“Can you get a gun?” asked Tony, then 16.
He and two friends had run out of drug money. To get it, they robbed seven convenience stores with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. “We just wanted play money,” remembers Tony.
At the seventh store, the cashier reached for the phone. The boy wielding the shotgun fired, and the clerk went down, a red stain blooming on his flank.
How had it come to this?
When small, Tony was raised by his Catholic grandparents in Chicago, and at the church of a believing aunt, he remembers reciting John 3:16 before the congregation.
But when he turned eight, his father, who lived in Dallas, brought Tony to live there. Tony resented the change—and his father’s battle with alcohol. He started failing school and fighting.
“Every week,” remembers Tony, “I had to bring a note home explaining my bad behavior. . . But it didn’t seem to deter me.”
Tony stole to fund his spiraling drug addiction, and he ran away to avoid the consequences. Whenever he ran, his father patrolled the streets all night in search of him. Tony failed to recognize his father’s love at the time, but now he recognizes that “my father never gave up on me.”
After he was arrested for the convenience store robberies, Tony was released to his father’s custody pending trial. Before long he ran again, hiding from both his father and the police.
On February 1, 1989, Tony was apprehended fleeing from a stolen vehicle. He was certified to stand trial as an adult and sentenced to 25 years.
When Lightning Strikes
By then, whatever faith Tony possessed had dwindled to a faint memory of brimstone and catechisms.
“I was 16 going on 17,” he says, “and I wasn’t going to be nobody’s fool.”
Prison only honed his criminality; after 10 years of incarceration, he lasted four months on his first parole. Tony returned to a hole that no light penetrated—until lightning struck.
Tony’s pregnant Aunt Tina was hit by a lightning bolt. Though she survived, doctors recommended terminating her pregnancy. Tony’s Aunt Margie offered God her life if He spared Tina’s child. When Tina delivered a healthy boy, Margie surrendered her life to Christ.
Margie and her husband, Mark, began to visit Tony. He scoffed at their mention of a caring God, but their own compassion bewildered him.
“Don’t worry about me,” he assured them. “This is my world.”
They wept for the nephew who could imagine no life but prison, but eventually, their perseverance bore fruit.
“God started giving me a soft heart,” says Tony.
He began to pray before parole hearings. When denied, he would give up on God again. But God never gave up on him.
In 2006 Tony reviewed his note card with scripted statements to impress the interviewer at yet another parole hearing. But something made him throw it away; for the first time, he approached God without conditions.
“I’m tired of the games,” he confessed. “If I serve the rest of my term, that’s fine. I want to know the power that’s behind the people who come into prison to visit me. Just help me.”
Tony was shocked when he was offered parole and his choice of reentry programs: nine months of drug rehab or 18 months in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI), a reentry program developed by Prison Fellowship and based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
Though tempted by the shorter program, Tony remembered his request of God. Here was his chance to meet the Power behind his aunt. He asked to be sent to IFI.
“God Never Turns His Back.”
“He was just a different person,” marvels Margie, remembering the first time she visited Tony in IFI. On the four-hour drive back home, Margie and Mark wept tears of gratitude.
Tony grew to know God in IFI’s structured, values-centered environment. He also learned to release the pain of his childhood and to understand the consequences of his own choices. And when his business plan won at an IFI business fair, “it amazed me, and it gave me a new viewpoint of my capabilities.”
After his release Tony continued IFI’s post-prison phase. After a difficult job hunt, he finally found employment with Artifex Technology and was promoted to project manager. “I would trust him with anything,” says Artifex owner Jacob Cervantes.
Tony also married Annie Cervantes, a relative of Jacob, and became an instant father to her 11-year-old, Nathan, soon followed by baby Giovanni.
Giovanni’s birth left an awestruck Tony determined to make it on the outside. “Two nights ago,” says the dad, “I was holding Giovanni and the thought crossed my mind if there was a way I could earn some fast money. But he was just looking at me . . . and I realized that my son will look to me as the example.” For his own example, Tony can look to his father, about to celebrate eight years of sobriety. They talk daily.
Tony “understands what life is now,” says his father. Someday Tony wants to use his life to help other ex-prisoners, but for now he serves and loves his family. Despite some transitional struggles, Annie says he’s doing “excellent.”
Day by day, he looks to God for strength because, no matter how far Tony ran in the past, “God never turns His back.”
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