I have been asked about my conversion story and realized that, other than being in my first book, The Criminal’s Search for God, it was not posted anywhere so I have remedied that here, this is from pages 9-41 of my book.
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A Life Far From God
But God, as he is the supremely good Creator of good natures, so is He of evil wills the most just Ruler; so that, while they make an ill use of good natures, He makes a good use of evil wills. (St. Augustine)
Few human beings are farther from God than criminals, yet the first canonized saint of the Church Christ established on the rock of Peter was the criminal Dismas, the Good Thief, who Christ took with Him from Calvary to heaven, thereby revealing the eternal path to criminal transformation.
This book is in four parts. The first is about the criminal world through the prism of my criminal life—as a thief and robber—lasting for almost twenty years with twelve of them in maximum security prisons, and about my transformation, education, and conversion to Catholicism.
Parts two and three focus on the spiritual and public policy aspects of using transformed criminals to help other criminals transform their lives, and part four is a model program design to accomplish that work in the community.
Transformed criminals with advanced degrees and Catholic social teaching knowledge—I describe as deep knowledge leaders—working through grassroots community organizations, can help reverse the long-term failure of criminal rehabilitation programs as they possess the elemental experiential knowledge of the criminal world allowing them, and them only, the authentic access to criminals long denied the social work professional.
The larger issue of how we treat those who have committed crimes against us, who have asked for forgiveness and validated it through their redemptive actions, are thus addressed by an acceptance of their transformation and their help, and an eventual welcome into full communion.
This book is written from a Catholic perspective, seeing crime as sin in the sense described classically through Church teaching, as by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace (2004):
The mystery of sin is composed of a twofold wound, which the sinner opens in his own side and in the relationship with his neighbor. That is why we can speak of personal and social sin. Every sin is personal under a certain aspect; under another, every sin is social, insofar as and because it also has social consequences. In its true sense, sin is always an act of the person, because it is the free act of an individual person…
Certain sins, moreover, constitute by their very object a direct assault on one’s neighbor. Such sins in particular are known as social sins. Social sin is every sin committed against the justice due in relations between individuals, between the individual and the community, and also between the community and the individual.
(pp. 66-67, italics in original)
The prodigal son’s return can address the four central criminal justice issues our society struggles with: 1) our nation’s youth who are at risk of becoming criminals, 2) the failure of prisons to rehabilitate, 3) the failure of reentry, and 4) the increasing criminalization of culture.
The number of criminals in America’s federal and state prisons is 2,193,798 (12/31/05) currently increasing inexorably—491 prisoners per 100,000 population on 12/31/05 versus 411 in 1995—and 60-70% of them will return to crime once released.
It is hoped this book will be of help to criminals who are called to transform their lives, restore their connection to the community and help other criminals find the path home to Rome.
It is also hoped it will stimulate a deeper and more Catholic informed criminal justice work around the issue of criminal transformation.
A Criminal Life
One’s own life has meaning not only because it is earthly but also because in it we decide to be near or far from God, we decide for sin or redemption. Hannah Arendt (p. 25)
I was born into the criminal world, far from God, and though well before memory it clearly marked the path I was to walk for many years.
My father was a member of a criminal organization and by the time I was two years old we were on the run from the FBI.
They caught up with us and my father was sentenced to twenty years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Years later when I was sentenced to Leavenworth, I met people who were still serving time from when my father was there, a situation that is unfortunately all too common among many families.
My first criminal act was the theft of a pair of fur-lined leather gloves of another boy in sixth grade. He reported the theft and the teacher had us all stand and face her as she demanded that the thief return the gloves and nothing further would be said. I had put the gloves under my hat where they lay perched on the top of my head, surely sticking up at a strange angle I thought at the time.
Though trembling with barely suppressed fear, and the excitement of dealing with that fear, I never said a word and walking home, hands warm in the gloves; I felt the first joy of gaining something for nothing and the brilliant glow of a risk taken and my fear conquered.
This fear and excitement was always to be present in all of the future crimes I committed.
When I was twelve, my father was released from prison.
I had been raised without any knowledge of him and was completely taken by surprise the day he showed up. He knocked on the door and I answered, immediately sensing in his warm “Hello David” someone other than a mere friend of the family.
My father was charming and brought an excitement and worldliness to my life that I had never known. He took me to places I had never been, gave me more money than I had ever had, and let me drive his Cadillac convertible. I deeply love Cadillac’s to this very day and drive a pale yellow one that almost perfectly matches the brilliant pale yellow of the Cadillac convertible he was driving the first day he showed up at our door.
