By Danielle Strickland —
I stole my first car when I was twelve years old. In family court, when my fate seemed to be incarceration, a leader from my church insisted I was going through a hard patch, but I could be sentenced to community service at a camp. The judge jumped at the opportunity.
But not even the intervention of kindness, the crisp, clean air of the woods, or the majesty of the natural world could snap me out of my downward trajectory. I’m bewildered and amazed that I lived through it. I can only surmise that the power of prayer and the grace of God, both undeserved but freely given, kept me alive.
I don’t remember a whole lot, but there are a few moments I can’t forget.
I remember the drive-thru where my uncle took out a bottle of vodka and topped off my Sprite, assuring me this would make a Happy Meal even better. I was eleven. He was bad. And I loved it. He fed me more than alcohol that day – he fed me the recipe of escape. Of addiction. A steady diet of lies is what I drank from that man. Those lies kept on feeding me.
I wanted to be bad. I didn’t want the consequences of my actions, but I also didn’t really mind them that much. I became drug-addicted, cold-hearted, and completely out of control.
That brought me to a day in court for over twelve charges. I had stolen another car. I had led the police in a high-speed chase around the city. I was with my partner who I had been forbidden to see by court order. I had robbed a store and injured the owner in an escape. I had damaged property. I had drugs on me and was high as a kite. The court wanted to try me as an adult or sentence me to the maximum for a young person – three years in a maximum-security prison.
On the inside, it did not matter to me if I lived or died. I was not at all remorseful. As the court was deciding if we would be released or held, the plaintiff called forward the man whose car we had stolen. His name happened to be Mr. Rogers. And even though my friend and I were handcuffed and facing jail time, we could not stop laughing. I mean seriously – Mr. Rogers!
My friend started singing “It’s a terrible day in the neighborhood.”
And even though the judge was ticked off, I said, “Boys and girls, can you say criminal?” And we both laughed.
They remanded me to prison because they believed I was a threat to society. They were right. Soon, I was in a holding cell in the basement of City Hall in downtown Toronto.
But then the guard let in a woman named Joyce Ellery, a member of my parent’s church. I rolled my eyes and cursed under my breath. I was not interested in the lecture or the invitation to change my ways. I couldn’t take the perpetual disappointment of my religious upbringing.
Joyce entered my cell and handed me a lawyer’s card – which is the kind of practical Christianity that brings tears to my eyes. And then she did something I did not expect. She hugged me. She wrapped her warm arms around my cold-hearted, drug-infused, bristling body. And what she didn’t do spoke volumes.
She didn’t lecture me. She didn’t scold me. She didn’t even advise me. She whispered in my ear while hugging my resistant teenage frame: “I love you.” That’s it. That’s all. That’s the whole thing. Then she nodded at the guard, who promptly opened the door for her to leave.
I was dumbfounded. But when that cell door closed, I heard the bang of finality. I was alone. I was stuck. I was lost. And then the most wonderful thing happened. Jesus showed up.
Was it a vision? A feeling? A trance? A tangible encounter with the divine? A metaphysical neurological brain experience? A drug trip? I have no idea. Here is all I know: Jesus showed up. I felt him. I sensed him. I heard him. I experienced him.
Jesus came with his arms open and wrapped me in his love. He whispered in my ear, “I love you.” And all the fear and pain, and shame and guilt, and hardness and badness started to loosen and leave, and I felt loved. Unconditionally loved.
It was like someone turned on a light inside of me and I could finally see that the place I was in was not good. That I didn’t belong there.
That encounter with Jesus did something that can never be undone. However, it did not make me magically better. Love made me alive, but it still left me human.
I was still addicted to drugs. I was still in prison. I was still stuck in cycles of thinking and living that would be very difficult to break. I was still captive to a lot of pain buried deep inside that would take decades to uncover and bury. But I was alive, I could feel, I could see, and I had hope.
I’m so thankful for Joyce. And Jesus. And even Mr. Rogers.
For that day truly was the most terrible, wonderful, beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Danielle Strickland is pastor, author, and justice advocate based in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of several books and host of DJStrickland Podcast, ambassador for Stop the Traffik, as well as the co-founder of Infinitum, Amplify Peace, The Brave Campaign and the Women Speakers Collective. This article was excerpted from The Other Side of Hope by Danielle Strickland. Copyright © 2022 by Danielle Strickland. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishing (www.harpercollinschristian.com).
She will be one of the plenary speakers at the Beyond These Walls conference April 27-29 at The Woodlands Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas.