When the Massachusetts State Prison priest offered Jim Wahlberg the opportunity to work as a janitor in the chapel, he readily agreed.
However, his motives weren’t exactly positive.
“I saw this as another opportunity to hustle someone,” Wahlberg, brother of actor Mark Wahlberg, told The Christian Post. “I knew the priest smoked cigarettes, so I figured it was a chance for me to steal some cigarettes and access his phone. I saw it as a chance to take advantage of him.”
Growing up in what he described as a “dysfunctional home” in Dorchester, Wahlberg — the middle of nine kids — began experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a young age. After running away from home, he found himself a ward of the state by age 12. He dropped out of high school at 15 and spent his teenage years rotating between foster care and stints in juvenile detention.
By 22 years old, Wahlberg had already been to prison twice. At 17, he was sentenced to Massachusetts State Prison for armed robbery. A mere six months after his release, he was arrested for burglarizing a police officer’s home. Facing six to nine years in prison, Wahlberg decided to do anything within his power to avoid serving the full sentence.
“I quietly began attending some self-help groups and things of that nature to pretend like I had changed,” he recalled. “I was just running game, just trying to create the illusion that I was trying to become rehabilitated. In reality, I wanted to get out and steal and consume as many drugs and alcohol as I could. I didn’t think sobriety was an option for me.”
After taking on the job at the local chapel, Wahlberg was informed that part of the gig was cleaning after services — meaning he would have to attend mass on occasion.
“That was never part of my plan; I did not want to attend any kind of mass or really have anything to do with the church,” he said. “I thought I was hustling the priest; turns out, he was hustling me.”
One day, the priest informed Wahlberg the prison was going to have a special visitor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
“I didn’t know who that was,” he admitted, “but the second she walked into the room, I knew there was something different about her. She spoke of love and mercy. She gave us hope; she let us know there was nothing too big for God.”
Meeting Mother Teresa was a “defining moment” for him, a moment that made him want to learn more about the God of grace, forgiveness and redemption.
“It was a profound experience,” he said. “I feel like God said, ‘I’ve tried to lead you in the right direction many times and you just won’t do it. So I’m going to send my number one assistant and it’s going to change you.' And it did change me in a very powerful way. I went to the priest and said, ‘I want to learn more about God. I want to learn more about my faith.’”
Thanks to positive influences, therapy, and other programs, Walberg finally found sobriety in 1988 — and a newfound commitment to his faith.
“I finally understood that there was a loving God, not just a god that was out to get me and punish me,” he said. “Once I understood the beauty of faith and the fact that Jesus gave it all up specifically for me, my life changed. I think if I’d understood that earlier, I would have been spared a lot of pain and suffering.”
Now sober for several decades, Wahlberg shares his powerful testimony in his new memoir The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid's Story of Addiction and Redemption. He also serves as the executive director of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, created to improve the quality of life for inner-city youth through a working partnership with other youth organizations.
“My experiences give me more ammunition to reach people that have been through similar circumstances; it gives my message a little more depth and weight than someone that learned answers and solutions from a book,” he said. “The goal of sharing my story is to let others know that nothing is too big for God. He took the mess of my life, all of my shortcomings and ugliness, and turned it into an asset to glorify Him.”
A producer, writer, and director of films, Wahlberg uses his talents and experiences to raise awareness about opioid addiction and point to the hope found in Christ. His latest film, "What About the Kids?" examines the devastating effects of addiction through the eyes of Chloe, an 8-year-old girl whose parents are hooked on opioids.
Wahlberg told CP the film was inspired by the numerous grandparents he’s met over the years forced to raise their grandchildren after losing a child to an overdose.
“I wanted to tell a version of their stories from a faith-based perspective,” he said. “In this particular case, this little girl loses her mom and her dad is still using. The grandma is a prayer warrior who is attempting to instill Christian views in her granddaughter. We see all the difficult dynamics between family members and the devastating nature of addiction, but it’s also a hopeful movie that reminds us of what’s possible through faith. Faith plays a key role in achieving sobriety.”
For Wahlberg, helping others overcome addiction by sharing his own story of redemption isn’t just a passion — it's a God-ordained calling on his life.
“God saved me for me a reason,” he stressed. “The best part is, it has nothing to do with me. It’s all by the grace of God. I want others to know there is no situation, no difficulty they can’t overcome with God. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. But when you have that undeniable feeling of the presence of God in your life and heart, it’s life-changing.”
“God loves you and He can pull you out of the field. No matter what situation you’re facing, it’s not too late.”