I began telling my eighth grade friends about my father, breathlessly describing what I had been told of his criminal exploits to my wide-eyed friends. I started smoking and drinking as he did, and soon began getting in trouble and became more rebellious at school and home.
My first contact with police came when I stole a pair of diving goggles from a store when I was thirteen. I was caught by the store manager and held for the police. They took me down to the city jail and showed me the juvenile cell where I was told I would wind up if I didn’t straighten out. They were trying to scare me straight but it had the opposite effect. I was thrilled. I thought the jail cell and the guys in it were the coolest thing going and could not wait to join them and the world that my father had belonged to.
I began by running away from home on several occasions.
One time a friend and I got all the way to Mexico and back—in his chopped and channeled Ford—without getting caught.
After that, another friend and I stole a car—a big red Dodge convertible—and got to Los Angeles before we were caught. Since it was his first offence and his family convinced the judge he was redeemable, he was returned to his family. Since it was not my first offence and my family was not sure if I was redeemable, I was sentenced to a foster youth ranch.
While I was in jail—in the same jail cell I had been shown a year or so earlier—awaiting transfer to the foster youth ranch; I and two others escaped from the jail by jimmying the cell door open. This involved stuffing black paper down the slot the hook dropped into during dinner when the door was open and the guard was distracted, and then lifting the hook off later, (since it wasn’t securely down in the slot) with a bent and filed down fork. One of us crept out into the office next to the cell and we called the one guard on duty back to the cell complaining of being sick, and our partner rifled through the office until he found the guard’s gun, leading him back into the cell once he had left us. Once he came back we tied him up, and the first time we tied him he was tied too close to the cell door, which was still closed so we couldn’t open it, so we had to retie him.
It was three in the morning and we decided to go down the stairs to the basement garage to get out of the city jail building. One of us was in front and slipped out the door and made for the river, but I was hobbling due to a sprained ankle I suffered during a jail fight and my other partner was helping me hop down the stairs. He also had the gun. As we opened the stairwell door into the garage a police officer came through. He recognized my partner and asked what he was doing out of jail. My partner pulled the gun, pointed it at the officer and pulled the trigger. The safety was still on and it did not fire, and how the future of one’s life hangs on events that happen so quickly and so decisively.
I was not charged for the escape—though it made the front page of the local paper as the first time anyone had ever escaped from the city jail and the fact that we were juveniles gave it even more news value— and was sent to the youth ranch as planned.
I was warned that if I did not change my behavior the escape would be charged and I would be sent to the state reformatory.
I liked the ranch. We played basketball, did chores, and I might have stayed for my allotted time had I not run into one of my former jail-escape partners, the one who made it to the river and was caught trying to swim across when police on both sides, fired a couple warning shots which brought him out of the frigid water.
One of the duties we had at the ranch was to raise money. We did this by going door-to-door selling stationary, donations for the work of the youth ranch. The counselors would drive us around to the towns in Nevada and we would sell our stationary for three or four hours a day. One day we were selling in my hometown and to my surprise, I knocked on the door of my escape partner.
That effectively ended my ranch stay as we took up where we had left off, stealing cars and anything else not bolted down, drinking too much and driving all over creation convinced we were big time outlaws.
I was picked up three weeks later for car theft and promptly sent to the state reformatory in Elko. This was a barren, dusty, and cold place where one of my first chores was fighting the toughest guy there to determine my place in the pecking order.
The reformatory guards refereed the fight which all the other wards watched, circled around me and my protagonist as we slugged it out with boxing gloves in the gym.
We spent our days baling hay, feeding cows, and doing pretty much all of the ranch work we were directed to do. The days were much regimented, the weather was extremely cold and I started thinking about escape.
A few months later I rounded up another escape partner and in the late night hours we climbed out the window, over the fence and ran several miles to Elko in our nightshirts and bare feet.
That is how they made us spend the night, away from our clothes and shoes for the express purpose of discouraging escape, but we were determined.
We broke into a church and found money and clothes. We then walked the early dawn streets until we located a car with the keys in it—not hard in the 1950’s—and headed east for Salt Lake City. Once there we stole another car from a used car lot, clothes and a shotgun from a sporting goods store, and food from a grocery.
We were brought to earth some hours later after a tire-screaming chase through downtown Salt Lake after I went the wrong way on a one-way street. I drove onto the sidewalk in an attempt to get away but it was not to be.
I came barreling out of the car with the shotgun in my hands, dropping it when I saw several guns pointed at me.
