From Thief to Belief:
Life in the Monastery of the Prodigal Son by Mikhail Markhasev
Somehow I was more at home in jail than in the free world. From juvenile hall and youth camps, to county jail and prison, the ground beneath my feet was more certain, more structured, and more acceptable than the unpredictable merry-go-round of outside society where the pressure to succeed revealed my inner emptiness and insecurity. Was it because I've become institutionalized and feared the challenge of freedom: the failure of meeting life on its own terms? Perhaps prison was more like my homeland because I grew up in an authoritarian regime where everything was dictated - similar to prison - and life as a slave was simpler than the responsibility of a free man...
As a confused and angry teenager, I had lost myself in the quagmire of addiction and gangbanging, embracing failure in the land which adopted me and my family. I was provided with every opportunity to succeed, but squandered what I was given. Then, in a most unlikely place, where opportunity was scarce and failure was the norm, by God's grace I regained myself and my path in life.
On the streets, refusal to grow up and respond to life's demands resulted in my becoming a self-absorbed pleasure-seeker and violent young man, who deluded himself and deceived others, especially everyone who loved him. As I spiraled out of control in a society where all doors were open before me, I found myself locked up in a notorious prison infamous for its misery and dysfunction. I justified my corrupt path, excused my sins, and embraced a death cult, becoming blindly loyal to a criminal organization which replaced my family. My life was fused to a false cause which was the equivalent of an existential black hole: consuming all light and positive energy in an irrational cycle of certain destruction.
The convict code was my moral foundation, the gang was my family after my home fell apart, and prison was my new country, which.was not going to crumble like my homeland did - battered by the gusts of global changes. The permanent walls and the abiding gun towers provided certainty my life lacked; the prison gang experiment in this social drainpipe gave my life meaning and purpose which I lacked in the real world.
A month after my 20th birthday I was sent to the Corcoran SHU, which can be aptly described as a prison within a prison: the hole. I was housed in a building from which prisoners left in only one of three ways: they paroled, debriefed, or died. Since I was serving life without parole and hated even the thought of dropping out, "the hole" was going to be my home until death did us part. What may have seemed unendurable to others suited me just fine. I knew how to "do my time," and perceived myself as a soldier in a cause, surrounded by the best of the best in the prison system. I relished being "schooled" by the big homies who commanded the major prison gangs in California. My destiny was in my hands, and I continued to do what by this time in my life was second nature: play god over my life and surrender it to the devil.
My first cellmate at the time was an older convict from my area. We were a part of the same structure, but he had the habit of reading the Bible in the afternoons. I had first read the Bible when I was 16, facing time in juvenile hall, but the seed of God's Word fell by the wayside of my hardened heart. Nevertheless, I looked at the Holy Scriptures in a way a superstitious person sees a rabbit's foot: if you got one, perhaps it will work like a lucky charm. So, I asked my cellmate about getting a Bible. Aside from being a sacred book full of wisdom, it was a good stash spot for razor blades and other contraband.
It so happened that Billy Graham, the famous evangelist, was visiting Fresno in Spring of 1999. As we watched his crusade and sermon, my cellmate suggested that I write to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) for a free Bible. This I did, for no other reason than to possess a "sacred book." Shortly after, my cellmate was transferred to Pelican Bay, and I forgot about the request for a Bible.
It was during the next few weeks alone in the cell, that the God Whom I kept at a distance and often ignored, drew near and finally revealed Himself in a direct and unmistakable manner.
It was a typical bright May morning, as the scorching Central California sun baked the narrow slice of white-washed glass on my back wall. It was a down day without yard. In the Corcoran SHU, we were locked down 24 hours a day, except for three outings per week, totaling ten hours on a grimy triangle of concrete, a patio surrounded by slimy walls and barbed wire, where we exercised, politicked, played handball, and stabbed each other. If you were an active gang member, going to yard was mandatory: it was an important training ground and a place to conduct business. Without any other classes or groups, the yard was the only place for live social contact.
On down days, I worked out in the cell, and was wolfing down my lunch while looking for something to watch on my small Zenith. There was nothing on, so I settled on a program about near-death experiences. Various people spoke of "seeing the light" or "their loved ones," when being pronounced clinically dead. I watched without much interest, until one man gave a detailed description of his near-death experience and descent into Hell.
The man flatlined and descended into a tangible darkness which overwhelmed him and where the flame was indescribable. Having grown up in a Christian home and being a nominal believer who gave only lip-service to things of God, he knew that he was perishing for neglecting the truth of the Gospel. So, as he descended into this fiery abyss, he began to cry out for Jesus, like a drowning man hollars for rescue. His soul ceased in its descent and he was brought back to life. Since then, this man became a preacher, telling others of his hellish experience.
