Friday, November 23, 2012

How I Went to Prison

I wrote this for my good friend Robert Valdez's newsletter about his ministry to the prisons of Central Florida, Casting the Net Ministries.

Greetings! My name is Jonathan Tony. Not Tony Jonathan, that’s ridiculous. I’ve been working with Casting the Net Ministries and Robert Valdez for a few years now, so let me give you a little bit of my story of how I came to be involved with it all.

In 2009 I was working for a local Christian radio station in Ocala, FL, but living in Gainesville, FL. I would drive down on Monday nights and host a 3-4 hour show consisting of a lot of talking and music. I started getting calls from a man in a South Florida prison every week. He said that he and some of the men there would listen to our show, and we’d end up talking a little bit each week. I thought it was really cool, and then the Lord started working in my heart about it all. In that same time frame, I had started meeting with Robert every week or two for dinner. We had become friends at church during a prayer service, and I just liked hanging out with him. I didn’t know at first that he went into prisons and ministered.

So Robert started talking to me about the ministry he was doing, and I got really excited. Robert has a way of getting you excited about whatever he’s talking about. I’m not entirely sure how he does it, but I think much of it can be attributed to volume of his voice. If you’ve never seen Robert get excited, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t heard him get excited. If you’ve ever heard a random voice and been like, “What was that? Who’s talking?” That was probably Robert excitedly talking to someone a few miles away.

So after the phone calls from the man and talking with Robert, the Lord spoke to me the simple verse, “I was in prison and you visited me…” (Matthew 25:36) I don’t know if I totally understand what God’s will is for many different areas of life, but I figured visiting someone in prison was a pretty straight-forward, easy to understand place to start. So I told Robert I’d like to get involved and we decided I’d start going on Monday nights to the work camp services.

After a few weeks of having a surprisingly difficult time of just being able to get approval to go into the Gainesville prisons (including me falling asleep during the orientation with the Chaplin, Robert, and I) I was finally ready to go in. My only experience with anything like this was when I went to a youth corrections facility when I was 14, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had questions like, “How do I possibly relate to men in this situation?” I’d never had a run in with the law. I’d never sold drugs and didn’t even know what most of them look like; for the first 20 years of my life I thought marijuana was a city in Brazil. What would the men think of me? I don’t have anything in common with them. Why would they want to hear anything from me?

I started going in and for the most part remained quiet during the services. I was leading the worship and pounding out old-school hymns I hadn’t sung in decades on the raggedy, out-of-tune piano that was in the chapel. I thought it was going to be a little easier to lead worship and that most of these guys would be able to sing like in the Jailhouse Rock video. Turns out I was way off. If that praise and worship was beautiful incense to the Lord then we have entirely different noses. But I’m sure God loved it, and in all seriousness, there is nothing like hearing a room full of prisoners sing Amazing Grace and sing of what it truly means to be free in spite of the walls of razor wire and bricks around them.

 Anyways, it didn’t take long for me to realize that just because we didn’t share the same backgrounds, it didn’t mean we didn’t share the same struggles. You see, at the heart of every human being, we are made up of the same stuff. We are all insecure. We are all afraid. We are all helpless. It is our undeniable need for a great God that makes us all the same. Once you realize that everyone has a breaking point, you may find it’s not so hard to connect. I couldn’t stand up there and preach to them about how hard it is to be in prison, I didn’t know anything about that. I don’t know what it’s like to miss my wife and kids. But I do know what it feels like to think God has forsaken you. I do know what it feels like to know you need something but you’re not even sure what it is. I do know what it means to cry in desperation as you beg for the God you’ve put your faith in to forgive you of sins you wouldn’t forgive yourself of. I do know about those times.

We’ve all been given a voice that needs to speak. We’ve all been given a testimony that needs to be told. If you think your life only comes down to you, you’re quite mistaken. I personally think that so many people are just waiting to know that they’re not the only ones who are like them. It’s amazing what showing your own heart can do. It’s amazing how showing your own wounds can be the very thing that starts to heal someone else’s. And when you think about it, it’s actually how Jesus works. “By his wounds, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

We’ve all been given grace, and true grace can only continue to spread. Whether you find yourself in a prison with 30 men, or in a Starbucks with a new friend, allow yourself to share the stories of the life God has given you. You may find the Kingdom is closer than you think.

Robert and I outside of a Gainesville, FL prison after our weekly Monday night service. Gotta love that guy.
If you would like to partner with Robert and Casting the Net, please contact them on their Facebook page here.

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