“You don’t remember me, do you?” the prisoner asked.
I couldn’t read or write, so they threw me out of the second grade. A new teacher divided the class into sections. She started me out in the ‘advanced’ section, but quickly moved me to the corner of the room and sat me all alone, forgotten, all by myself.”
Those are the words of Air Force sergeant Terry Johnsson, who today is a successful minister, teacher, radio host, chaplain, and spiritual leader. Terry is a second-grade failure whose life has been a hard trail of tragedies, failures, and victories in Jesus. One of his good friends says, “Terry knows about salvation personally, and is a man God uses to share the good news of grace to the powerful and the weak. Get close to Terry, and he’ll show you that God loves you personally and is eager to perform miracles in your life.”
* * *
“As an Air Force sergeant, I served in the president’s honor guard for three United States presidents,” Terry says. “Each of them knew I loved God.”
Terry stumbled through elementary and secondary school and then into the Air Force, where he finally understood the learning disabilities that had kept him from learning. Determined to help others who faced similar challenges, he began taking speaking appointments during which he could encourage young people to succeed. On one of those appointments a friend asked him to speak at a local prison, the Oregon State Penitentiary in Portland, Oregon.
“A lot of these guys get into prison because no one helped them conquer their learning disabilities,” the friend told Terry. “They just got discouraged, got into trouble, and ended up here. Come talk to them.”
Terry agreed, especially since Portland was his home, the city where he had been thrown out of second grade.
“When I got to the prison,” Terry describes the day, “they took me into the assembly area and told me they had decided to bring all of the prisoners together. The officer told me that the prison was full of gang members who hated each other, so they were adding guards for the event. Then the officer gave me the rules: you stand up and speak when we tell you. You quit when you’re done. You stay on the platform. You do not come down to the prisoners. You do not pray, and you do not make a call for commitment or change. Just speak and leave. That will be all.”
“OK,” Terry answered.
The room quickly filled with hundreds of prisoners.
“When everyone was sitting down, three guards brought in one last prisoner—the worst case in the penitentiary. His legs were chained together, and another chain ran from his legs to his neck so that he could hardly move. They sat him in the very back, far from all the others, and guards stood around him, guns ready.”
Terry poured his soul out to the guys. He started with second grade and described his life of failures, trouble with the school, trouble with the law, and trouble with himself. He also told about the constant love and prayers of his mother.
“It finally hit me,” Terry told the crowd, “that God loved me even when I was bad, and that He was always right there to help me live like I was His own son.”
* * *
They listened. Rugged prisoners with tears flowing freely as they relived their lives through Terry’s story. At the end Terry heard God telling him to pray for the guys, even for the guy in chains in the back. He didn’t ask permission. He just raised his hands and reminded the men about how his mother had prayed for him every moment of his entire life.
“Most of you have a mother, a grandmother, a father, aunt, uncle, or someone else who loves you and has been praying for you the way my mother prayed for me,” Terry said. “Now if you’d like me to pray for you, please stand right where you are and raise your hands high like this. Is that OK with you?”
The room was quickly filled with men who were standing, weeping, and raising their hands, begging for Terry to pray for them. Even guards stood, arms raised high to God.
“I prayed,” says Terry. “Oh, I prayed! I used words I knew their mothers had been praying for them. We cried together.”
As he prayed, Terry stepped off the platform and began walking back through the crowd toward the man in chains at the back of the hall. Toward the prisoner who had tried to stand, only to be shoved back down by armed guards. Toward the weeping man who was struggling to raise his shackled arms to God.
Terry cannot tell this part of the story without pausing, his own eyes filling with tears. “The prisoners were crowding around me and thanking me as I walked through them toward the back. When I got to the prisoner in chains, I asked everyone to stand aside and let me talk to the man. I crouched down, and he leaned into me, getting right in my face.”
“You don’t remember me, do you?” the prisoner asked. “But I remember you. Twenty years ago, back there in second grade, before you were sent to the chair in the corner, I was the boy who sat next to you in the third row. You listened to your mother’s prayers, and let Jesus pull you out. I didn’t listen. By the time I was 15, I had been arrested 17 times. At 18 I started living on the streets, where I was known as the human calculator, because I could keep track of all the drug deals in my head. They finally caught me, and now I’ll never get out. Terry, can Jesus love me here?”
The room filled with cheers as Terry shouted, “YES! He already does!”
Randy, the prisoner in chains, was baptized a few months later. Though he is still serving out his 60-year sentence, he is now called the prison chaplain, for the way he shares his new life in Christ.