Home/Encounter/Article

Nov 22, 2023 349 Tom Naemi
Encounter

Finding Purpose in a 5 Ft. Cell

All that Tom Naemi could think of, day and night, was that he needed to get even with those who put him behind bars.

My family immigrated to America from Iraq when I was 11 years old. We started a grocery store and we all worked hard to make it successful. It was a tough environment to grow up in and I didn’t want to be seen as weak, so I never let anyone get the better of me. Though I was going to church regularly with my family and serving on the altar, my real god was money and success. So my family was happy when I married at 19; they hoped I’d settle down.

I became a successful businessman, taking over the family grocery store. I thought I was invincible and could get away with anything, especially when I survived being shot at by rivals. When another Chaldean group started another supermarket nearby, the competition became vicious. We weren’t just undercutting each other, we were committing crimes to put each other out of business. I set a fire in their store, but their insurance paid for the repair. I sent them a time bomb, they sent people to kill me. I was furious, and decided to get my revenge once and for all. I was going to kill them; my wife begged me not to but I loaded a 14-foot truck with gasoline and dynamite and drove it toward their building. When I lit the fuse, the whole truck caught fire right away. I was caught in the flames. Just before the truck exploded, I jumped out and rolled in the snow; I couldn’t see. My face, hands, and right ear melted.

I ran away down the street and got taken to the hospital. The police came to question me, but my big-shot lawyer told me not to worry. At the last minute though, everything changed, so I left for Iraq. My wife and children followed. After seven months, I quietly came back to San Diego to see my parents. But I still had grudges I wanted to settle, so trouble started again.

Crazy Visitors

The FBI raided my mom’s house. Although I escaped in the nick of time, I had to leave the country again. As business was going well in Iraq, I decided not to go back to America. Then, my lawyer called and said that if I turned myself in, he’d make a deal to get me a sentence of only 5-8 years. I came back, but I was sent to jail for 60-90 years. On appeal, the time was cut to 15-40 years, which still seemed like forever.

As I moved from prison to prison, my reputation for violence preceded me. I often got into brawls with other inmates and people were afraid of me. I still used to go to Church, but I was filled with anger and obsessed with revenge. I had an image stuck in my mind, of walking into my rival’s store, masked, shooting everyone in the store, and walking out. I couldn’t stand it that they were free while I was behind bars. My kids were growing up without me and my wife had divorced me.

At my sixth prison in ten years, I met these crazy, holy volunteers, thirteen of them, coming in every week with priests. They were excited about Jesus all the time. They spoke in tongues and talked about miracles and healing. I thought they were crazy, but I appreciated them for coming in. Deacon Ed and his wife Barbara had been doing this for thirteen years. One day, he asked me: “Tom, how is your walk with Jesus?” I told him it was great, but there was only one thing I wanted to do. As I walked away, he called me back, asking: “Are you talking about revenge?” I told him that I simply called it “getting even.” He said: “You don’t know what it means to be a good Christian, do you?” He told me that being a good Christian didn’t just mean worshiping Jesus, it meant loving the Lord and doing everything that Jesus did including forgiving your enemies. “Well”, I said, “That was Jesus; it’s easy for Him, but it’s not easy for me.”

Deacon Ed asked me to pray every day: “Lord Jesus, take this anger from me. I ask you to come between me and my enemies, I ask you to help me forgive them and to bless them.” To bless my enemies? No way! But his repeated prompting somehow got to me, and from that day, I started praying about forgiveness and healing. 

Calling Back

For a long time nothing happened. Then, one day, as I was flipping through the channels, I saw this preacher on TV: “Do you know Jesus? Or are you just a Church-goer?” I felt he was talking directly to me. At 10 PM, as the power went out as usual, I sat there on my bunk and told Jesus: “Lord, all my life, I never knew you. I had everything, now I have nothing. Have my life. I give it to you. From now on, you use it for whatever you want. You will probably do a better job of it than I ever did.”

I joined Scripture study, and signed up for Life in the Spirit. During Scripture study one day, I saw a vision of Jesus in His glory, and like a laser from Heaven, I felt filled with God’s Love. The Scripture spoke to me, and I discovered my purpose. The Lord started talking to me in dreams and revealed things about people that they had never told anyone else. I started calling them from prison to talk about what the Lord had said, and promised to pray for them. Later, I’d hear about how they’d experienced healing in their lives. 

On a Mission

When I was transferred to another prison, they didn’t have a Catholic service, so I started one and began preaching the Gospel there. We started with 11 members, grew to 58, and more kept joining. Men were getting healed of the wounds that had imprisoned them before they ever got into prison.

After 15 years, I returned home on a new mission—Save souls, destroy the enemy. 

My friends would come home, and find me reading the Scripture for hours. They couldn’t understand what had happened to me. I told them that the old Tom had died. I was a new creation in Christ Jesus, proud to be His follower. 

I lost a lot of friends but gained a lot of brothers and sisters in Christ.

I wanted to work with youth, to deliver them to Jesus so they wouldn’t end up dead or in prison. My cousins thought I had gone mad and told my mother that I would get over it soon enough. But I went on to meet the Bishop, who gave his approval, and I found a priest, Father Caleb, who was ready to work with me on this.

Before I went to prison, I had lots of money, I had popularity, and everything had to be my way. I was a perfectionist. In my old days of crime, it was all about me, but after meeting Jesus, I realized that everything in the world was garbage compared to Him. Now, it was all about Jesus, who lives in me. He drives me to do all things, and I can’t do anything without Him. 

I wrote a book about my experiences to give people hope, not just people in prison, but anyone chained to their sins. We’re always going to have problems, but with His help, we can overcome every obstacle in life. It is only through Christ that we can find true freedom. 

My Savior lives. He is alive and well. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!

Share:

Tom Naemi

Tom Naemi works with the Eastern Catholic Re-evangelization Center (ECRC) in Michigan. He is the author of "Freedom Behind Bars."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Articles