We will never know this side of heaven how the Holy Spirit will use our seed-planting to bring multiple harvests resulting in countless lives touched by the Good News of Jesus!
We are often asked why we choose to do prison ministry. Charles T. Studd, missionary to formerly unreached people in Asia and Africa, said it best:
There are so many creative ways to minister and work in the harvest fields! God can and will send out anyone to be His voice, hands, and feet!
When They Come Home
Exactly one year ago, I was sitting in the very seats that you are sitting now as a guest on the Road to Restoration Women’s Retreat #6 – called “Beautiful Exchange.” I was here in Amherst, after just being released from prison … for my third time and I was trying to make a fresh start in this world for myself one more time. There were so many arrests and four different stays in rehab that brought me to that point in my life.
I was coming out of a 18 year drug addiction to pills & meth. I was trying to regain my composure and holding on to the belief that this time it was going to be different! My journey on this road to restoration has taken me down many low valleys, across plenty of rocky terrain, and through numerous winding sharp & dangerous curves in order to bring me to the safe & secure place that I now call home today!
Hello my name is Jennifer Fortenberry and my talk is called “When They Come Home.”
At the age of 25, I went to federal prison. I had been using drugs since I was 17 years old, and selling since the age of 20. I had never been in trouble before and I was so scared. I was crying like a baby, begging my family to find a way to get me out of jail, but I had no bond and was on hold for the Federal Marshals.
In “holding” and still wanting to go home, I found myself surrounded by lots of women in there ….all in a hurry to go to “population” (I thought they were nuts!) Once I got to “population”, most of the women wanted to hurry up and go to prison (wow, I thought this is crazy!) Eventually, I understood and became one of them!
That was the year 2000 and that time I got released in 2002. I did okay for a while. After two chances in rehab and six more months in a halfway house, I went back to prison in 2004. My boyfriend at the time, Jeremy, had been locked up again (there is more to Jeremy’s story later). But I was left alone again. Sometime later, and before I went back to prison, I became pregnant with my daughter, Bailey, and I ended up having her in prison. (Being pregnant in prison isn’t fun!)
While pregnant in prison, I was blessed to go into a federal program they offered for pregnant women. I was sent to a halfway house so I could give birth to my baby. I was allowed to stay there and bond with her for three months, but then my mom had to come get her and drive me back to prison. Leaving my baby and walking into that prison, was one of the hardest things I went through. As the doors slammed shut behind me and the concrete walls stood in front of me, all I wanted was to see and hold was my baby girl.
Bailey was one year old when I got out. I moved to Idaho to get away from my old friends and the old places where we hung out. My plan worked for a while and we did pretty well, but I was still me - a woman without a relationship with God! I used to always look back and think those three years spent in Idaho were my best times, because I didn’t really use drugs and I considered that time my three years of sobriety (even though I was still on my meds & Adderall).
During this time, I held down a job, paid my bills, was living in a little house with both my girls, and had three very close friends I did everything with. But I drank, didn’t go to church and went to bars every weekend, and had lots of meaningless one-night stands. Any relationship I had selfishly centered on what benefits I could get out of them, but with no strings attached. I always wanted more, but couldn’t seem to get it.
It was during that time, my older daughter, Leah, started ditching school and running away at the age of 14. She even ran away to Utah and I had to go get her to bring her back to Idaho. She ended up in Juvi; then went into a mental hospital in Blackfoot. That hit me real hard! I started drinking more and more to numb the pain I felt inside. Soon after that I got a DWI and they put me on probation.
It was also during this time in 2008 that my Dad became very ill. He had been my world. He raised me and we were very close. My mom had already moved back to Lubbock to help care for him, but I couldn’t leave yet because of my DWI. One day, I received a call that my Dad was in the hospital and getting worse, so I packed up my stuff, called my PO and got on a plane the next morning. I was really excited about us all being together again as a family (you see, my Mom & Dad had divorced when I was 4 years old). I missed my Dad and my sister so much. On the plane ride home, I decided to call and see how my Dad was. They said he didn’t make it! I was trapped on that plane and feeling so lost. It was awful! I couldn’t believe it…my Dad was gone and I didn’t even get to say “Good-bye!”
Why couldn’t I have seen him? I just wanted him to know that I was there for him. All the happy plans I had were shattered. I walked into the house I grew up in and he wasn’t there. It wasn’t the same without him…it was a nightmare and I couldn’t wake up. Right after that, I ran into some old friends and relapsed. I felt like such a failure and it just went downhill from there.
In 2009, I got a few more charges. Jeremy and I were using drugs again which led to him going to prison. With him now gone and in prison, my emotions took me by storm and I began using drugs more and more. Jeremy and I broke up and I felt life just didn’t matter anymore. Due to my extreme drug abuse, I began to see a huge deterioration in my health, morals and mind.