They locked us up in the city jail and our cell mates were the leaders of a riot that had just occurred at the Utah State Prison, Point of the Mountain. They told stories about the riot that had made the news world-wide, and in our criminal pride we basked in the knowledge that we were in the big time.
I had been searching for this ever since I had reached puberty and began to appreciate the world of adventure, excitement, and forbidden things that was represented by my father and I was determined to join that world. Though I lived in a good home and had a good life, there were restrictions, and I was against the imposition of any restriction.
Much of my youthful world, through the music of Elvis Presley, the movies of James Dean, and the fashions from both, provided me with reinforcement that rebellion was cool; rebellion was how you became an adult.
This was a clear counter-choice to the message of living an ordered life that was coming from my mother and step-father.
It was also clear to me from the way people treated my father that he was admired and respected. That respect flew in the face of the directives to not be like him. He and his world had more potency and vitality than the good and orderly world of my upbringing.
The nature of the ordered life is subtle and quiet, the pleasures serene and soft, and their eternal power was not then visible to me.
The criminal world pulsated with passion, fear conquered, and deep excitement. I chose to live in the criminal world because I saw it as the world that presented the most value for me, which at that time was to have a good time and live an exciting life; or in the immortal words of Danny Fisher, “To live hard, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.”
Taking the car across the state line during the escape was a federal offense. I pled guilty—setting a pattern of always pleading guilty and accepting responsibility for the crimes I did and was caught for—and was sentenced to the Federal Correctional Institution at Englewood, Colorado, also known as “Little Alcatraz.” It was called that for good reason. There were few escapes from Englewood. It was surrounded by a double steel fence topped with rolled barbed wire and several manned gun towers.
Surviving in prison was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life and the most exciting. Prison is a war environment. The threat of death is daily and imminent. It is so intense, the edges are so hard, and the consequences of stupidity are so final and brutal, that the only way to master it is to learn to love it. Mastering war is learning to love war, becoming the ultimate warrior. It is the same in prison, you become the ultimate prisoner.
At that point prison becomes home, with all of its cold warmth and deadly charm, and even though violence and death still stalked daily through the yard and tiers, I felt right at home.
I learned how to project myself beyond myself, how to create a protective space around myself as I walked the halls and yard. In prison the ideal is to be unreachable physically and emotionally. You should not be touched by whatever happens. You should become the strong silent type to the nth degree, and moving beyond that to actually thrive on the chaos and anarchy of prison, to be cold and indifferent when all around you is falling apart, and yet—this is the hardest—to be enjoying the process.
What I saw and felt in prison are what people have been writing about for generations concerning isolation and imprisonment. Reading Viktor Frankl’s account from the death camp meant much to me, how he found meaning in the suffering. Frankl writes about how he survived the horror of Auschwitz and Dachau. He writes about how after being stripped of all possessions and being isolated with so many values being destroyed, he was still able to find value and meaning in life.
I learned about the value of material things in prison and how little power they have over the internal truths we live by. The suffering of punishment rightly delivered—the pain of daily experience—is one of the most comprehensive teachers of all. I learned that in prison. I learned about what I could survive and what I would choose when all choices were closed off.
There is much of the monastery in prison, and the monk Thomas Merton was another author I enjoyed. I used my time in prison to read things I would never have encountered on the outside. During one period, when I spent a year in solitary confinement, I went through the entire dictionary and copied out every mythological proper name and definition into a notebook which became as thick as Grave’s “The Greek Myths”. I also went through many of Freud’s and Jung’s works during this time.
In prison the greatest honor is in protecting yourself, physically and ethically. Any hint of disrespect or violation of criminal world ethics demands satisfaction.
In a world of predators each revelation was significant. If in defending yourself, it appeared you were close to giving up or appeared to be less than total in your commitment to protecting yourself, you might have to fight again. If the other convicts thought you would kill over a pack of cigarettes, they would be less likely to take your cigarettes.
The cruelty and brutality of the prison is classically evil in the sense that the prisoners are being cruel and brutal consciously. That is the paradigm that works. It is not that there is that much that happens in prison that doesn’t happen on the outside, its just that in prison it is so much more concentrated and undiluted by goodness. Being an evil person is considered good in prison. Being able to hurt others without inner doubt or hesitation is considered high praise.
Honor as it is expressed in prison, is controlled brutality.
As the days spilled into months and years I began to accept the level of terror and alarm that surrounded me as normal. When a few days would go by without a stabbing, fight, or other disturbance, I would find myself getting bored.
