This Prison Chaplain Earned a Divine Second Chance

The former drug addict spent time in prison; then a mysterious letter propelled him to change his life.

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- Posted on Nov 25, 2020

ILLUSTRATION BY WEITONG MAI

I stepped out of the federal prison in South Dakota after a decade behind bars and breathed a sigh of relief. I’d served my time. But I wasn’t just free. I was a new man. Honestly, I doubted anyone who knew me before would recognize me. I hardly recognized me.

My home life hadn’t been great growing up. My dad died in a car accident when I was just 10. He’d been abusive and violent. An alcoholic. When I was 16, my mother remarried. Another alcoholic. My stepfather handed me my first beer at 18. “Drink up,” he said. “You’re a man now.” I did. I drank and drank. Soon I was drinking like my old man.

In college, I got into drugs. Smoking pot at first, then popping pills and dropping acid. After two years, I dropped out and opened a successful neighborhood tavern. By then, cocaine was my drug of choice. I made good money but not enough to support my addiction. I started selling drugs on the side. I told myself I was able to balance it all.

That illusion shattered the first time I smoked crack cocaine. It was the most intense high I’d ever felt. I couldn’t get enough. I was awake for days at a time, wired. I spent $2,000 a week chasing that ever-elusive high. I had to sell more and more drugs to pay for it. I started missing work. I was a mess. Still, I didn’t see what was coming.

On April 10, 1991, I left work for the day. DEA agents surrounded me in the parking lot. They handcuffed me, read me my rights. I knew it was over. I was 42 and facing up to 20 years in federal prison for drug trafficking.

Sitting in the county jail, awaiting trial, I was filled with rage. I blamed everyone but myself. Others in my position might have considered it rock bottom. A pivotal moment to change and do better. But not me. Even after I’d been through the worst of my withdrawal symptoms, all I could think about, all I cared to think about, was chasing my next high.

One day, about a week after my arrest, a guard called my name. “Cox? I’ve got a letter for you.”

A letter? I thought. Who would be sending me a letter? Especially now? I wasn’t in touch with my family, and my lawyer would have come to see me in person.

As soon as I touched the envelope, I felt a tingle go up my arm. Warm like a bolt of electricity but not painful. It buzzed pleasantly, just below the surface of my skin. Strangely, tears welled up in my eyes.

I looked at the return address. I recognized the name. It was from a woman I knew, though she was more of an acquaintance than a friend. What could she possibly have to say to me? With my hands shaking slightly, I tore the envelope open.

The letter was short. “Danny,” the first line read, “No matter what you’ve done, God still loves you.”

At that point in my life, I would’ve scoffed at those words. I hadn’t grown up religious. I felt I didn’t need God to feel whole. But for some inexplicable reason, a tidal wave of emotion washed over me. As if reading those words had sent me through a portal into another world, a world that promised something greater. The sounds of the jail—echoing voices and clanging metal doors—faded. I felt as if I’d been pulled out of my body. I was somewhere else, floating. I was with God. Warmth flooded my soul. Such tremendous love overwhelmed me. I could barely breathe.

Then, as if projected in front of me, images flickered to life. Is that…me? I watched scenes play out before my eyes, a highlight reel of occasions when I had hurt people by using and selling drugs. The things I’d done and said—such awful things, one after another. Guilt rose up within me.

Jesus, I thought, can you ever forgive me?

Then I was back in my body. My heart pounded. The jail cell around me looked the same, but it felt different. I was different. I had experienced God’s love and mercy. It felt as if, spiritually, I’d been given a second chance. It was something that up until then, I didn’t know I needed.

I pled guilty. The judge sentenced me to 10 years in federal prison. I’d lost everything, but I’d never felt better. God’s forgiveness hadn’t erased my past but revealed a path forward. The relentless compulsion to get high was gone. For the first time in years, it wasn’t the first thing and last thing I thought about every day. I used my free time for Bible study and reflection. The kind of quiet introspection I’d avoided all my life. Prison tested me—emotionally, physically, spiritually. But by the time I walked out as a free man, I was ready to enter society again.

I wasn’t worried about relapsing. Besides, I’d lost contact with everyone from my old life. I’d have to start over—but that in itself was a blessing.

I won’t be coming back here, I promised myself as I walked away from the prison gates. Not ever!

Looking back now, I can appreciate the irony.

I worked on rebuilding my relationship with my family. I went to church every Sunday and was soon asked to serve as a deacon. A few years later, God spoke to me again.

I was driving home from work when I heard it clearly. Not an audible voice but one in my spirit.

You went to prison for doing bad, it said. Now I’m going to send you back to do good. But this time, you’re going through the front door with honor.

I knew exactly what it meant.

That was 15 years ago. Ever since, I’ve worked as a prison chaplain. I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job. After all, I understand these men. I’ve been one of them. And I know the importance of that second chance.

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