When I was off my meds, I began to lose my mind and was hearing voices all the time. I know now those voices were demonic. I was extremely paranoid and afraid to be in public. I couldn’t go anywhere because these demonic voices convinced me everyone knew about my past, hated me and were mocking me. These demonic voices called me names. My mind was turning and turning trying to figure it all out. The bottom line was that I hated myself and what I’d become. Fear took hold of me and I thought people were going to hurt me. The more I used the worse it got. I knew I had to stop using, but I couldn’t.
The enemy had so deceived me to the point that I even thought my entire family was involved to destroy me. I didn’t trust anyone and was tormented, so I prayed for God to take my life. Deep down inside, I knew God loved me and that He knew the pain I felt and knew how I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to go on living like this. I was so confused and didn’t understand if God loved me, why He wouldn’t help me?
During this time, my daughter, Leah, (now 17) was using drugs too. I found out that she was also having a lot of the same mental battles and symptoms as me.
One day, I was eating with my family at Copper Caboose and got a call that she needed to be picked up from where she was at. She was scared and messed up. When I picked her up she was underweight and not in her right mind. She didn’t want to see the family or be inside. She started crying. When I saw her in this state, it was like looking into a mirror and it broke my heart.
It was the first time I ever had the thought, or question, “Is this how my mother feels when she looks at me?” As her mom, I was in so much pain for my daughter, seeing her suffer, hurting herself, and so messed up. I’d never connected the dots or felt like this before. It did something to me…it woke me up for the first time to see things from a different and true perspective. When I tried to talk to Leah, she called me a hypocrite. I knew she was right … I had to stop this lifestyle that I had taught my daughter to live. I cried out to God to help me do it and find ground to stand on to help her through this as well. That was the last time I used drugs. One month later, I turned myself in to do an eight month sentence.
God started turning things around and I got blessed to get into a faith-based dorm. At the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, God began building a foundation within me with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. I began to feel better and started reconnecting with God. The Jesus I left behind in my childhood had found me again as a young woman.
While at Dawson, I began receiving an encouraging letter every month from Freedom In Jesus Prison Ministries, and so did Jeremy. God was reaching out to both Jeremy and I to bring us both to a place where we would put God first in our lives. They also sent me a Guest Application for the Road to Restoration Retreat #6 since I was due to be released soon and I signed up to be a guest.
I remember reading Zebbe’s testimony about her past life where God delivered her from drugs as she committed her life to serving Him. It told about her faithfulness to her husband, Ralph, who had a 75 year aggravated sentence. She has served the Lord and been married to Ralph for 18 years, and for the last 17 years he has been behind bars. She has waiting faithfully for Ralph all this time. I thought WOW if she can do it, I can wait for my beloved Jeremy until he is released!
Upon my release from Dawson, I decided to get back on all my old meds. I’d been back on Lithium while at Dawson and I decided to get back on Adderall too. (I thought I needed it!) My mental problems came back full force and I got really scared. Deep down, I knew God had a better plan for my life.
As I was planning to come to the retreat, the Spirit of God was really dealing with me to get off all my meds; to let go of all my crutches and really rely on Him alone. I started to go back to church and it was there that I met Stephen Canup with Freedom In Jesus Prison Ministries, who has become a dear friend. With his invitation, I started attending his weekly ministry meetings that were so wonderful and spirit-led. Everyone there has such a heart and love for prisoners. I started to get involved and the Spirit of God spoke to me more and more about getting off those meds. I completely quit in January and began to get better. I began to quote the Bible scriptures, “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me” and that “I have the mind of Christ.” I knew God wanted me totally to rely on Him and release all my fears to Him.
So I walked into the retreat as a guest last year being med-free and sober. I was blessed to come with my sister, Courtney, and my best friend, Jamie, who was at Dawson with me. We were so excited filling out our Guest Applications together planning our new life. With my fear still lingering, we were greeted by our new friends who’d prayed with us. I had Jeanette as my team contact….what a blessing!! I remember the song they played in worship “I am free!” I actually began to feel free for the first time. I felt so much love here. It was like WOW I’m here in this place to get courage by God and all these beautiful, colorful Christian women. With each hour my fear faded and as days went by we listened to the women share their strengths and struggles. I knew they really cared. I felt lighter and knew we could make it because they had and were now giving back to us.
Today I’m sharing my life with you and want to express the wonderful love that Jesus Christ can do. Recently, I went with the Freedom in Jesus Ministry team to minister to the Rudd Unit. I was talking to a fellow team member about how wonderful I felt because when I thought about all the many blessings in my life, it seemed there were too many to count. They say that miracles aren’t as prevalent today as they were back in the days of the Bible; like when Moses lifted his staff in the air and the red sea parted for the Israelites to walk on dry ground or when Jesus raised the dead. But I’ve seen so many miracles this past year take place right before my eyes. I am one who Jesus truly has raised from the dead! I am alive and well! The curse has been broken from that 18 year old meth addiction that I never ever thought I’d be free from which lasted the whole span of my daughters’ lives.