The longer you are in prison the more power you acquire. Time builds clout. That first time in prison I did a lot of time in isolation. I was always resisting the guards, stealing, gambling, fighting, getting caught and getting thrown into the hole.
I came to feel a pride in being able to do solitary time. The longest time was the year previously mentioned, getting out of my cell once a week to walk down the tier to the shower.
It was during that period, at the beginning of it when I went on a hunger strike while locked in the stone cell without clothes, or bedding, only receiving a blanket and thin mattress at night, and after 25 days, reading the Bible I broke down.
I prayed to God to forgive and protect me and He came to me. I felt such peace and rapture. I felt I was lifted out and walked with Him in a beautiful mountain meadow.
That moment stayed with me for a long time, but could not outweigh what I had to deal with daily, and it was not until almost 30 years later that the power of that moment and that vision became completely evident to me.
I served a little over four years that first time. By the time I got out I had learned to survive in prison, but did not have a clue what to do on the outside.
A few weeks after getting out, while in a bar, someone jostled me, a common occurrence in a bar and yet I found myself snarling a rebuke to the very shocked patron, before I remembered where I was, that I was no longer in prison, and he meant me no harm.
I was out for a very short period. I attempted an armed robbery and within weeks I was back in prison, the attempted robbery plea bargained down to assault with a deadly weapon.
What a relief I thought, and I smiled when I walked back on the prison yard, even though this was a state prison I had never been in, but I felt right at home and was known by reputation. People knew me and I knew how to live here. I was back home.
This return was in the early sixties in California and the process was to have every prisoner in the California Youth Authority go through a five week battery of tests designed to discover what made us act as we did and if there were behavioral characteristics peculiar to us as a group.
State prison in California was much more violent than the federal system and the place I was in, Deuel Vocational Institution, or fondly called DVI, in Tracy, California was one of the worst. The racial tension and the gang structure were much more intense. The drug traffic was free-wheeling.
Countering this prison sub-culture was a strong emphasis on rehabilitation, probably the last period until recently that the California penal system focused on it. We had group counseling sessions and needed to complete some type of educational or vocational program prior to being paroled.
I chose to get involved in the dry cleaning vocational training as that put me working in the prison laundry, which was one of the best ways to make extra money while doing time. The regular issue of prison clothing comes out of the laundry all rumpled and wrinkled, but the prisoners who could afford it, paid to have us do their clothing nicely, pressed, cleaned, and delivered.
This was when the prison gangs were really becoming well organized. The emerging political direction of the various ethnic communities increased the general level of political awareness in the prison at large. There was also more value placed on strategic thinking and building coalitions which helped the first generation of prison gang leaders consolidate their power. As the ethnic groups strategically linked up, broke apart, and remerged, the turf wars increased.
A Criminal Life
I got out of Tracy after about three years and took a job at a dry cleaner. Things began to look okay after awhile. I worked hard, up at 5:00 AM, walked to work, put in ten hours or so and was starting to feel pretty good about being a regular citizen.
About this time a new department store opened and advertised for employees. I put in an application, but on the question about ever having been arrested, I lied and said no.
I got the job and for the next six months really started doing something productive. I was working in the men’s suits department, wearing nice clothes to work and selling like crazy. I was a natural salesman and led the department in sales for many months.
Then one day the lie caught up with me and two police officers came in, right in front of everybody, and arrested me. There was a local law that made it a misdemeanor to lie on a job application about your criminal record. I was released in just a few days, but the damage was done. My job was lost. I was depressed, angry and hostile and vowed not to go that route again.
I spent the next several months riding around the country on a motorcycle I bought with money I stole, supporting myself by stealing from the department store chain that fired me and returning the merchandise, because I knew they would refund the money even without a receipt, and I felt a bit of justice was being accomplished.
After several months I lost my bike, after being held in custody trying to cross the Mexican border with shaky papers. As I was being held, a charge of grand theft came up from the stolen money I used to buy the motorcycle. I managed to talk my way out of the charge and was released but with no transportation.
After a couple of days sleeping on the streets, I ran into a friend from jail walking down the street in front of the state capital in Sacramento, and he loaned me ‘his’ car—which was stolen but had a redone ID number and a phony pink slip—so I could resume my wandering and stealing, agreeing to send him money regularly.
After a few months the car broke down and I stole another in Wyoming and took it across the state line into Colorado. Soon after I was caught outside a department store after stealing some clothes and the stolen car charge came up.
This charge was good for another five years. I was considered incorrigible and sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. I was 23 years old.
