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Oct 26, 2022 205 Jim Wahlberg
Encounter

Prison to Peace

As a young drug addict, Jim Wahlberg felt despised and forgotten by the world…until God spoke to him through a special person! Read his inspiring story of redemption

I grew up Catholic, but more in the Catholic tradition than the Catholic faith. I was baptized and made my first Holy Communion. My parents sent us to church, but we didn’t go to Sunday Mass as a family. There were 9 children in my family, so anybody who was old enough to walk to church, walked to church. I remember the feeling of not belonging: the few times I went to church I would take the bulletin, and then go off to do something else. Then I stopped going altogether. Most of my siblings did the same. Nobody ever told me that Jesus died for me or that God loved me or that the Virgin Mary would intercede on my behalf. I felt I wasn’t worthy, that the people in the pews were better than me and that they were somehow judging me. I was starving for attention and acceptance.

Chasing Acceptance

When I was 8 years old, I saw the neighborhood kids drinking beer. I forced myself into their little group and convinced them to give me some. I didn’t become an alcoholic that day, but I got my first taste of acceptance and attention from the older, ‘cool’ kids. I was instantly hooked on the attention and continued to hang around the people that were drinking, doing drugs or smoking, because I found acceptance there. I spent the rest of my adolescence chasing that attention.

I grew up during the forced integration of the Boston public school system, so every year I was put on a bus and sent to school in a different neighborhood. I attended seven different schools during my first seven years of grade school, which meant each year I started over as “the new kid”. God was completely out of the picture. The only relationship I had with God was one of fear. I remember hearing over and over that God was going to get me, that He was watching, and that He was going to punish me for all the bad things I was doing.

A Lost Little Boy

On the Friday night of my last day of 7th grade, I was getting ready to go out when my dad turned to me and said, “Don’t forget, when those streetlights come on, you better be in this house, or else don’t bother to come home.” That was his threat to make sure I followed the rules. I was a 12-year-old boy hanging out with other 12-year-old kids that were all from broken homes. We were all drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and doing drugs. Later that night, when I looked up and saw the streetlights come on, I knew I wasn’t going to make it home. Since I would be late, going home wasn’t an option, so I spent that entire summer down the street, a mile or two away from home, hanging out with my friends. We did drugs and drank alcohol every day. I was just a lost little boy.

During that summer, I was arrested a few times and became a ward of the state. It was not long before I was no longer welcome at home. I was placed in foster care, group homes and juvenile detention centers. I was homeless and completely lost and alone. The only thing that filled the emptiness was the alcohol and drugs. I would consume them, and then pass out or go to sleep. When I woke up, I would be filled with fear, and I would need more drugs and alcohol. From age 12 to 17, I was either homeless, or living in someone else’s home, or in juvenile detention.

Shackled and Broken

At 17 I got arrested again for injuring someone. I ended up being sent to the state prison on a 3-to- 5-year sentence. I found myself fighting the same inner battle as when I was younger, struggling for attention and acceptance, trying to create an illusion. I served the full five years of my sentence.

At the end of the prison term, they said I could go home, but the problem was I had no home to go to. An older brother was kind enough to say, “You can stay with me until you get on your feet.” But that would never happen. My brother picked me up at the prison to take me to see my mom. But first we stopped for a drink at a bar in my old neighborhood. I had to have a drink, before I could see my mom. It was my first legal drink, since I was now over 21. When I sat at my mother’s kitchen table, she didn’t recognize me as her child; she felt I was stranger.

I had been out of prison for approximately six months before I was arrested again for house invasion. The house I broke into belonged to a Boston police officer. In court, the officer spoke on my behalf. He said, “Look at this kid, look at his condition. Why don’t you get him help? I don’t know if prison is the right place for him.” He showed me sympathy because he could see I was a full-blown drug addict.

Suddenly I was back in prison serving a six-year sentence. I did all I could to create the illusion that I was changing my life so the police would release me early to rehabilitation. But I didn’t need rehabilitation—I needed God.

The Road to Freedom

After a few months of putting on this show of transforming my life, the prison chaplain, Father James, took notice of me and offered me a job as a custodian in his chapel. My first thought was, “I’m going to manipulate this guy”. He smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, had a phone—all things that inmates don’t have access to. So, I took the job, ulterior motives and all.