The choices we decide to make in life are so important. They are life and death. I made the decision to change the old friends and places because that influence had been my downfall before and I wasn’t strong enough around them to make right choices. After the retreat, my friend, Jamie, made a different choice than me and now she is back using drugs again. I had to let her go and give her to God. The best thing I can do now is continue to pray for her that she will choose freedom and life in Christ Jesus.
I got connected with Pastor Gary Delay’s Transformation ministry and got a mentor to meet with me weekly to help me move through the truths of Transformation. I began to learn that the Holy Spirit actually can give you the power to live free from sin. I saw Zebbe, my spiritual father, Stephen, and so many other people who are apart of these two ministries really walking this out and just loving me, encouraging me, helping me and standing by my side this entire year. The Body of Christ has come together to help me rebuild my home inside and out, as well as rebuild my spirit and hope for the future, but I had to make the decision to change. This is the first time in my entire life I have been able to be free and remain faithful to God.
On January 7th, Jeremy was released from prison after three years. He forgave me and with God’s help I waited for him for 1 ½ years. On January 23rd we got married in a sweet wonderful ceremony by Don Castleberry of Freedom In Jesus Ministries. We have been given a second chance. We have a home, a car and are a family who are adjusting to his neatness and my messiness! Together, we’re raising our daughter, Bailey, putting God in the center of everything for He is literally the glue that holds us together. God used our time of waiting, so He could develop a personal relationship with both Jeremy and I separately. He loves us so much and desires that relationship with all of us. I talk to my Heavenly Father and fellowship with the Holy Spirit every day. I never feel alone now for His Spirit is with me always.
Before I got out, God really put on my heart to be involved in prison ministry. Getting involved in these ministries and going to crusades and serving at this retreat has given me such joy sharing what God has done for me. I love worshipping Him and giving back to others what he has given me. The change we make is so important. The examples we are, the choices we make in submitting to our mentors and go to church to be with other believers is vital, so we can learn more about how great our God is. It makes us stronger in our faith. It’s God’s plan for all of us to reconnect with Him and with the Body of Christ.
Because of what God has done this past year, I have seen my mother give her life to Jesus Christ and set her free from the chains and the law of Mormonism. We have Bible studies every Sunday night in our home. Jeremy and I just completed the Marriage on the Rock classes with Zebbe, who personally walked us through these truths to build our marriage and home on Jesus.
My 19 year old daughter, who is currently incarcerated in Gatesville, has seen a change in me. She didn’t even believe in God and is now writing us letters with scripture references. She is asking questions and wrote us this beautiful poem I want to share with you.
Mom & Remy a/k/a “LOVE BIRDS!”
I encourage you to cultivate a burning desire in your heart to search out and create new ways to continually express your love to one another, your spouse, family, friends, and most importantly, your Creator and Savior. Let them know just how special they are to you. With a smile, a hug or a kind word of praise, encourage them. Let them know how grateful you are that God has chosen them to be married to you, or to be in their family, or have them as your friend. Express your love and thankfulness to God, and then see how he causes your heart and spirit to mount up and soar! Don’t hold back a compliment or a sincere word. In sincerity and honesty, build up your spouse, family and friends. You may not have another chance if you don’t do it today… Above all, be joyful in glory, sing aloud to God on your bed, in the shower, in the car, in the bathroom, at school, at work, and everywhere! In the morning, noon and at night, let the words to God be like a two-edged sword in your hands! Love, Me!
God will not only mend your heart and life, but He’ll restore your family and start healing them also. As my family saw the change in me, they began to question and see the power of God working. That’s tangible results to your family and it impacts their life, but it starts with YOU! All my life I was trying to do it alone and we can’t do it without God. It begins now…it begins here in this place! I know you have had encounters with God this weekend. Don’t leave Him here but take Him with you wherever you go. My testimony is He loved me, he restored me and my family and gave me a new family of believers. They never judged me or made me feel less than they. They loved me like Jesus loves me and they love you too! I’m so happily married and my family is here with me, together with many of my friends, all because God is first in our lives. I encourage you to put God first, get involved with this ministry and stay connected to the Body of Christ. Your life is never going to be the same because there are miracles just waiting to happen for you!
If I were to name eight most important things to help you be consistent and faithful about your commitment to follow Christ in “the free world”, they would be:
2. Restore broken relationships - and work at maintaining them once restored.
3. Separate totally and permanently from the former bad influences of certain people, places and things.
4. Faithfully maintain prayer, Bible study and private worship daily.
5. Maintain a constant, prayerful attitude of gratefulness and humility towards God.
6. Get an accountability partner and meet regularly.
7. If you fall, quickly confess and truly repent. Get right back up on your Christian walk.
8. Forgive yourself. You did your time – put the past behind you and move on! You are a new creation (II Cor. 5:17)!!