When climbing a wall, once learning there’s a rope that will brace you if, or when, you slip, there’s the assurance that it will keep you from falling all the way down. Then it is much easier to reach the top because you have confidence that you are protected. If you didn’t have that certainty, and you knew you probably couldn’t make it on your own, then why try at all?
We pray there is a similar mindset with the young people we work with who are incarcerated in local detention centers. They need a ‘line of support’ from a mentor, who puts them at ease knowing they have someone to encourage them currently, and even better, the affirmation will continue when they’re on their own heading back into the real world.
And this is the aim of James Gillespie, one of our staff chaplains: to help incarcerated youth get prepared and have the strength needed when they head back into “real” life. This reassurance, even during the time they are restricted and still in a detention center, gives them hope. What makes James a credible mentor is that he has similarities to them in his past and yet, he stands out as to where God has placed him today.
Even though James was never in a gang, as most of the prisoners have been, the Lord still uses other aspects of James’ past to relate to the prisoners. He was incarcerated when he was just 12 years old, and he says he is “able to share my experience, strength and hope—a lot of what I’ve come through and where I am right here and now.”
In fact, now James is celebrating 23 years of sobriety from alcohol on February 20th, which is quite remarkable and gives them evidence that such an act is possible. Even though this obviously was not a fun or good aspect of James’ past, it truly has its benefits now—the ability to encourage these young men to get out of jail and to pursue a better life. It also shows them how God can make all things work together for good.
Chris, whose name is changed here for safety, is one who has been in recovery from alcohol and involvement with a gang. James has been meeting with him for two years in the same youth services center in a suburb of Denver. Over the time spent with him, James has taken him into the community for recovery meetings, and now he even takes him to a place Chris requested to remove his tattoos. These tattoos were symbols of the gang he was in, and as you may or may not have heard, it takes much longer to erase than putting tattoos on your skin.
Yet, James says this is the most remarkable sign of Chris’ improvements. To remove what once symbolized a part of his identity, now gives him the freedom to become a new person. Freedom as in not just the physical presence out of jail—even though that will be quite liberating—but it also gives him plans for a new life. James says that Chris is beginning to realize there’s so much more to life than the other lifestyle of his past.
Once Chris is paroled, which thankfully and hopefully will be this March, he will stay with his uncle, which is a much safer place than with his own mother who is homeless. He is looking for a possible trade school and is even interested in the culinary arts because he is hoping to pursue a restaurant job in the future. Even if this sounds slightly picturesque, he currently has struggles to live through, which even includes harassments from other prisoners. Recently, there was a small riot at the jail, and it was noticed by others that Chris did not engage in it at all. Phenomenally, he’s making decisions to stay away from that, and prayer is necessary that he will hold onto this stance—and his hold will be all the stronger if he holds onto God.
When asked about Chris’ faith, James states that there have been many recovery meetings where spirituality was the key element. Chris said he is working on building his relationship with God, and James is constantly trying to show him
the impact that has made on his own life. Through James, young men see a wonderful example that “through God’s grace, many years of sobriety is possible with God,” and that he is now a different man than he was 23 years ago.
There are a lot more similar stories to tell, which can be written in the future, but for right now, prayer is appreciated for Chris’ upcoming parole, as well as for his own faith. James prays, as well as asks for prayer, that Chris will “walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.”
By: Christie Smith | Communication and Media Specialist
This is an image of James and Chris, as Chris has just been released from the center he was at for the past 14 months. He is now living at a “sober living house.” (posted on 3.29.23)