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In 1990, I passed the bar exam and added “attorney” to my résumé on top of the label “accountant.” I started my own law practice and found some real estate clients. I was relieved for the extra income as my wife and I started a family.
It was important to my wife and me that our children have reverence for God. My own family had gone to church every week, and I wanted the same for my kids. Without even realizing it, though, in my zeal to be successful, I had taken my eyes off the Lord. When trouble hit my business in 1999, I took matters into my own hands instead of having faith that God would take care of us.
Problems at Work. The trouble started when a major bank changed its lending policy. The bank now required my real estate clients to hold onto their properties for a year before selling them. This policy was likely to put my clients—a major source of income for me—out of business.
I started falsifying the title records that went to the bank. Whether my clients had owned a property for two weeks or two months, I claimed it had been a year. I knew that what I was doing was unethical if not illegal. But I truly believed that if I was discovered, the most I would face was a slap on the wrist or probation. Unbeknownst to me, though, the clients I represented were running a much larger illegal real estate operation.
The FBI came to my office with a search warrant in 2002. Still, I thought this would all blow over; they wouldn’t find anything. Was I wrong! I was indicted with twelve other people and decided to plead guilty. In 2006, the judge sentenced me to six years in federal prison. This was almost three times as much as the other offenders. I was extremely angry; I never pictured it coming to this.
When my wife and I came back from the court, we had to tell our eleven-year-old son and thirteen-year-old daughter that I was going away for six years. They were both very upset. I also felt many emotions: pity for my wife and children, shame and guilt about what I had done, but mostly anger because of my long prison sentence.
“This Doesn’t Make Any Sense.” I shared my anger and guilt with our parish priest, Fr. McHugh of Avon, Connecticut. He encouraged me to put my faith and trust in the Lord. God had a plan, he told me. This consoled me, but I dreaded leaving my family. When the day came for me to report to prison, Fr. McHugh and my wife drove me to the facility. It was only two days after Christmas.
When I arrived, the prison camp was filled to capacity. I needed a tuberculosis shot, so they put me in solitary confinement the first night. I ended up staying there for five long weeks, until space opened up in the camp. The food was two days old, and the showers and toilets were out in the open for all to see. If we wanted to go outside, they locked us in cages for an hour to pace around in the freezing cold.
This harsh introduction to prison life was more awful than I had imagined it would be. I remember lying on my bunk in solitary confinement and starting to cry. I was worried about what would happen to my wife and kids. I cried out to God, “Six years? This doesn’t make any sense.” In my anguish, however, a feeling of peace washed over me. I felt like God was saying, Everything is going to be okay.
Thanking God—for Prison. After I got transferred to the regular prison camp, I started going to Bible study groups with inmates who knew the Bible and had a relationship with Jesus. The faith of one inmate in particular made a strong impression on me. Matteo was serving a twenty-year prison sentence, but he was not bitter. He believed that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Each day he thanked God for coming to him in prison, because he trusted that God had a plan for him. I saw him putting into practice what Fr. McHugh had told me.
Seeing how Matteo took the Bible seriously, I started reading it on my own, along with The Word Among Us and other devotionals. I came to understand that God reveals himself through his word. If I wanted to be in tune with his will, I needed to let him speak to me through the Scriptures. I thought, “If I had known this, I wouldn’t have done what I did.”
One story from the Bible spoke to my heart. It was the story of Joseph—how he was unjustly thrown into prison after his brothers sold him into slavery. He stayed there for thirteen years but later rose to a position of importance. When Joseph’s brothers came to him for help, he told them, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good” (Genesis 50:20, NIV). This reminded me of my sentencing. From a justice standpoint, it didn’t make sense to me. But God knew that prison would foster my faith life, and I think he intended that for my good.
When God Is All You’ve Got. Even though I sensed that God had a plan, prison was not easy. Everyone in the camp had to work, and I got a landscaping job that paid just twelve cents an hour. But my relationship with God was changing. As someone once said, “You never know God is all you need until God is all you’ve got.” As I prayed more, I recognized that I needed a personal relationship with Jesus. That was the only way I would get anything out of prison. He would guide me through.
I had always tried to solve problems on my own without having the faith to believe that my prayers would be answered. Over time I realized, “I can’t be the center of my life anymore. It has to be God, then my family, then others.” My whole focus shifted.
I started thanking God each morning for giving me a new day. I also got into the habit of talking to the Holy Spirit throughout the day. One day, I wondered why God answered my prayers. So I asked him. “You created the universe; I know you can do all things. But why would you answer my prayers?” And the Holy Spirit said, “I answer them because I love you.”
I had never heard that voice before. It was almost audible. I realized that when we pray, God answers prayers in accord with his will. Sometimes the answer is “Yes,” sometimes it’s “No,” and sometimes it’s “Wait.” But it’s always out of love, like a father doing what is best for his child.
God Has Me Covered. After my sentence wrapped up in 2011, I was a better man. I had become more godly and more forgiving. I still have issues: my mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and my daily commute is four hours long. But my relationship with God has helped me not to be resentful.
God has me covered. I’m grateful to have landed a good job in the first place. Now when I get to work, I thank him for getting me there safely. When I go out to dinner, I thank him for the meal. I’m more thankful for everything! I’ve always loved the Lord, but now that I have a personal relationship with Jesus, I’m better at expressing it.
My daily challenge is to stay focused on God and to cast all my cares upon him (1 Peter 5:7). When this is especially difficult, I invoke the Holy Spirit: Please remind me that I’m still in the Lord’s presence and that he’s looking over me. To this day, God is still letting me know that he’s there.
Albert Innarelli lives in Massachusetts. To watch his story in video format, visit wau.org/changinglives.
See Al tell his story: wau.org/changinglives
Instead of giving in to anger and hopelessness, Al Innarelli drew closer to God in prison. He grew in his Catholic faith because he started praying every day with the help of The Word Among Us.
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