Breakfast with the Sheriff was about to be served. A friend of mine wanted me to meet Sheriff Dan (not his real name). Sheriff Dan, from the neighboring county, was very popular and known to be a Christian who had a heart for the youth. He was a big supporter of the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch. My friend had helped with several fund raisers, some of which I had attended. My wife and I had volunteered for many years at the juvenile centers in our home county. We brought Christ-centered programs to the young people locked up in maximum security. Given our common interest in young people, my friend had arranged a breakfast meeting with himself, Sheriff Dan, and me.
After introductions were made and breakfast orders had been placed, the Sheriff immediately asked me to tell him about myself. I told him I was born in Texas, married my high school sweetheart, had two children, and moved my family to Florida in 1987 to take a new job. My children married spouses from Florida, and we were now grandparents. He listened carefully to all the other details, and waited until I was finished before offering that he was also born in Texas. We quickly discovered that he was born near my home town, moved to my town as a young boy, and lived a few blocks from me. We had attended the same elementary school for a while, although he was two years younger. We reminisced on those early years of our lives, asking each other many questions, as we were both inspired by that common thread. He was easy to converse with, and very friendly, but had a way of directing a conversation through questions to get the information he thought was important. It must have been his investigative training. He wanted to know about our involvement with the teens in juvenile justice.
I told him my wife and I brought a Christian faith-based program to the teens three times a month. We had an hour and fifteen minutes from the time the security doors opened until they slammed shut behind us. We brought a message from the word of God, inspired by prayer to be tailor-made for the group that night. We started with songs of praise to lift up the name of Jesus and to set the atmosphere in the room. The message would follow, and the night would conclude with prayer for those young people who wanted prayer for their individual situations. Some were first- time offenders with relatively minor charges such as fighting in school, while others were repeat offenders with very serious charges. Some faced time in jail. We learned enough of their background as we prayed individually with them to know that there were deep and varied problems, some so complicated and discouraging they were almost unimaginable. Our mission was always the same. We were to tell the youth at the juvenile justice facility of God’s love for them, and that He had a good plan for their lives, according to Jeremiah 29:11. We did not know names (because these were minors), and there was no follow up allowed. No matter what they had done, we told them their situation mattered to God, and while we might not know the answer, we could point them to the One who did. When the night was over, we had to simply trust God to take our effort and use it to make a difference in their lives.
At this point, Sheriff Dan could hardly wait to tell me his story. He prefaced this by saying what we were doing would make a difference. He wanted me to share his story with the young people any time I wanted. The Sheriff began by saying that although he was brought to church in his early years, he had gotten away from the Lord as a teenager. When his parents divorced, his world was shattered. He expressed his desperation in the form of anger, which caused him to get into fights in school. He began to run with the wrong crowd, finding himself in and out of the juvenile justice system. He was in trouble, headed nowhere, and did not know how to get out of the destructive cycle.
One night a couple came to visit the juvenile facility where he was detained. They told the group that God loved them all, and had a good plan for each of their lives. The young people needed only to ask for help, and believe God would help them. He listened. When he got out, he determined that would be his last time in juvenile justice. He changed his friends, and started going back to church. Through prayer, God helped him get control of his anger. He finished high school, and went into the Air Force. Following his stint in the Air Force, he went to college on veteran’s benefits. After completing college, he pursued a career in law enforcement, ultimately winning three elections as county sheriff. God definitely had a plan for his life, and the juvenile justice system was not it. He wanted me to use his story to encourage the youth to know that there was a way out of their situation. Their dreams were not dead. There was hope and help for them, by trusting in Jesus.
I was humbled that this large public figure would be so honest with his success story. He not only encouraged and inspired me, he wanted me to encourage and inspire others who came from the identical situation to know that there was help for them.
Here are some of the take-away points from that breakfast:
- Our testimony matters. It is a tool to use against the devil. Revelation 12:11 says “They overcame him [the accuser of our brothers-the devil] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimonies.” [Emphasis mine.] Many of the teens in juvenile justice were accused of being worthless. They were told their lives didn’t matter, and it would be better if they were never born. On any given night, the meeting room was full of the attempted destructive works of the devil. Sheriff Dan’s testimony stood in direct opposition to those lies. His story speaks of God’s unfailing love, and His relentless effort to reach the lost.
- Our testimony not only matters, it never dies. It becomes a form of eternal praise to God for what He has done. The Sheriff asked me to use his testimony in our meetings, and I did. I learned to begin by asking the young people what they wanted to do with their lives. The response was amazing-they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, firemen, nurses and every good thing. None of them aspired to be thieves, career criminals, or drug addicts. I would then ask if they wanted to know how to get from where they were (locked up) to where they wanted to be. I would then start the story by saying I had breakfast with a man who had spent time in juvenile justice, and end the story by revealing the name of the Sheriff in the county next door. Jaws would drop open. The story was powerful because many of the teens knew the Sheriff or knew of him. I told that story dozens of times, as the Lord directed.
- Young lives in prison matter. These teens were God’s creations, known to Him before they were born. They were important, and God had His eye on them. They may have made a mistake, even a very serious mistake, but there is forgiveness. Their lives should not be thrown away. He will find a way to reach them.
- God was gracious to send Sheriff Dan to re-enforce when our ministry visited those in the prison, our efforts also mattered. God would honor our obedience and faithfulness to what He had called us to do, and use it to turn lives around. If God would send a couple to reach Sheriff Dan, He would send us to reach someone every night we came.
God has given all of us a testimony. It probably arises out of a mistake we made, or a situation we could not have possibly overcome ourselves. He wants us to use that testimony for His glory. We are not to file that testimony away in archives and forget it. I am sure Sheriff Dan’s testimony was powerful in any setting, but it was especially powerful in our juvenile justice ministry. God wants us to know and develop our testimony to be used as a tool for Him and a weapon against the devil. If there is only a limited amount of time to tell someone about Jesus, such as we had at juvenile justice, what single testimony would you use? I encourage you to think about it, pray about it, and have it ready and available. Then watch God find multiple opportunities for you to use it. Your testimony matters.