Leavenworth is one of the older federal prisons and was where my father had been sent some 18 years previously and as mentioned, I met some people there who had been in with him and were still doing time, never having been released. It was strange talking to them, but made the time in Leavenworth easier as I was part of the family of the old-time convicts, criminals from the 1930’s and 40’s.
I was eventually transferred to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary—in the Puget Sound area of Washington State—to finish my sentence since I was from the West Coast. This was the hardest and final prison time of my life as I had been out long enough to have discovered a little about living a normal life while working at the dry cleaner and the department store.
Even though the relations I had established during this period were short term, there was still enough emotion involved that I began to see and missed the possibilities.
I also began to really think about and study what had happened to me internally that caused me to like being a criminal and not fearing prison, for make no mistake, prison was home to me and though the time was harder this time around, I still felt quite comfortable.
I became deeply involved with the existential writers, especially Sartre and Colin Wilson, and began redefining myself. I began to believe that being an outlaw and rebel—an outsider—was an honest intellectual position to hold. Many of the Vietnam War protesters who were sentenced to prison came to McNeil and the discussions with them seemed to validate my emerging position.
I began to feel that I was of that select group of people who have been blessed to see the world as it really is, and can live with it, even though it is the way it is.
Existentialism is the most incredibly selfish, navel-watching way of thinking devised by cynical man, but in its peculiar and depressing way, it was the beginning of the way out for me.
I was released from prison once again and the Aquarian Age was in full flower. Within a couple of weeks I started doing LSD which was just becoming the drug virtually every one of a certain age and sensibility was doing. Since the heaviest drug I had taken up to that point had been alcohol and marijuana, the LSD had a profound effect on me.
For the next two years I was stoned on it or mescaline and lived in a blue haze of travel, camping out, rock concerts, generally inane living and bubble headed ideas, all surrounded by worn-out levis and a green Chevrolet station wagon that transported me and the entourage I had picked up around the United States and Canada.
I supported myself by writing term papers for college students, advertising in local college newspapers and meeting clients at the college libraries.
It was partly because of my openness in running the business that it came to the attention of college administrators—to the point of one dean meeting me as a prospective client and quizzing me on how I wrote the papers, what I charged, and so forth, before he told me who he was—that it became illegal in California (my favorite client base) shortly thereafter
However, it was a very good living at the time and as I built up a library of papers I resold them around the country.
Then I was arrested for parole violation, deservedly so, and sent back to prison for the final three months of my sentence, which turned out to be a very good thing as it allowed me to begin thinking somewhat clearly again.
I got out for the final time having served a total of twelve years.
It took awhile to clear my head from the psychedelics, but once I got all the drug influenced nonsense out of my system, I began to think about what I had gone through and what it had made of me. I was 32 years old, had no vocation or profession, and the future did not look too bright.
My previous business writing term papers for college students helped me realize I could go to college, though I thought it impossible with my record until I heard about a program that was helping ex-criminals get into college.
I took advantage of that program and wound up enrolled in college. I majored in criminal justice and psychology and began, for the first time in my life, to learn things that really had value.
I learned how the love and admiration for my father and my adolescent nature to rebel led me, a willing participant, into criminal behavior. Being in prison as a result of this behavior, I had to adapt to the prison world to survive in it. I became able to live in that world, but lost, for a time, the ability to live in others.
In college, I learned about the nature of prisons from the perspective of people who build and manage them. I learned about the law and its enforcement by sitting next to cops in the classroom. It was a mind opener beyond anything I had experienced before. I was accepted at college, even in spite of my past, and it allowed me to bloom as people of decency and good will treated me with decency and good will. I began to reach back into my childhood and recover the values that I had been taught by my step-father. I began to see the possibility of becoming something other than a criminal.
College Rehabilitation Program
I got more deeply involved in college, was appointed as a legislative intern with a state senate criminal justice sub-committee, and was hired as a research assistant at the California Department of Corrections on a project that was developing an evaluation model for community-based corrections.
While working on this project, learning about the skill involved in writing grants and managing programs—and having a nice profile written about me in the local newspaper—I developed and had funded, as an action research project, a huge expansion of the self-help program that had helped me.
My successful involvement in college had helped me realize that other criminals could also benefit from college.
As I had studied criminal justice and psychology, I began learning how I had become socialized to be a criminal, and others could also. Once I began to see how things had happened to me, I took the first step towards changing them and I realized that another important step I could take, to help me retain and grow from my new found knowledge, was to show others the way I had found and help them escape the prison and criminal world within which their souls were locked.
