For three years, my career had been in a steady decline. Once a successful car salesman, I had been accused of the grand theft of autos—and exonerated—only to have my sales license revoked because of the false charges.
To support my wife and three children, I got a low-paying job at a milling plant, but then I took a bad fall off a high wall and severely injured my back. This made it harder to work, and by January of 2006, I had become addicted to methamphetamines, and my family was facing eviction from our home.
It was at this lowest hour of my life, sleep deprived and overwhelmed, that I walked into a Bank of America, prepared to rob it and die at the hands of law enforcement. The robbery was unsuccessful, and I was arrested, but somehow, mysteriously, this began a chain of events that brought me back to the Catholic Church.
Living on a Prayer. I was sentenced to fifty years to life for armed bank robbery. I was almost fifty years old at the time, so it looked as if I might never return to my family. As I stared at my wife, Rafaela, through the small glass pane in the visiting room of the county detention center, I was in no condition to speak. But amazingly, she was filled with faith.
“I married you before God, and nothing you have done is going to change that,” she said. “We have three daughters to raise, so put on your big boy pants and get through this until God sends you home to us!”
Despite all the negative events in our lives, Rafaela never lost hope in me or in God. We were both raised Catholic, but I had stopped practicing the faith decades earlier. Still, neither of us was prepared for what happened a few days after my sentencing. My attorney visited me in person to deliver the news. Our teenage daughter, Ana, had been on her way home from a birthday party when a drunk driver slammed into the car she was in. Ana suffered serious injuries, and she was in a coma. She was not expected to survive.
My body went numb. My attorney told me he was on his way to the judge’s chambers to request permission for me to go to my daughter’s bedside and say good-bye. As I turned to go back to my unit, every sound around me diminished, and all I could picture was my wife, kneeling in constant prayer for Ana, as I knew she would be doing. I hadn’t thought matters could get worse, but they had.
A Deal with God. Upon entering my cell, I knelt down to pray without knowing how. My request before God was simple. I asked him to let me change places with Ana. “Take my life, Lord, and let my daughter live.”
I heard nothing for three agonizing days, during which time I had trouble eating and sleeping. On the fourth morning, I was finally allowed to call home. Anticipating the worst, I dialed our home phone number, hands trembling. When Rafaela’s voice came over the phone line, her joyful exuberance astonished me. “Honey, our baby’s fine!” she shouted.
She told me that Ana had come out of her coma in miraculous fashion. Her head fractures and lacerations were sealing, and the doctors expected a healthy prognosis. As my wife kept talking excitedly, I realized that God had touched my life in a deeply special way. He had heard and answered my prayer.
That wasn’t all though. God became real to me that day. With Ana’s healing, I decided to place my life in his care—including the prison sentence I was about to begin. Because God had answered my prayer so profoundly and quickly, I felt that he had a plan for my life too. This gave me hope that one day he might send me back to my family.
An Answer to God’s Call. Within weeks of God having come into my life, I was transferred to the state prison. At this point, I knew that I wanted to live a God-centered life, but I had not decided what religion to follow.
During my intake to state prison, I had no access to visits, phone calls, or personal property—nothing but letters from home. When a letter arrived from my wife, I eagerly read it, glancing only briefly at a prayer that she had enclosed. It was a prayer for the intercession of St. Rita of Cascia, patroness of impossible causes. That sure described my plight!
The next day was library day, when a limited number of prisoners were allowed to access the prison library. I was the last person to make the cut. Inside, a woman I didn’t know handed me a laminated prayer card depicting a nun holding a crucifix and roses. On the back was the exact same prayer my wife had handwritten: the novena to St. Rita.
That day, I chose only the Bible to take with me back to my cell. Shortly afterward, I visited the Catholic chaplain and made my first confession. I felt as if a great burden had lifted at this time—even more so when the priest gave me my penance: another prayer to St. Rita! As I read the title of the paper he gave me, I could hardly hold back my tears; I knew that my “impossible cause” was important to God.
Depend on God—He Will Use You. Over the past ten years, I have been assigned to three different prisons. But since my conversion, the Holy Spirit has only increased my desire to understand the Catholic faith, to share it with other prisoners, and to depend on God, even when dire circumstances nudge me to give up. I am starting to understand that I am a son of God and that there is rejoicing in heaven over my return to the Lord. Just as God used Moses, a murderer, to bring a nation out of slavery, he can make simple sinners like any one of us into his instruments. God is allowing me to be a light to others, and as he does, he is making me whole again.
Jess Rico Martinez is incarcerated in California. This article was compiled from a series of letters he wrote to The Word Among Us.
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