But what I didn’t know was that he also had a plan. When he approached me, his goal was to hustle me just as much as I was planning to hustle him. But his manipulation was for the glory of God. He wanted to get me back to Mass, back to the foot of the Cross. Soon after I started working in the chapel, I asked for a couple favors from Father James. When he granted my requests, it felt like my manipulation was working. One day, however, he approached me and told me he wanted me to come and clean after the Saturday Vigil Mass so that the chapel would be ready for Sunday Mass. When I offered to come after Mass, he insisted I come beforehand and stay through the Mass. He was already pushing me in the direction of faith.

A Divine Appointment

At the Mass, I felt awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t know the prayers or when to sit or stand, so I watched what everyone else was doing to get by. Soon after, Father James officially hired me for the custodian job, and told me we would be having a special guest at the prison, “Mother Teresa.” I said, “Oh that’s amazing! Who is Mother Teresa?” Looking back, I probably didn’t even know who the President of the United States was at the time; my life revolved solely around consuming alcohol, and I rarely concerned myself with people and events outside my bubble of addiction.

Soon, Mother Teresa arrived at our prison. I remember seeing her in the distance and thinking, “Who is this person that all of the dignitaries, the warden, and the prisoners are swarming around, hanging on her every word?” Pulling closer, I noticed that her sweater and shoes looked a thousand years old. But I also noticed the peace in her eyes, and the money that filled her pockets. People often gave her money knowing she would give it to the poor.Since I worked at the chapel, I was blessed to be part of the entrance procession for the Mass with Mother Teresa. Prisoner that I was, I stood surrounded by the Cardinal, other dignitaries, and sisters from her order. The Cardinal invited Mother Teresa to sit at the altar with him, but she humbly declined, and with a reverent bow, went and knelt on the floor with some of the most dangerous criminals that I had ever met in my life.

Gazing Into God’s Eyes

As I sat on the floor, I caught her eye and I felt as though I was looking at God. Mother Teresa then ascended the altar steps and spoke words that touched me deeply, words that I had never heard before. She said that Jesus died for my sins, that I was more than the crimes I had committed, that I was a child of God, and that I mattered to God. In that moment, in that stillness, I felt as though there was no one else in the room, as though she was speaking directly to me. Her words reached a deep part of my soul.

I ran back to the chapel the next day and told Father, “I need to know more about the Jesus that she was talking about, the God and the Catholic faith that she was talking about.” Father James was delighted! He had me right at the foot of the Cross where he had wanted me ever since he offered me the custodian job. I was willing to do anything to learn more about Jesus, so Father James started preparing me for my Confirmation.

We met every week, studying the Catechism to learn about the faith. Though I was twice transferred to other prisons, I connected with the priests in those prisons as well, and was able to continue growing in my faith.

A New Beginning

A year later, it was time for me to make my formal commitment to my faith. My Confirmation was a thoughtful and intentional moment in my life. As an adult, I knew this was a major step that would set me on the road to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ

When the time came, I called my mom to tell her I was going to be confirmed, and that I would love for her to be there. She had promised she would never visit me in prison, so she was wary. After all that I had put her through, she was wounded as a mother. But when I called again a couple of days later, she agreed to come. The Confirmation day was monumental. It was not only significant for me and my walk with Christ, but also for my relationship with my mother.

The following year, it was time for me to stand before the parole board. They said they had a letter from my mother she had written on my behalf. I knew my mother would never lie to the authorities to get me out of prison. Her letter read, “Before you stands a man of God. It’s okay, you can let him go now. He won’t be back.” Those words meant everything to me.

By the time my mother passed away, she had dementia. Over the years she had lost her ability to tell stories and her world became small. But even in those moments when she was most in the grip of dementia, she was able to recall my Confirmation, the moment when she knew I was saved.

Jesus Christ is my Savior, and I feel His presence in my life. While it requires work and effort, my relationship with Jesus is the most important one in my life. He will always love me and support me, but unless I fully engage in the relationship, I won’t know the comfort and love He longs to share with me.

It is an honor to share my journey.

Jesus Christ is our Savior.

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Jim Wahlberg

Jim Wahlberg is a producer, writer, and director of films, and uses his talents to serve God and lead others to Christ. He is the author of The Big Hustle. This article is based on the testimony shared by Jim Wahlberg for the Shalom World program ‘Jesus My Savior.

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