Danny Duchene, who was given a double life sentence but was released from California's Sierra Prison after 32 years, on Pastor Rick Warren's request, was dedicated as a pastor for Saddelback Church's prison ministries this weekend. Duchene shared his spiritual journey with the congregation.
"God can use anybody, even in the most unlikely places," Warren told the congregation in his message, "God Can Use Anybody," and later asked Duchene to share his story, as part of the church's "The Miracle of Mercy" campaign.
Duchene said he's been part of the Saddleback family since 2003, and that he once shared his testimony with the megachurch through the phone from the prison 13 years ago.
He grew up in California, and had a lot of freedom during his childhood. "My parents had nice homes and cars, and I grew up thinking that the goal of life was just having nice things." This thinking led him to insecurities and difficulties in standing against high school pressures, although making friends was easier because he had cars.
One day, he came home from school and saw his parents sitting with a friend with thousands of dollars spread out across the kitchen table. "I was told they were going on a business trip to Peru and that I'd see them at Christmas."
He was left to take care of his 18-month little brother with the help of some family and friends. "My parents didn't return from that trip. Instead, on Christmas Even 1979, I learnt that my parents had been arrested in Mexico for smuggling cocaine. This was a total shock since my parents were not drug users or drinkers."
The news filled him with fear, and it soon turned into anger. So at a parking lot in his car, he got high, which gave him temporary relief. So he began to take drugs everyday and became an addict.
"At 16 years old, I didn't know if I would ever see my parents again." He became more and more impulsive and started committing crime to buy drugs and alcohol. He was expelled from school and lost the family home. "I take full responsibility for those self-destructive decisions," Duchene said.
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"There were people around me who loved me, and they tried to help, but I quickly got addicted to my way of dealing with loneliness and pain. I was already imprisoned to my way of life," he added.
Two years later, his mother was released from prison, and tried to reunite the family. But he was already an addict to alcohol and marijuana. "My life was out of control. I robbed and stole and hurt others because I chose to please myself," he said.
He was then caught in a crime in which two men were killed. "Thankfully, I was quickly arrested in September 1992, which I also call being rescued," he said.
In three weeks, he was able to withdraw from drugs and alcohol. "Once I became sober, the full weight of what I had done came crashing down on my conscience. I was overwhelmed with depression and remorse, as I realized how many people I had hurt. I believed I was lost and going to hell. I was truly, truly afraid," he recalled.
"It was at my lowest point that God's mercy showed up in my life. God began bringing a lot of Christians to see me who shared the love and mercy of God with me," Duchene said.
Initially, it seemed too good to be true that God loved him, he said. But the message eventually got through to him. "I learned that Jesus could give me a fresh start, changing me from the inside out," he told the congregation. He decided to serve Jesus in "whatever life was left."
He said it was 1982 when he asked Jesus to forgive all his sins and take control of his life, Duchene shared, quoting Romans 5:20, "…But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more."
He began to grow spiritually in the county jail. In 1983, when he was 19, he was sentenced to life. He never expected to see the outside world again. "But inside, I had been liberated… I was free," he said.
"In prison, I read Pastor Rick's bestseller Purpose Driven Life, and wrote to him. The prison soon started buzzing with cell groups to study the book. Inmates were baptized inside the prison campus. Saddleback's Celebrate Recovery program began in the prison, and gave an opportunity to prisoners to have support to now do the right thing for the first time in their lives."
Duchene said he would like to tell everyone, whether they are inside a prison or outside, "You cannot be what God wants you to be on your own. You need support, you need a small group. I'm sure my life would have been very different if I had the support of a godly small group as a teenager."
He said he didn't know if it would ever be possible for him to work at Saddleback. However, in 2014, Warren wrote a passionate letter to the governor urging parole for him so that he could be appointed as a pastor at Saddleback.
Duchene was released from prison on Christmas Eve of 2014 after 32 years. And he is now a Saddleback pastor for prison ministries. "God's mercy is the key for inner freedom," he said in conclusion.
After Duchene's testimony, Warren came back to the pulpit, called other church leaders as well as Duchene's wife, Susan, and prayed for the couple.
Warren's book not only changed Duchene's life, it resulted in a Saddleback-inspired "Purpose-Driven Church" started by inmates in the prison, and the adoption of Saddleback's Celebrate Recovery program by the correctional institution as its official recovery program, the church said in a statement. "In the past 13 years, thousands of lives have been changed and prisons across America have followed Sierra's example."