In Project Alpha—after screening out the sex offenders—we enrolled the students we accepted into a highly structured program of counseling and educational support which was designed to insure that their educational experience was a successful one.
One of the classes we developed was a social survival skills class which all of our students were required to take. This class taught them many of the basics of getting along in society as an adult which most people learn from their family and by simple osmosis. But for these students, whose family lives were shattered and blown apart by drug use, abuse, violence, and the constant presence of death, their souls had become wary, predatory, defensive, and dangerous.
After many years in prisons this was amplified, and there were important lessons about living life as a gentle and productive person in a society which they needed to learn if they were ever to reclaim their souls from the stone, steel, and blood of their past.
We taught them things like how to have a normal relationship, open a checking account, how to redirect anger and fear, how to rent an apartment, find a job and be interviewed, and all kinds of things about the basic etiquette of modern living. Other things were folded into the class as students asked questions about various aspects of adult life that confused them and there were many.
I had two full-time staff and ten part-time counselors, who were also students. The staff was 50% former criminals who had been to college and 50% non-criminals who had been to college. Having seen how programs staffed exclusively by either could become unbalanced, I determined to balance the insight, passion, and spiritual insight of the reformed criminals with the academic perspective, moral values, and training of non-criminals.
It worked very well. The program was a tremendous success. During the three years I managed it, the 300 students (at 50 per semester) had an average GPA only one tenth of one percentage point lower than the average GPA of the college. Most significantly, there was not one incident of violence or criminal violation of any kind on campus during that time that was attributed to any of our students.
Many students went on to four year colleges, some pursuing advanced degrees, which has led me to often wonder what has become of their work over the intervening years.
The success of this program led me to work as a consultant with an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) funded program providing training and technical assistance to other OEO funded criminal justice programs.
As a government funded program, the tendency to structure the work primarily for the benefit of staff (we were paid very well and had a large budget for our training and conferences) overshadowed the work itself.
Though I felt I was able to provide the clients with some help, assisting many of them over rough times, and giving them new ways to look at the work they were doing, it was ultimately trumped by the needs of the bureaucracy.
The OEO work was an opportunity to share with other organizations some of the tools I’d developed at the college program such as a 50/50 peer to non-peer staffing, and ensuring experiential knowledge was involved in program management.
After this period of several years of relatively intense criminal justice work in the public sector, I felt a respite would be helpful and spent a few years in the private sector and just on the verge of making it permanent, realized it was time for the vacation to end.
My puttering around in the private sector was restful and I did some property management, some consulting and training seminars, and became very comfortable and serene, at least on the surface.
Internally I struggled with my past and quit sharing with people my turbulent days as a criminal and prisoner and began being accepted just as the person I was rather than the person I had been. Along with this though, I began drinking a lot, writing morbid though often exhilarating poetry, and essentially wallowing in the prison of my past and the bars of my present.
During one brief period of youthful nostalgia, often called a mid-life crisis, I purchased a motorcycle and two weeks later was rammed by a car which took part of my left leg with it. This happened the morning after Halloween, when I had attended a party as the one-legged pirate Long John Silver, play acting what was soon to be a reality even down to the leg and length of amputation.
Many months of adjustment to this new reality followed as I learned to walk in the unsteady, halting nature that my prosthesis required. Walking had always been a consistent pleasure in my life, from circular treks around various prison yards to solitary journeys into the mountains to day-long walks around Sacramento and San Francisco.
Now all that was over.
Once adjusting to my new reality, and after seeing the value insurance and investments had been in our family’s financial stability during my medical recovery, I began a career in that business after additional study about the great value that insurance and investments had brought to families, and seeing in it a way to help others as we had been helped.
I particularly loved studying the stock market and watching all of the world’s commercial knowledge flowing across your desk, and tying to determine how, what, and where it was going.
During this period however, I had been getting strong internal indications that I should be working back in criminal justice but fought them off, attracted as I still was to the challenge and lucrative aspects of the insurance and investment business. I was comfortable and did not want to deal with the jarring raw world of crime again, nor did I want to again tell people about my past, enjoying the feeling of people thinking I was just a normal guy.
In the process of becoming licensed as a stockbroker, which was much more detailed and exhaustive than that of insurance agent, I was subjected to an in-depth FBI background check which caused me to have to explain, in excruciating detail, each arrest of each crime over the approximately 20 year period of my criminal activity.