As I was watching this testimony, I was overwhelmed with dread. It is important for me to distinguish what I felt from the typical fear I was familiar with. I am familiar with the fear for one's life: I've been jumped, stabbed, shot at; I had experienced fear and extreme anxiety in and out of prison. But what I felt here was dread of a different sort. This was the realization that my life and soul stood before the Almighty God, Who not only brought me into this world and preserved me countless times despite my insanity, but Who also knew me and was the ultimate Judge of all. I later read the words of Jesus to His disciples: "My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has the power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!" (Luke 12:4-5).
Convicted in my soul, I dropped what I was doing, and dropped to my knees before this invisible and mysterious God. I knew that I was going to Hell: that everything in my life up to that point had warranted only a Hell of my own choosing. I knew that my life of lies and madness was open and naked before God. Although I did not know how to pray, I simply poured out my sincere desire to God, struggling to make any sense: "I don't know if You are real, or if Jesus exists, but I don't want to play any more games. You know everything, nothing is hidden from You. Forgive me for everything, and save me..." As I prayed, my heart welled with emotion and I expected something extraordinary to happen. Perhaps I anticipated the ceiling in my cell to crack open and for God's hand to descend upon my head. I didn't know what to expect, but nothing happened...
The moment passed, and I felt a mixture of relief and discomfort: "That was weird," I thought, and was only glad that my gang buddies did not witness my moment of weakness: in prison culture, a religious awakening is on par with a nervous breakdown, considered to be pathetic and shaky; two strikes against one's character and reputation in a cutthroat environment. Here, only the strong survived.
Subsequently, three unrelated developments revealed that the prayer I clumsily stumbled through that day was answered in ways I could not choreograph. The week after my mystical experience I received an issue of heroin. As I went about dividing the spoils and fixing my fat shot (I was a hopeless dope fiend who never refused it and always looked for ways to get high), a voice in my conscience reminded me about my recent prayer, and that I was being a hypocrite: I am now a Christian. "Well," I thought, "It's too bad because Jesus is just gonna have to forgive me: it's going down!" I did my dope and went about my business. I don't know why, but I just couldn't "bust a nod." I was loaded and irritated at the same time because I was conscious of being high, and couldn't get that sweet spot of oblivion which always allowed me to get away from my inner turmoil and misery. There I was, where I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do, yet aware that God had something to do with being the ultimate buzz-kill...
The next day on the group yard, my friends were coming up and asking for more dope, saying it was good stuff, which perplexed me even more. I did another dose, and the same thing happened: my dope was my god whom I worshipped, and here the true God smashed my god by revealing its impotence. That was the last time I used drugs - this demonic sickness which wrought so much havoc in my life and the lives of my victims.
The second event was no less interesting, and perfectly timed. The property officer came to my cell and issued two books and a small booklet. This was my forgotten order from Billy Graham: his ministry sent me a Bible, a Christian devotional, and a little study from the Gospel of John. What I ordered as a malicious heathen arrived to a beginning Christian, who - unbeknown to himself but known from the beginning to His Heavenly Father Whose timing is perfect - was going to need both the Bible and the study materials as I made my first wobbly steps toward God and away from my self-made Hell. Although I was unchurched, I began to browse through the materials which miraculously came into my hands at the most opportune time, trying to make sense of the dense Bible. My heart was unexpectedly moved to tears by the message of the devotional: Ken Gire's "Precious Moments With the Savior." I could not remember the last time I wept: I shed no tears when convicted of murder and certainly did not weep when sentenced to life in prison. What was this now? I couldn't get enough of what I was reading, but my hunger for spiritual truth was still insufficient for me to break the demonic bonds which tethered me to a life of addiction and violence. I needed help.
Help came in the face of my next cellmate, who was an older struggling "closet Christian," who had walked on-and-off with God throughout his lengthy criminal career. Christian cellmates were extremely rare in our den of iniquity. We began to read and pray together, and he instructed me in the Scriptures, and encouraged me to draw closer to God. With my cellmate's help, I was finally able to refuse drugs and renounce this poison. Of course, we still struggled and make plenty of mistakes, but one day at a time the cell block of my condemnation was becoming the arc of my redemption, cultivating the tiny mustard seed of faith to endure the forthcoming trials, as the seed blossomed into a mighty tree which sustains me to this day.