The Word Among Us

Lent 2014 Issue

Hey, Wake Up!

I became a prison minister–in prison.

By: Billy Estay

Hey, Wake Up!: I became a prison minister–in prison. by Billy Estay

When you make a huge mistake, it’s easy to think that everything is over. But that’s just not true. By God’s grace, there is a rescue plan for each of us. If we open our hearts and minds to it, God can work through our mistakes and even bring good out of them.

I know something about this because my big mistake got me eighteen years in a Texas prison.

A Stupid Move. I should have known better. Even though my parents divorced early and I never knew my father, I had good influences as I grew up. When I was eighteen months old, the man I still call “Daddy” entered my life. He was from Mexico, and his mother prayed the Rosary every day. Grandma Teta helped me to fall in love with the Catholic Church. Because of her, I decided to be baptized as a Catholic at age fourteen.

My life began turning bad after my marriage, when my wife and I lost our daughter before she was a year old. Angela’s last two-and-a-half hours were spent in my arms. I had no love for God that day, but he was with me. As Angela died, I saw a woman in radiant white. I believe it was Mary. She comforted me and let me know that my little girl would be all right.

A year later, we had another daughter. She didn’t survive childbirth, and soon my wife became a drug addict. Four years later, we divorced.

It was a tough time. I was hurting from losing two babies, from the anguish of divorce, and from my wife’s going through twenty thousand dollars in our bank account to feed her addiction. My self-pity and pent-up hurt and anger led me to do something stupid.

I did some work for a car dealer, and he cheated me out of $750. I decided, “If he won’t pay me, I will pay myself.” Then I stole $143,000 from him, as well as six vehicles, three shotguns, and $8,000 worth of tools.

That’s why I spent eighteen years in prison. All because of $750.

Wake-up Call. Prison was a reality check. So many times in my life, I had been aware of God’s hand on me, yet I had turned my back on him. Now he was saying, “Hey, wake up! I tried to guide you. Don’t ignore me.” From my upbringing, I knew that prison was a result of my own doing and that I needed to change.

Soon I heard about the Catholic volunteers who came to the prison. I was amazed that anyone would be willing to do that. Three of them in particular became mentors for me and helped me to grow in my faith. These men led Communion services and taught classes on faith renewal and the Rosary. They treated us as friends and fellow human beings, prodigal sons coming home to the Father. Through their warmth and the witness of their lives, my faith began to grow again.

Instead of becoming cold and bitter, I was opened more to God’s love. When my heart was heavy, I talked with the Blessed Mother. The Rosary and Miraculous Medal devotion reminded me that I would always have a mother’s love. And whenever I received the Eucharist, I felt as if Christ was becoming part of me. On the way back to my cell after Mass, I would smile and say hello to everyone, even the officers. That made them pause—they didn’t often get politeness and respect. When I got to my cell, I would get on my knees and ask Jesus to make my heart more one with his.

An Unexpected Ministry. But while this was happening within me, only a handful of the 440 Catholics in my unit were coming to services. They were missing out! When I saw this, I knew I had to step up and help them grow in their faith, too. God was giving me a calling, I realized—this was the good that he was going to bring from my mistakes. And so, at the same time that I was reconciling with God, I began ministering to other people.

At one point, I came across The Word Among Us magazine, with its combination of Church teaching and stories about God helping common folks. It fed my heart and my mind, showed me that God truly is good, and made me hungry for more. I sent for a Bible study on living in the power of the Holy Spirit. As I taught it to others, I learned along with them.

All of this lit a fire in my belly and spurred on the transformation that was taking place in my heart. I was moving from bitterness and neglect of God to wholeness and love. I became able to forgive people, especially my wife: I wasn’t the only one who had lost two daughters—we both had suffered the loss. I was seeing with a new perspective.

During my last eight years in prison, I coordinated the various Catholic activities in my unit. As I shared with fellow inmates what I was learning and experiencing, our class size began to grow. Saturday morning went from six to seventy, and the Tuesday evening class from two or three to a hundred. Every year, about twelve people were baptized or confirmed through RCIA. The growth wasn’t my doing. It was God almighty! People in prison are looking to be touched spiritually.

Freed to Serve. Today I’m a free man in more ways than one. I was released from prison in June 2012 and have started a new life. I have a good, stable job at a local lumber company. I’m an active member of my parish and am organizing our ministry for prisoners, shut-ins, and the forgotten. When temptations come along or when I get angry, I remember where I’ve been and remind myself that I don’t want to go back.

I won’t pretend that it’s easy to leave prison and transition to the “outside.” There are many challenges. You step out into a different world from the one you left behind. It can feel lonely and overwhelming. I pray every day that I can continue on the way and not fall by the wayside.

I lay down my fears at the foot of the cross, knowing that Jesus made me free even before I left prison walls behind. I’m so thankful—and still eager as ever to share his love with other people, especially people behind bars.

Billy Estay prays that other prisoners will be inspired by his story and will see that there is light—and freedom in Christ—at the end of their tunnel, too.

God’s Grace and Blessing

Billy Estay became a Word Among Us Partner while he was still “inside.” After discovering the magazine in prison, he decided to “make whatever sacrifice I could” so that more people could receive free copies. Using free materials from Partners, Billy said, the prison study groups were able to lead “an ever-increasing number of men into the Church,” including many lapsed Catholics.

“God’s grace and blessing smiled down on our unit. I attribute so much of it to the open, loving hearts of you Partners, who have answered the call to works of mercy.”

Thanks to generous readers like you, people in difficult circumstances are receiving The Word Among Us and other materials that can help them connect with God. Working with prison and military chaplains, we are reaching 57,000 inmates in the U.S. and Canada and 23,000 men and women in the military. Through crisis pregnancy centers and Project Rachel postabortion ministries, some 6,500 women are receiving hope for a new life.

But so many more are waiting. Will you help us reach them? Please pray for these ministries and become a Partner. You can make a tax-deductible donation online at; by calling 1-800-775-9673; or by mailing a check to:

In the U.S.
The Word Among Us Partners
7115 Guilford Drive, Suite 100
Frederick, MD 21704

In Canada
Metanoia Outreach
Attn: The Word Among Us Partners
Box 1107, Station F
Toronto, Ontario M4Y 2T8
(Canadian donations are tax deductible only if sent to this address.)

In Australia
Evangelisation Resources Down Under
A Ministry of Petrie Catholic Community
38 Armstrong Street
Petrie, Qld 4502