I had always been under the assumption that crimes committed when I was a minor were sealed, but not so. When I got a copy of my FBI report it was a 15 page compendium of every criminal justice event in my life, including the routine transfers in and out of prisons and jails when I was in the federal prison system and was being transferred for various reasons; such as to move closer to my release location, custody classifications changing, growing too old for some youth institutions, and causing trouble in one prison or another.
During this process of writing down and thinking again about the sordid details of my past, I really thought hard about the reasons I should be using the knowledge I had gained to help others. Finally, right on the verge of taking the test to get my stockbroker’s license I realized with utmost clarity that the knowledge I had was not what would make me a stockbroker, but would make me a helper of other criminals wanting to transform their lives, but this time in a different way.
The next several years were spent re-connecting to the public criminal justice sector through focusing on my community. I served as the executive director of an addiction medicine clinic, served as a commissioner on two local governmental commissions, developed my consulting practice and completed my college education.
Through all of this work I was beginning to shape the slowly forming realization of the importance of a new type of leadership to operate successful grassroots programs dealing with the transformation of criminals.
In coming to this conclusion, that it was not just about the money, nor management techniques, but ultimately came back to individual leadership and what qualities they were able to bring to their organization; a conclusion reached by the private sector some time before.
The roots of deep knowledge leadership were starting to grow and I began moving into the final preparatory work encompassing my spiritual and intellectual growth.
My search for personal spiritual truth has always been a search for reaching an optimally positive understanding of the four big questions: 1) why are we here, 2) how did we get here, 3) where are we going, and 4) what should we do while we are here. That search has led me through the study and practice of several major religious and philosophical traditions and some attachments to mystics and gurus.
Over the past several years—years of transition— my spiritual path has remained within the Jewish and Christian tradition, ultimately culminating in a conversion to Catholicism which has finally brought me the daily work and internal fulfillment which I had been seeking.
My search for God had ended, and in many ways had just begun.
The religious tradition I was raised in was enough of an outsider’s vision to prepare me admirably for the search ahead. The cornerstone of that tradition was that man entered the world innocent, and the rest of his life would be shaped by the free choices he made; free choice was God’s gift and burden.
In my criminal years, I broke completely from the rigidity of that tradition, and began looking at other ways to live that were unconstrained by the morality and spiritual considerations I had been led to believe in.
For many years I did not think of things in a spiritual way. I was a criminal and lived according to that paradigm, which was primarily hedonistic. I did not pay serious attention to any spiritual reality other than my own pleasure and being young and occasionally free, and single. This worked okay for awhile; but something more serious in me always struggled for more meaning.
At some point, deeply embedded within the criminal world and in prison, I began to develop a sense of seriousness, a certain strange liking for dense books about mysterious ideas.
I read voraciously over the next several years about all things spiritual, philosophical, psychological and sociological. I would reach conclusions that I attempted to live by for a time, trying them on to see how they felt in actual living, and succeeded in learning lessons from each brief sojourn.
However, not yet wishing to attach myself to accepting any consequences for my ongoing selfish actions, I adopted the ways of existentialism. Its incredibly convoluted forms allowed me to construct anything I wished to better suit my needs.
I learned perhaps one of the most important of all spiritual truths which remained with me; that even in the most horrifying conditions, meaning in living is still possible. Suffering has value and we can choose to use suffering to gain knowledge.
Also within existentialism is where I discovered the concept of creation as the product of the outsider, the specially gifted who stand and live outside of the bounds of normal people and because of that stance, are able to see things more deeply and with greater clarity.
This was particularly attractive to me as a criminal and outlaw and I embraced this self-identity for many years.
Existentialism however, was ultimately too bleak for me, too redolent of stale coffee houses, the acrid smoke of cigarettes, and the aftermath of irresponsible sex. I sought out sunnier visions and soon found the Eastern ways to spiritual truths for my somewhat worn-out spiritual palate.
For many years I studied the tangled thicket of Eastern belief that first appeared so bright and shiny, but ultimately also led into dark alleys and fatalistic dead ends. But even here, as in all the studies, there were great truths.
The East understands, appreciates and reverences nature like perhaps no other way and that stayed with me, deepening and enriching my emerging spirituality. I learned about sensuality, of the earth, of the flesh, of food, and the pleasure of the other senses in a way beyond that of hedonism; which now seemed the cruel play of children. I learned about quiet, contemplation, and letting go.
