This article was originally published by The Mennonite


Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church of Richmond (Virginia).  He is the author of Sick Religion or Healthy Faith? Beliefs and Practices for Healing Christian Communities (Wipf & Stock, summer 2016).

Seventeen years ago I received a letter from an inmate at Pendleton Correctional Facility, a depressing prison where the notorious gangster John Dillinger had become a hardened criminal long ago.  Billy Johnson, a slight man about 30 years old, had heard about Mennonites and was wondering if I would come visit him.  At the time, I was pastor at First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, about 45 minutes from the prison, so I wrote him back and told him to put my name on his visitation list.

I visited him several times a year and got to know him fairly well. Since the age of 16, Billy had spent more time in jails and prisons than being free. His crimes were mostly petty: drunk and disorderly conduct and minor theft. One time when he went to court he expected to receive a fine; instead, the judge sentenced him to jail time. Billy ran from the court house—not because of an unwillingness to go to jail, but because going to jail would mean missing the funeral of his young child, recently killed in a car accident. So he ended up behind bars even longer.

Billy’s life was a sad one. He grew up poor in a small town where employment was scarce. He got married, but after the death of his child, the marriage fell apart. He drank a lot, and when he drank he got into fights and other trouble. When sober, he was a meek and kind soul, but the sadness never left his eyes.

Whenever I visited, we talked a lot about Christian faith and how God’s love and a community of believers could turn his life around. He was very interested in Mennonites, so I sent him various booklets and our church bulletins.  He said he wanted to be baptized and join my church when he got out. Privately, I wondered whether he would be disappointed in my church. We were mostly middle-class, educated, and cerebral. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to make him feel at home. But we were never put to the test because, when he was released a couple of years later, he returned to his hometown, too far away for regular attendance.

Soon after his release, Billy got remarried. He invited me to the wedding. It was the most depressing wedding I had ever attended. Yes, he and his bride looked happy enough, but his whole family was sullen. During the reception, in a grimy little church basement, I saw no evidence of any joy or love or friendliness. His parents barely said a word. I wondered what it must have been like growing up in such a family.

The second marriage lasted a year or two. He had secretly gone back to drinking, and then he stole some of his new wife’s money—which got him sent right back to prison.

I visited him again on a regular basis and he came to recognize his addiction and some of the other behaviors he needed to address if he wanted a stable life as a free man. When he was released the next time, he took his need for drug treatment seriously and was able then to maintain sobriety.

Still, life was difficult. He was chronically underemployed, developed serious complications from diabetes, and endured frequent injuries.

Every time he called me on the phone—several times a year—I knew the conversation would sooner or later become one of asking for money.  At first I felt sympathetic and generous; but after the pattern of need became established, I became more stingy. I started putting conditions on the money—telling him it was a loan that needed to be repaid before I would help him again. But his circumstances never allowed him to get his head above the water, so a loan would become a gift, followed by another grudging loan.

Billy married again, and this time the marriage stuck. His wife was someone he had known since childhood, and who had also spent time in prison and was suffering from chronic illness. They understood each other, and their lives together were better than their lives apart. They moved to Indianapolis in the hope of better jobs. I helped them with some transportation and lodging, and I took them out for a meal, but their plans inevitably fell through and they were forced to move back to where they came from.

I felt despondent—and guilty; I always had a job and a home.

A year and a half ago I moved to Virginia to become a pastor in Richmond. Shortly before I left Indianapolis, Billy gave me a call. I told him the bad news that I was moving away. He thanked me for my friendship and wished me well. When I hung up I thought it would be the last time I would ever talk to him, and to my discredit, I felt relief.

But last week, while sitting in my church office, I got a call from Billy. Genuinely happy and touched to hear from him again, I asked him excitedly how he was doing. He answered, “My wife died a couple days ago.” Nothing ever goes well for long for Billy.

I shared my condolences and offered my prayers. He said, “I’m going to repay you all that money I owe you.” I told him it didn’t matter and to forget it, but he insisted. So I gave him my address so he could send me a check if he wanted to. He asked if he could call me again. I said sure, and gave him my cell phone number so he could call me day or night.

Last Saturday, while I was at a meeting, I saw that I had missed a call on my cell phone from a little town in Indiana. I figured it had to be Billy. I forgot to call back that night, but I called two days later. But it wasn’t Billy who called me; it was a friend who had found my number on Billy’s cell phone.  He was calling me to tell me Billy was dead.

This is the ministry God placed before me.  I didn’t do as good a job at it as I should have. Billy challenged me, opening my eyes to a sea of humanity I had comfortably overlooked. He and his family and friends were the people I had read about in sociology books or in crime reports in the newspaper, but he was a real person who needed and deserved real love.

Despite all the calls for help, I was more than just an emergency source of financial aid for Billy. He thought of me as one of his friends. And that is a privilege which, considering my ungenerous attitude on many occasions, I did not deserve.

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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