The Word Among Us

Lent 2020 Issue

A Painter with a Purpose

How atheism and I parted ways in prison.

By: John Jay Sheppard

A Painter with a Purpose: How atheism and I parted ways in prison. by John Jay Sheppard

I grew up surrounded by disorder, drugs, alcohol, and little discipline. That instability was compounded by bullying, abuse, isolation, bad mistakes on my part, and a variety of betrayals and losses beyond my control. All of this chaos spun inside of me like a tornado. In March 1991, I flew out of control and killed someone. I went to prison for life.

Up until that point, God had always been more myth than reality for me. The Bible seemed like a theatrical epic: nothing more than a clever explanation of existence, devised by humans to promote morality. But still, it was strange to feel alone and isolated within myself, to close my eyes and see nothing. It gave me such a cold feeling.

I also had no real concept of the purpose of life—no framework for understanding what happened in the universe. I just didn’t understand how religious people saw the world. So I concentrated on amassing general knowledge and acquiring various skills and talents.

Art without Life. My way of thinking drove a lot of people away, even before I killed someone. The rest of my relationships were severed as a result of my crime. After I went to prison, my brother and sister kept in touch for a while; then after our parents died, they also stopped talking to me. At first, I coped with the pain by blaming and chastising other people. They were coldhearted; they didn’t understand me. It was their failure to see things my way that was causing my problems—or so I thought.

Later, I tried to reinvent myself inside prison and generate self-confidence through my creative talents. I could paint portraits pretty well, and I won some awards for my work. But the satisfaction of being recognized was short-lived. Deep down, I wanted my skills to benefit family and friends, but they were estranged. Without anyone to appreciate my painting, I still felt alone and empty.

In a last-ditch effort to make friends, I began selling my paintings to other prisoners cheaply. It didn’t work the way I had intended. The prisoners gave the paintings to acquaintances outside prison in order to build relationships. This only served to remind me of the complete lack of support I had in prison. And the more I was reminded of my powerlessness to change this, the more I felt crippled by fear and insecurity. My prison life circled around like a leaf in the wind.

The Catholic Perspective. One day a prisoner who happened to be Catholic asked if I would donate some paintings for a prison chapel event. Then he found out that I could play guitar and asked me to play music for other Catholic events. I began to meet other Catholic prisoners and volunteers who came to visit us. These were decent men and women donating their time to come to prison of all places, which impressed me.

Through conversations with them, I became interested in their outlook on life—the “Catholic perspective.” In the spring of 2017, I asked Fr. John, the priest who always accompanied the volunteers, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” He explained that the Catholic Church offers classes to help people understand its teachings. He would soon be running a catechism class, and I was welcome to join. I had existed for so long in what felt like a vacuum, totally isolated, so I agreed to take the class.

As part of the class, I began to read the Bible more, with a heart open to the possibility that it wasn’t just a myth. This time I thought about Jesus and the Father not as fiction but as real. I read the catechism lessons and participated in the discussions. But the turning point came for me one day when Fr. John said, “God is in you, but God is not you. He made you with free will.” That was my answer. God made me, but he doesn’t control me.

“God Gave Me Faith.” I closed my eyes and I saw it: God creating me as a conscious human being and giving me free will. Then I looked Fr. John right in the eye, and at that moment, I saw God in him looking right at me. The continuity of God in me looking back at him, both of us with our own free will to act as we choose—it made sense. The whole of God’s creation made perfect sense.

Bible verses I had never understood struck me in fresh ways. It startled me to reread, “In the beginning, . . . God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) because it meant that God had always existed. He had always been there. I was suddenly ashamed of all my dark, scheming thoughts about taking revenge or of giving in to lust. Yet I also realized that God had always let my choices run their course. That was free will.

Now as I walked around the prison, I couldn’t help but picture God looking through each person I saw, whether they believed in him or not. God’s willingness to be with each of us in prison and everywhere—that was the good news of the risen Christ. That made sense too.

I was baptized in a full submersion font at the prison chapel on March 31, 2018. One of the volunteers who regularly visited us in prison, a secular Franciscan who inspired me by her work with the homeless, became my godmother.

When I stepped out of the baptismal pool, dripping wet, she touched the water on my clothes and crossed herself. Time stood still, and I saw love, real love. It was the love that God intends for all people to have for each other. I was reborn into God’s love through my faith, which was itself a gift of his grace. God had given me faith.

Free to Love as I Am Loved. I can’t say that my conversion corrected all the ills of the world or fixed all of my broken relationships right away. But without a doubt, becoming Catholic and coming to know God in prison changed my life.

I’m still the same guy; I’m still goofy and outspoken, but insecurity and fear no longer debilitate me. I find it easier to give people the benefit of the doubt. And no matter if I’m struggling or things are going well, I pray for the Holy Spirit to show me how to love God and my neighbor (Luke 10:27).

I read, study, and share with all kinds of prisoners, some of whom I do struggle to get along with. But when I’m tempted to become discouraged, I remember how patient God has been with my free will. That makes me want to love in spite of the difficulties because we are all God’s people. And whether they believe it or not, he’s there.

John Jay Shepherd is serving his sentence at a state correctional institution in Pennsylvania.

Help Bring Hope Behind Bars

John Shepherd found hope when he encountered Jesus in Scripture. But many inmates don’t have access to God’s word. The Word Among Us Partners brings the good news of Jesus to more than 76,000 incarcerated men and women who need hope. In the coming year, we want to reach 8,000 more prisoners with the word of God.

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