I became absorbed by the mystical ideas that revolved around the insight that man was a bundle of several selves; selves often hidden from one another. This was the human being’s essential problem; he was a slave to the desires and drives of his hidden selves, whose appetites arose at the most inopportune times. He would be enjoying the peace and serenity of a contemplative sunset and coming closer to the link between matter and spirit so often found in those moments of natural change, and suddenly be hit by a sudden overpowering urge to have a steak dinner, and the moment is lost, the little self of appetite wins again.
This period and way of learning was very precious to me. The discipline and focus on self caused me to continually remind myself of who I was while doing what I was doing and the various contexts within which it all was happening.
This period merged into another which encompassed the study of paganism, the occult, nature poets, and Grail based mythology. There is a richness here that cuts across the larger, traditional religious traditions, deepening them. They are of a place, time and spirit that speak to us of the comfort of the old ways, and the power of ritual and symbols. What they all share, ever so subtly in some instances, is the knowledge that everything is alive, that everything has a certain accessible power, but only the wise human can become the high priest/priestess with the wisdom to release that power.
This was also the period, in which I wrote a lot of poetry, attempting to verbalize the spiritual. Writing poetry still gives me great enjoyment on those rare occasions when I feel moved to express myself and no other word format will do.
This amalgam of psycho-spiritual movements is the soup from which the new age has arisen and it is a strong blend, ancient in origin, tantalizing to the eye and mind; ultimately however, a diversion and distraction from the real task.
During my spiritual searching, there was one recurring concept that always seemed in front of me, “the harder you seek, the harder it is to find.” So, several years ago I quit searching, settled into a roughly spiritual sort of life, finding among the debris and relics of spiritual paths I had left, enough fabric to fashion something that somewhat sustained me.
And, for a time, that satisfied me.
As I re-entered the world of criminal justice, I saw many changes in the field, particularly in the public organizational role and realized I needed to advance my education.
I enrolled at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit University, as an undergraduate in organizational behavior and after earning my bachelor’s degree, entered the masters program in public administration, graduating with both degrees five years later.
Though I had obviously heard about the Jesuits and the Catholic Church, I had never really studied either, as the message I had received from the religions I pursued, was that Catholics were bad and the Jesuits were the worst of them.
However, I had always been struck by the intellectual commitment of Jesuits and this seemed an appropriate time to look more into their history while attending their college.
I began my study with the concept of social justice, which I had some familiarity with through my years of working in the nonprofit sector but I had never delved into the deeper discussion of its implications and historical development.
I learned that social justice is one of the central concepts in Catholic social teaching and eventually found my way to the source documents, the papal encyclicals. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical structure, and when we have confusion or uncertainty about the interpretation of Christ’s teaching, we ultimately need to rely on the Magisterium, that body of teaching composed of the papal encyclicals, church tradition and scriptural study.
The papal encyclicals are difficult but deeply rewarding reading. I developed a habit of studying only five pages at a time, after having downloaded the documents from the Vatican website to my computer as a Word document, so that I could make notes and highlight as I read.
One of the tenets of the faith I grew up in was that Christ would return once everyone had been exposed to the Christian doctrine.
I felt at the time and more so later in life, that surely Christ would be returning soon, as who hadn’t heard the Christian truth? The answer to that question shocked me—as I soon learned studying Catholicism— that many had not heard the Christian truth, including me, for the fullness of Christian truth is Catholic.
I had been studying all of the religions of the world when right in front of me was the true and only church Christ founded.
For me conversion was primarily an intellectual progression through the social teaching and by the time my wife and I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults—the year-long process of study that precedes baptism—I was certain I had found what I had been seeking for so long. A very powerful and precious moment was reading, with entirely new eyes, Matthew 16:18 “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Douay-Rheims)
So, either Christ lied or the scripture was mistranslated, or Christ told the truth and the Catholic Church was the true church.
At the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 10, 2004 in the parish of St. Ignatius Loyola, my wife and I were baptized, confirmed, and received our first communion in the Roman Catholic Church.
It has been a long journey and is, as many Catholics are saying to us, “Welcome Home!” truly a return to a place we had given up on finding, our true spiritual home.
My earliest spiritual memories, tinged now with the warmth and golden hue imbuing memories of long ago, are of getting up at 5:00 AM, in the bitterly cold Nevada mornings, and being driven by my mom to the local seminary for scripture study before school.
As I sat in that wood paneled room, with a small group of other boys, focusing on the crinkly India paper pages of our bibles, shading with red pencils those scriptural verses most meaningful to us, I felt deeply at home.
Over the intervening years, seeking through the world’s churches, religions, philosophies, and ways of being, I had found no such home again until now.