What I Learned from a Weekend with Ex-Cons

This past weekend I spoke at a men’s retreat for Desert View Bible Church. There were about 140 men, mostly guys who attend the church. One of the men works with Alongside Ministries, a ministry that provides Christ-centered mentoring to the incarcerated community. He brought about 15 men who have been released from prison in the last year and now live in a transitional discipleship home, where they are learning to walk with Christ “on the outside.”

Alongside Ministries

The retreat was a blessing for many reasons. But one of the highlights was spending time with these ex-cons. They all thought I was the teacher for the weekend, but I think I learned a lot more from them:

1. Realizing the depth of your sin makes you more grateful to God. These men were grateful. Thankfulness oozed out of them everywhere. They loved singing praise songs and jumped right in, even if they didn’t already know the songs. They loved walking outside in the cool mountain air. They loved the camp food. They loved all the fellowship. There was an appreciation of the small things that was convicting and refreshing for me. And it comes from knowing, with clarity, what they’ve been saved from.

2. Broken people are accepting people. At meal time, it was open seating and I moved around to a bunch of tables to meet different guys. The most friendly and accepting guys were the ex-cons. They know what it’s like to be looked down on and avoided, and they go out of their way to make sure others don’t feel that way.

3. Jesus truly makes people new. A number of these guys had been in prison 20+ years, but they were new men in Christ. Except for their passion for Jesus and gratitude for everything, you wouldn’t have even realized they were ex-cons.

4. The Bible is a rich well for those who will take the time to drink from it. Many of these men knew the Bible really well. I think that’s partly because they didn’t have a lot else to do, but it’s mostly because the depth of their salvation makes them hungry for God’s word. One guy practically recited my sermon notes to me before I spoke just because he knew the Bible so well. I said, “Maybe you should teach this.” How much spiritual richness do we forfeit because we are too lazy or too busy to soak up Scripture?

5. What man intends for evil, God intends for good. The theme of the weekend was “Faithful,” as we looked at the faithfulness of God in the story of Joseph and Judah (Genesis 37-50). The key verse is Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” One of the men told me he shared the gospel with 14 cell mates and 6 came to faith in Christ. He started praying, “God, I’ll gladly stay in prison if it means you’ll use me to win more people to Christ.” At the end of the story he said, God meant it all for good. I don’t know the specifics of the crime that landed this man in prison. But what he intended for evil, God intended for good.

6. It’s really fun to preach and lead when people are fired up. I already knew this, but what a great reminder. What a blessing to teach people who are eager to learn and hungry for God. May we give this gift to those who lead us.

7. It’s challenging to have your identity be in Christ instead of your past. Many of these men are now struggling to figure out how to have their identity be in Christ, rather than what it used to be in — their crime(s). They are no longer inmates, but this identity clings nearby. Ironically, it reminded me of the many former athletes I know who struggle to integrate into normal life after being set apart for so long. Just goes to show that all of us struggle to find our identity in Christ instead of what we do or have done.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what I saw this weekend.


Published by Luke Simmons

I was born and raised in Denver, CO and lived there through high school. Then I moved to Champaign, IL where I attended the University of Illinois and played on the Fighting Illini baseball team. I was married in December, 2001 to Molly, who I met at the U of I. In June of 2002, we moved to Phoenix and have been here ever since.

5 thoughts on “What I Learned from a Weekend with Ex-Cons

  1. I usually don’t comment on blogs etc. I spent 12 years of my life behind bars in Texas. From the age of 20-32. I have been out now for about 10 years, released in 2003. My crimes involved drugs and robbery. I was an out of control teenager that wound up in prison. I had gotten into Satanism, the occult, and made up my mind not to turn to God when I landed in prison – I made my choices, I had to pay for them.

    After prison I had no time for the occult even though I had gotten even more heavily involved in it while incarcerated. I literally had the clothes on my back when released. I had to start over in life outside the walls. I needed to find a job and all else. All I was worried about was staying out. Making the best choices I could.

    That was 10 years ago. Now I have a wife and two sons. After the birth of my first son, I felt drawn to seek God. As a father I wanted to be the best role model I could be to my son and not let him go down paths I have. Four years later after my first son was born – here I am, still struggling in my relationship and walk with God.

    There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t struggle somehow mentally from the impact of 12 years in prison. Your “7. It’s challenging to have your identity be in Christ instead of your past” is very true for us. Even on a personal level, thoughts of what we did, where we’ve been (prison), etc – haunt us daily. Depression comes and goes. Christians need to be more open to ex cons and welcome them in their churches. The last thing we need is to be looked down upon, frowned upon, or made to feel like an outcast.

    Many of us are hard enough on ourselves. I personally have known two childhood friends that also landed in prison and after being out for a while committed suicide. Some of us make it and some of us don’t. Some of us succeed and never go back to prison while the majority of us do go back. I’ve witnessed guys purposefully going back because they just can’t fit in out here anymore. They feel alone, disliked, with all the cards stacked against them. Finding jobs are nearly impossible. Most have no family they can turn to for whatever reason. They did their time, paid for their crime, yet still feel punished by society…

    Forgive them, accept them, and encourage them.

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