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Facing 104 years in prison, I was still an active father

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

While my daughter was young, I considered myself a weekend dad. Separated from her mother and living a life of addiction and crime, I visited when I could, but it wasn’t unusual if we didn’t see each other for weeks at a time.

As she got older, she started to question one particularly lengthy absence. We had spoken on the phone, but she wanted to see me and continued to ask her mother where I was. No longer able to keep my circumstances a secret, her mother finally told her the truth: I was in jail.

One in 49 children in the U.S. has a parent in prison. Nearly 47% of people in state prisons and 57% of people in federal prisons are parents, the majority of which are fathers to children under 18 years old. With over half of incarcerated individuals being parents, the Church has a tremendous opportunity to step in and fill the gap, helping families stay connected. It’s one of the many reasons my daughter and I have the strong bond we have today.

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I was facing up to 104 years in prison for numerous capital offenses. My daughter still needed her father, but I was exhausted and empty. I didn’t know how to be there for her from prison, and all I wanted was to find a way out.

On one especially tough night, I laid down and reached for the only thing in my cell to read — a Bible my bunkmate, a believer, had left under my pillow. The pages fell open to Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” A lightbulb went off and I knew God was speaking directly to me, providing the rest I so desperately needed. The next day, I gave my life to Jesus.

After that, every aspect of my life changed — including my relationship with my daughter.

With the new knowledge and reignited hope that, by God’s grace, incarceration wasn’t the end of my story, I began to parent with intentionality. I enrolled in a seminar hosted by Prison Fellowship, a biblically based life transformation program that helped me process my anger, guilt and relationships. I began to understand that even in my circumstances, I could connect with my daughter in positive ways. During our phone calls, I shared my faith with her and when she’d visit, I’d lead her in Bible study.

I also started studying her. I wanted to learn who she was as a person, about her life, and be as involved as I could in her activities. She told me about her plays and recitals, and after she made point guard on her basketball team, I gave her advice on the game. Despite the physical barrier of incarceration, I was still able to be her father — a responsibility I didn’t take lightly.

I also signed her up for Prison Fellowship Angel Tree, a program that partners with local churches to deliver gifts and the Gospel message at Christmastime. This program and the partnered church (who are still working together to this day) helped my daughter to know that I love her and that Jesus loves her too. She received dolls and board games, but the gift that had the greatest impact on her was a Precious Moments Bible. This gift was the beginning of my daughter’s personal faith journey, a faith she still has today.

Incarceration isn’t the end of a parent’s story. Men can still be fathers. Children can still know the love of a caring parent. Having hope and a second chance after incarceration means having a chance to redeem and reconcile relationships.

God did more than I could have ever asked or imagined with my life. Due to many circumstances and good behavior, I ended up with a 12-year sentence. Upon reentry, I became an ordained pastor while continuing to be involved in my daughter’s life. After missing years of milestones, I watched her graduate from college, and I walked her down the aisle at her wedding, fulfilling a promise we made to each other years before. And, as an ordained pastor, I also officiated it. To this day, we continue to have a strong relationship, keeping in touch regularly.

This Father’s Day, I’m reminded of Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” While incarcerated, it is easy to feel hopeless and to disengage from our family and life outside of prison. But we are called to hope in Jesus and plan for the future.

As the Church, we have a responsibility to share this kind of hope with those in prison and equip them to be better parents — the kind of hope I received as a father behind bars. By coming alongside, them to offer the support and tools they need to make this change, we can give incarcerated parents a chance for a fresh start and ensure a better future for the next generation.

Lazaro Lopez is a regional director of correctional programs for Prison Fellowship.

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