Joel was driving his sister and two of her friends home after a night of partying when the unthinkable happened: in the throes of a heated argument, his sister’s friend pulled a gun and shot the other. Terrified and shocked, Joel immediately pulled over to the side of the road and dumped the man’s body.
The next morning, Joel confessed to his father and to the police about the murder. But when Joel realized he would be charged for the crime, he panicked and fled to Mexico.
Joel did well running a business in Mexico for a few years before the FBI found him and extradited him back to the United States. Nearly four years after the crime, the court found twenty-three-year-old Joel guilty of first-degree murder, leaving many people wondering what had led the former high school football star to a life behind bars.
Joel grew up in a loving family that was committed to the Christian faith. His hard-working, entrepreneurial parents took Joel and his sister to church every Sunday and sent them to Christian schools and Bible camps.
But it was on the football field where Joel’s talents shone. Local newspapers mentioned him by name and praised his crucial blocking on the offensive line. By the end of his senior year, Division I colleges were calling.
However, Joel’s life off the gridiron was spiraling out of control. “I did not understand the opportunities and all the advantages that I had been given,” he admits. “I had no grasp of integrity and absolutely no idea of community.”
As Joel’s parents were increasingly gone on business trips, he started sneaking out to drink and smoke marijuana, going to party after party to get his fix.
Joel’s chances for a college football scholarship were fast disappearing. But he had no idea that the greatest tragedy of his rebellion would be the terrible crime committed in the back seat of his car.
THE HEAD VERSUS THE HEART
Before Joel went to prison, he tried to work on his relationship with the Lord. However, Joel admits that his vision of God looked more like a magic genie than a loving Father. He thought that if he stayed clean, God would reward him with a “get out of jail free” card.
So when the judge doled out a lengthy prison sentence, Joel felt like God had abandoned him. “I had my own spiritual vision,” he says. “I never really allowed God to mold me to His hand.” As Joel grew angrier and more embittered, he traded his football all-star status for the status of an influential prison gang member.
Eventually Joel was sent to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) where disruptive prisoners are segregated from the rest of the prison. But even in the SHU’s isolation, Joel was not alone. His mother, who sent him a Bible, had not forgotten him, and neither had God.
It was at this lowest point in his life when Joel realized that although he had plenty of head knowledge about the Bible, yielding his heart to God was a different story. Broken and with nowhere to turn, he decided it was time to “get real” with Jesus and to start reading his Bible from cover to cover.
One day, a fellow prisoner passing by noticed Joel reading the Bible. The man told Joel that he was studying with a ministry called Crossroad Bible Institute and that he was learning so much from the lessons. There was only one problem: he was very slow at finding Scripture references.
Joel agreed to help the man with his lessons and soon found himself drawn into CBI’s method of study. “I liked how the lessons were engineered to get the student familiar with the books of the Bible and how to follow certain themes,” he says. Hoping to learn more from the close mentorship of Instructors, Joel decided to enroll as a CBI student.
TAKING A KNEE
This decision continues to water the seeds of change that have taken root in Joel’s heart. Since enrolling, he has finished his first course and has finally grasped what it means to yield his heart to God and to others. “I no longer want to waste time on meaningless things,” Joel reflects, “and CBI has been a big part of that help.”
Joel’s spiritual transformation is evident when he speaks about his new priorities. Regarding a pending transfer, he says, “Wherever I am sent, my primary focus will be to serve.” One way Joel hopes to do so is by using his musical talents to start a worship team when he leaves the SHU.
For Joel, the road to surrendering his heart to God has not been easy. As he says, the terrible events that transpired in the ravine off the freeway are always fresh in his mind, as if they happened yesterday.
But the former offensive lineman is learning to embrace the words of the apostle Paul: “His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” Even at Joel’s lowest, most humbling moments, he knows that God will never abandon him.
With his heart yielded to Christ, Joel now looks forward to putting God and others first in his life: “I have led many men on the football field and also in prison, but now I can’t wait to serve in the right way for what God intended.”