I never imagined I would end up in prison. I had seen gang fights and stabbings in prison dramas on television, so at my sentencing, I was scared. I sat in a chair, handcuffed, facing the judge, hoping she would deliver the lightest possible sentence of five years in federal prison.
At the time, I had been living in an apartment alone, my movements tracked by an ankle monitor as I finished up a master’s degree in substance-abuse counseling. My wife and I had divorced more than a year earlier. I had stopped going to church and withdrawn from my friends. In the courtroom that day, my parents were the only supporters I had.
The prosecutor wanted me to get the maximum sentence of fifteen years, but the judge ended up giving me ten, with five years’ probation. One thing she said that day rankled my heart. “I’m only giving you ten because I know you will screw up. Then I can send you away for life.” I wanted to prove her wrong.
Bettering Myself. My sentence began on April Fools’ Day, but it wasn’t a joke. For six months, I was so terrified that I hardly ever left my unlocked cell. My duties as a custodian at the prison took me out for only a short period at night, and I was driving my bunk mate crazy. One day he pulled me aside. “Listen, you’re going to be here for ten years. You’ve got to get out and start doing something.”
I signed up for a class offered by the prison’s education department. And I found the Catholic community that met in the chapel for a Saturday Rosary and Sunday Mass. At first I went so that it would appear I was bettering myself. I thought my involvement would look good to the prison system and even to God. In reality, I was using religion to try to justify myself and escape my guilt. I was still bitter toward my lawyer and the judge: as a first-time offender in a nonviolent crime, I thought I deserved a more lenient sentence.
Then a few months later, during Easter services in the chapel, the chaplain said something that resonated with me. He told us he realized it was difficult to be away from our families and traditions, but we could discover the true meaning of Easter here in prison. His message reminded me of how my Polish grandfather had loved to celebrate Easter.
When I was nineteen years old, he died unexpectedly on Holy Thursday. After that, our family traditions began to fade. The blood sausages and beer pancakes that he always fried up went away. Easter dinner got smaller as my cousins stopped coming around. The whole atmosphere became depressing. I still went to church with my grandmother, but it wasn’t the same.
More than a decade after my grandfather died, though, I traveled to Poland to visit a friend. There I discovered a rich cultural heritage surrounding Holy Week. I watched the care with which Easter baskets were prepared and filled with symbolic food: sausage for God’s generosity, eggs to symbolize the new life of the resurrection, and so on. It brought me back to the Easter message of Jesus’ dying and rising for us that had been important to my family when I was young.
Unfortunately, my faith took a tailspin after I got married in 2004. The emotional stress that led to our divorce four years later left me isolated. I blamed God and gave up on faith years before I landed in prison. Even when I started going to the prison chapel, I had not fully resolved my anger toward God. But the chaplain’s Easter message stirred good memories and began to give me hope.
Good Enough for God. Two years into my sentence, I picked up a magazine in the chapel and noticed an ad for a book called Jesus’ Journey to the Cross, a Bible study guide that follows Jesus through his passion, death, and resurrection. Lent and Easter are special times for Christians in prison, so I thought it would be good material for a prison course. I asked my mother to send me the book. It took the chaplain and me a year to prepare an eight-week class that would appeal to both Protestant and Catholic prisoners. We opened up registration just before Lent of 2014.
I was worried the discussion questions would flop. It is rare for inmates to open up and share personally. But when it came time to apply the Scriptures to our life in prison, they did—and from the heart. We shared laughter, tears, and moments of silence out of respect for fellow inmates’ honest sharing. The fourth class brought us to the scene of Jesus’ arrest and sentencing. It’s a picture that inmates can clearly imagine: Jesus is bound, standing silently before his accusers, and receives a death sentence. Amazingly, he not only accepts it willingly but even forgives his judge and prosecutor. I thought about my own sentencing, which had left me so bitter. After meditating on Jesus’ hearing, I wanted to follow his example.
That lesson also included a Scripture verse for our reflection: “If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate . . . Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
Jesus bore everything so that he could forgive my sins. He didn’t view his punishment as the result of a faulty system; he accepted it as the way to secure my freedom from guilt. My brothers and I in the Bible study realized, “If God can forgive us, why can’t we forgive others? If we are good enough for God, why can’t we be good enough for ourselves?”
Forgiven: Inside and Outside. This was a turning point for me. Now I see that the Easter message is forgiveness. Just because I’m a felon doesn’t mean I’m going to hell. There is someone who forgives me, who understands—and that somebody is God! I’ve also forgiven myself and accepted my sentence. In spite of what my judge thinks of me, I don’t hate her anymore.
Within these prison walls, I now live with a purpose. When new people arrive here, I help them out. I am leading more Bible-study classes. The first one had eight prisoners; our most recent grew to twenty-three attendees, all going through a spiritual rebirth together.
I know it’s not going to be easy when we get out of prison. People tend to pass judgment on ex-prisoners. Many will look at us differently, including our own families. I’m going to be labeled a felon. I’m homeless, and it will be difficult to find work. Under these circumstances, it may be hard to keep forgiving myself. Still, knowing that Jesus has atoned for my sins, I don’t have to look at the past—or the future—with dread. I am a man saved, not condemned, by Jesus.
Kyle Bremmeyr is serving his sentence at a federal correctional institution in Pennsylvania. For another story about how Kyle's Bible study has touched lives, see the article Jesus My GPS under the Lenten issue tab.
Kyle Bremmeyr embraced Christ’s forgiveness and now shares it with his fellow inmates. While reading The Word Among Us magazine, he discovered Jesus’ Journey to the Cross by Jeanne Kun. This and other Keys to the Bible study tools are available at bookstore.wau.org
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