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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ambassadors of Light (Part 1 of 3)

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

"Our greatest natural resource and most valuable asset are truly our children." 
--Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court--

Day One

October 5-6, 2018 twenty-two prisoners participated in the "One Day With God" camp held at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, Michigan. The camp is hosted by trained volunteers of Forgiven Ministry, a North Carolina-based faith-based organization founded by Scottie Barnes.

Forgiven Ministry currently hosts the camp at prisons in seven different states. During camps incarcerated parents and their children are guided through a series of structured activities by trained Christian mentors involving a combination of teaching family values, relationship-building, and fun. A great deal of time, preparation, and resources are invested into making each camp possible.

Proponents of accountability and positive inner change, Forgiven Ministry believes this formula can reduce recidivism, help break the destructive cycle of crime, and prevent the waste of human capital. They also hope to help diminish the burden that offenders incur on society. In 2015 the camp received national attention when "ABC Nightline" featured a story about one of the camps held at a prison in Muskegon, Michigan.

Criteria for incarcerated fathers of children to participate in the "One Day With God" camp are strict. The opportunity is only afforded to prisoners who are free of serious misconduct reports for over a year and who also meet several other conditions. Because the prison is responsible for the safety of each child who enters the facility the Warden's office carefully screens the institutional 
file of every camp applicant before approving him.

The "One Day With God" camp is a two-day event. The first day the incarcerated fathers participate in an eight-and-a-half hour spiritually-based program designed to teach them valuable lessons and values about fatherhood which include integrity, love, and leadership. Each prisoner is assigned a mentor to 
guide him throughout the day.

The camp is held in the prison gymnasium which is located in the educational building. Day one of the camp half the gymnasium was used by volunteers to make presentations to prisoners replete with microphones, a large sound system, laptop, digital projector, and projection screen. The other end of the gymnasium was used to store food, drinks, and other items used during the camp.

Tables were set up to seat two prisoners and two volunteer mentors. The mentors were seated on the end of each table and prisoners were seated between them. On the table in front of each prisoner was a small stack of faith-based books, a boxed tube of Aim 
toothpaste, two bars of Dial soap, a pack of Skittles, and a blue pen.

The mentors seated at my table that day were Bernice and Jack. They were both very kind people who assisted the other prisoner seated at my table named De'Von and me throughout the day. They even provided us with food, snacks, and drinks from the other end of the gymnasium when we requested something to eat or drink. They did this so we could remain focused on the presentations as much as possible, and to model the value of service to others.

The day began with an introduction to the camp, prayer, and program volunteers offering the prisoners a breakfast provided by Forgiven Ministry consisting of an assortment of bagels, danishes, granola bars, and orange juice. The meal was followed by presentations from various speakers who taught from the book "Godly Dads" by Jeff Rudd. They also offered testimony about the power of God and forgiveness.

Among the messages presenters shared with us were that fatherhood is an awesome opportunity to teach, to love, to nurture and to grow. They also impressed upon us the importance of understanding that to raise children of integrity fathers must become men of integrity.

According to Depaul University Professor Susan Bandes, "Each individual is situated in her own experience. In 
order to interpret and understand that experience, each individual must filter it through the lens of her own point of view. Who we are determines what we notice, what seems important, how we react to it, what connections we draw, and what meaning we attach to things."

This is all the more reason that nurturing integrity is so important in our lives if we wish to be conduits to convey edifying lessons to our children. Our values are not static. They are formed and continually refined by our experiences and the choices we make in our lives. Just as we are a product of our collective experiences, so too are the people we influence with our words and the behavior we model.

We heard about the need for fathers to convey their love for their children and that love is the centerpiece in our relationship with our children. A list of ten evidence-based ways that fathers impact their children was also indexed, as well as spiritual characteristics of love and how to exercise them.

There were also lessons about leadership and leading our children by example. We heard about the value of modeling service to our children, developing our children's God-given gifts, and providing our children with knowledge or skills about relationships, life skills, and and academic skills.
After eating a lunch provided by the volunteers the incarcerated fathers were each given a plain wooden picture frame by volunteers to decorate and present to our child(ren) the following day. We were able to choose from various embellishments including an assortment of stickers, glitter hearts, and shiny small plastic stones to decorate our frame however we wanted.

I carefully selected my daughter's favorite colored stones, cartoon characters, hearts, and stickers that resembled her dogs and cats. I also traded stickers with other fathers who had stickers I wanted to use if they didn't use them. I went to different tables looking at any stickers that weren't being used to see if I could discover some I could use. That effort paid off. I managed to locate some I knew she would like, including the letter of her first name, some emojis, and characters from the animated movie "Frozen."

