

Father Kevin had not initially recognized him, but Eddie was the angry-looking young visitor who had caught his notice at Mass more than a year earlier. His expression had been softened by the life transformation he had experienced. Father Kevin taught Eddie for a few months, continually surprised at the knowledge he found in one of his most receptive students ever. Before long, he realized that Eddie had a clear understanding of the new life he had chosen, so the day for which Eddie had been longing soon arrived. Father Kevin received him into the Church at a Mass in a locked prison room with a congregation of Eddie and his grandma. Eddie had never been happier.

Eddie and I have corresponded for some time now. We live over halfway across the country from each other, but, just as Eddie came to know Christ through a series of small movements of Divine Providence, so I came to know Eddie through other seemingly insignificant moments in God’s providential plan. Father Kevin and I have been close friends since college. Before he visited Eddie for the first time, he asked my husband and me for prayers because he was uneasy about his impending prison visit. Several months later when Eddie was received into the Church, I was his confirmation sponsor by proxy. So began our correspondence and friendship.

Recently Eddie wrote to me, “I believe now, if I [had] never committed this crime, my ‘God-shaped hole in my heart’ would never have been filled.” God took Eddie’s serious violation of His law and used it to soften his hardened heart into a heart overflowing with love for others. In Eddie’s words, “I used to care more about getting a high than relationships.” He loves his family more than ever. His sister’s depression and suffering sadden him deeply and give him a strong desire to shower her with more love and prayers. Sorrow for the pain of others is new to him, but it is a welcome sorrow, a sign of his union with all of us in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Eddie often expresses compassion for his fellow prisoners and knows firsthand what they’re going through. He understands how depression can bring a person low enough to consider suicide as the only solution, but his own suicide attempts have taught him that “God showers so much grace” into those contemplating suicide whether or not they have faith. Eddie didn’t have faith in God when he tried to kill himself, but he describes the resistance he felt as God’s way of giving him grace. He advises, “Whenever you see sad faces, be Jesus for them — and pray during your encounters with others. Especially people you know nothing about.” Smiles and encouraging words take so little effort, yet they have tremendous power. Power to give the discouraged hope.

Not all people make it easy to show love, and Eddie isn’t shy about expressing what we all experience. He writes, “I’m growing to a stronger love for God, and neighbor. Neighbor being the hard one, but I’m working nonetheless.” His dramatic conversion experience hasn’t made prison life easy. All of us are accustomed to behaviors of others that try our patience and make it difficult to be kind, but it takes little imagination to understand that a prisoner endures more than the average person in this regard. Eddie’s powerful example encourages us to face our own discouragement following failures and to persevere despite difficulties. He reminds us to approach Jesus, the only One capable of understanding and solving all our problems: “Our problems aren’t even a proton in the tip of His finger.”

Eddie expects more depression and loneliness throughout his many years in prison. The prison into which he was settled after his sentencing was not near his grandma or Fr. Kevin’s parish. He rarely has visitors. His father, who had been his only regular visitor, died suddenly at the age of 50. Most of his family live several states away, and I live two flights away. Eddie openly expresses his loneliness to me, but, never one to wallow in self-pity, he puts it this way: “I know I will be lonely until death, but I know Christ is with me all the time; this I know.” Eddie teaches us to recognize loneliness as a gift that can bring us deeper into friendship with Christ.

Saint John of the Cross teaches us in his Spiritual Canticle that God “knows how to draw good from evil so wisely and beautifully, and to ordain to a greater good what was a cause of evil.” Indeed, He does, and Eddie’s conversion gives us a striking example of what God will do for and through us if we allow Him to turn our many weaknesses and faults into goodness spreading throughout our messy world. Eddie wasn’t just a guy without faith; he had cursed God directly, cared about no one but himself, and had nearly killed a man. But God, never giving up on him, transformed him into someone who wants to give his life to others. 

In the eyes of the world, Eddie is far from a “success.” He has no status, he is poor, and he has an attempted murder on his record. Even after his release, which is many years away, his life will be limited by restrictions because he is a convicted felon. He is not disturbed by any of this. Rather, he is genuinely happy because God has looked on him with love. He expresses it best: “When you know God is present, which is all the time, life is beautiful even in a white prison cell.”

God looks on all of us with love. May we respond to Him the way Eddie has and appreciate the beauty of life no matter how dismal our circumstances. We need not look for success. We have God, who showers us with His love even when we oppose Him. We need only respond.

Christine Hurley writes from Houston, Texas. Due to the sensitive nature of this story, names have been changed.

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash.

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