We were also given a green backpack with a large "One Day With God" logo on it and allowed to choose five age appropriate gifts from an array of items for our child(ren) to place inside the backpack to give them the following day. One of the mentors told me her 8-year-old daughter helped her pick the gift options for the gifts in my daughter's age range and said, "I know whoever receives these things will like them."

From among the wonderful gifts available I selected a kit my daughter could use to 
create Max the dog from the movie "The Secret Life of Pets," a Trolls bath bomb, stickers, a 3-D coloring book of dogs and cats, and a bucket of sidewalk chalk in assorted colors. My daughter has two Chihuahua dogs and two cats as pets at home so I knew she would like my choices. She also likes the "Trolls" movie characters and bath bombs so that would be a good choice as well.

That afternoon we also heard a presentation by Lorraine Whoberry, author of, "Heal My Wounds, Leave My Scars: A Mother's Story of Loss, Despair, and Her Journey Back to Hope." She is also a victim advocate, executive director of the S.T.A.C.I.E. Foundation, and committee member for the Department of Youth Services, Interstate Compact for Juveniles State Council.

Lorraine shared her heart-wrenching story about being the mother and survivor of two teenage daughters who were viciously attacked in 1999 by a 20-year-old male in Virginia. One of her daughters was murdered in the attack and the other miraculously survived potentially life-ending wounds to multiple areas of her body.

After several years of grappling with immense pain, despair, and intense anger toward her daughter's killer she turned her life and struggles over to God and began the process of healing. She also found freedom from the bondage of unforgiveness by learning to forgive herself and ultimately the offender who committed the violent crime against her family.

It wasn't an endorsement of the injury the offender caused but rather an act of mercy and self-empowerment. It allowed Lorraine to reclaim her life and migrate from a position of strength from victim to survivor. She also discovered that forgiveness is a moral virtue that we exercise in alignment with the teachings of Jesus who stated:

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Holy Bible, Matthew 6:14-15)

According to Lorraine, "We have the power to heal. When we give in to defeat we give power to darkness. Forgiveness is a process. It's also a choice. Unforgiveness is bondage. Forgiveness is freedom." Her message reflected the adage that bitterness does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored than to the vessel on which it is poured.

Today Lorraine travels the country bravely sharing her story of perseverance, faith, and healing as an impact speaker. She and her daughter Kristie have been featured on television programs like "America's Most Wanted," "The Montel Williams Show," "I Survived," and "Discovery Health." Lorraine has also appeared on various radio talk shows and been the keynote speaker at conferences across the nation.

Her riveting testimony was a profound lesson in forgiveness that evoked tears and touched the heart of every person in the room, myself included. Lorraine's willingness to 
continue speaking to an audience of prisoners and teaching them about forgiveness despite the painful psychological and emotional scars her family has suffered was powerful and compelling.

After Lorraine's presentation we watched a movie titled, "I Can Only Imagine." The film was based on the true story about an aspiring music artist who grew up in a troubled home with an abusive father. He moves away from home and returns later to discover his father has changed after 
giving his life to God.

The son forgives his father and they begin to rebuild their lives together. The father later dies from an illness and the son continues pursuing his dream as a musician. After a number of struggles he goes on to become a multiplatinum selling gospel music artist. The movie was another example about the transformative power of forgiveness and redemption.

After the conclusion of the film camp volunteers recapped the day with the incarcerated fathers and discussed what the following day would be like when their child(ren). We were told they would be brought into the prison gymnasium each accompanied by two Forgiven Ministry mentors and they described the wide range of activities we would be participating in together.

We were also given an assignment to write a one-page letter to our child(ren) telling them how much we love them, how proud we are of them, how wonderful they are, and how glad we are they are our child. That night I spent two hours composing the best letter I could write my daughter that she would be proud of and able to 
read on her own.

I wanted my letter to be special and something my daughter would keep and always cherish. In 
order to accomplish this my words had to be selective, impactful, and enduring. After composing a few iterations of the letter I managed to distill everything I wanted to say down to a single typed page and finally settled on the final version. I was now ready to present it to her the following day.

Before laying down for the night I also ironed the clothing I would be wearing the following day. I hand-washed the clothes the previous evening along with the white athletic 
shoes I would be wearing so they would be clean. It would be the first time my daughter saw me wearing athletic shoes because prisoners must wear state-issued black oxford shoes during visits.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting and