My Journey to Graceville
by Andrea Jennings
This is not the life I imagined when I dreamed of being a grandma.
Our destination? The prison near Chipley, Florida—six hours from our home. The name? Graceville Correctional. How ironic since at that moment I possessed no grace in my heart toward the man incarcerated there.
In my dreams as a mom, my daughter remained a virgin, married a godly man and raised several children to know and love the Lord.
This man ruined everything.
“We wouldn’t be together, if not for ‘the baby,’” my daughter said repeatedly.
On my darkest days, this thought crept in, “Maybe it would’ve been better if Denise* chose abortion”—even though I deeply believe in the sanctity of life.
I thought of how my 6-year-old granddaughter, Suzanne, described her father, “Daddy’s the person who always makes Mommy cry.”
“Are we almost there?” Suzanne asked.
“We’re over halfway, honey,” I said.
Denise asked me to come along, so I could watch Suzanne on Sunday. She would visit José Saturday and Sunday, while Suzanne would visit him with her only on Saturday.
Denise met José in a restaurant where he worked as a cook. He barely spoke English. They appeared complete opposites. My daughter attended college, while José dropped out of school early on. Denise received Jesus as her savior at a young age, attended church and had a passion for God until she became interested in “bad boys.” José seemed to know little about right from wrong and surrounded himself with people who practiced lawlessness. Many times I feared for my daughter and granddaughter’s safety when they went to visit José.
Over time, I discovered that other serious issues José struggled with included explosive anger, jealousy, control, lies, deceit, mood swings, PTSD and phobias.
Along the way, José had different girlfriends on the side. On the day Suzanne came into the world, his friends said he spent the day with another woman. Denise didn’t hear from him until the next day.
Denise cried about and fought with José about these other women. José intermittently broke up with these women, but then found new ones.
José drained our daughter emotionally and at times financially. She paid not only some of his bills but also his friends’ bills.
José had numerous minor arrests, but it was the day he accepted a ride from “a friend” who stopped to rob a house that eventually landed him in prison. The felony could have been erased if José followed his probation carefully. Instead, he smoked marijuana and failed his drug test, which meant automatic jail time. For a while, he hid from the law. On a routine vehicle stop, the police ran his information and arrested him. That’s when he received a 4-1/2 year prison term.
His going to jail seemed a perfect time for Denise to break it off, but she insisted she needed to “be there for him.”
As I thought of all Denise went through up until this point, I pleaded with God to give her strength to break up with José to save her and my granddaughter from further pain.
On Saturday as I waited for Denise and Suzanne to make their way to the car, I saw José in the outdoor area of the prison. He seemed fragile and thinner than usual.
I knew I had to accept these facts: Denise cared for him, and he would be forever Suzanne’s daddy. I prayed, Lord, help me let go of this bitterness.
God began to soften my heart.
After that, I prayed more for José and sent cards to tell him I cared about him and prayed for him. He sent sweet, loving cards back to me.
Yet as his release drew closer, my heart hardened.
In a forgiveness class, I bargained with God. Lord, I’ll forgive José as long as we never have to see him again. I urged Denise to let go of him once he got out of prison, warning her other women would again be a part of his life. Some days she voiced plans to let him go. Other days she seemed madly in love (or should I say obsessed?) with him.
In the forgiveness class, God reminded me of what Denise told me. When José was a child, his father had sex with women in the neighborhood and brought José along. I pictured this innocent, confused and frightened boy on the couch in the living room with his father in the bedroom.
Can’t you love the little boy on the couch? the Lord asked.
Yes, Lord, I want to. Please help me. And please heal him.
José received Jesus as his savior while in prison and seemed different after his release. He and Denise went to church. They sought counseling from a pastor. José still didn’t have much contact with my husband and me, Denise stated because he felt shame about his past.
Denise and Suzanne moved out of our home and into an apartment. I knew José couldn’t live with them because of being a convicted felon. Even though I warned Denise about allowing him to move in when she decided to buy a house, she didn’t listen. She insisted they planned to marry.
Not too long after José got out of prison, the Lord instructed me to treat him like a son. I let him know that even if he and Denise broke up, I’d always love him. On one birthday, even though he wouldn’t let me see him, I brought a cake, balloon, card and a gift card over to Denise’s apartment. I wrote in the card how much I cared about him and wanted the best for him, and I encouraged him in his relationship with the Lord.
Denise told me he cried when he saw what I brought him and expressed no one ever showed him such love on his birthday before.
Gradually, José became involved in our family life and came over for holidays and other occasions and went out to dinner when extended family visited. He bought us gifts and expressed appreciation for the love we showed him. He acted loving toward Suzanne, and she delighted in having her father around the family on special occasions.
José worked hard at his job detailing cars and showed deep caring for his friends who struggled. He avoided those who still had trouble with the law.
Then one day, José left the church, stating racism and “judging me” as reasons. Denise and José abandoned plans for marriage and gradually other women crept back into the picture. José resided in the house with Denise but often lived a separate life. He cut back on working and contributing to the household. She asked him to leave many times, but he refused. Some days I pleaded with him to move on.
On one of those occasions he said, “I want to do right things in my life, but it’s hard.”
I thought of the verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41b NIV).
I realized José didn’t know how to ask God for strength but depended on his own. I continued to pray and send cards and speak to him when I could.
Despite the emotional roller coaster, José and Denise have now been together for almost 15 years. Suzanne is 13 years old and gets along fairly well with her father, although she’s gone to counseling to deal with her troubled family life. Denise attends a local church on her own and Suzanne belongs to a Christian youth organization.
God gave me the grace to love José deeply, and I pray José will take down the walls of shame and allow God and us more fully into his life. I pray for grace to continue to forgive Denise for ungodly choices and that she will return to the passionate walk with Jesus she had at a young age. I pray all three will live lives that glorify the Lord.
I thank God for José and for the gift of grace to forgive and love him with the love of Jesus and for the spiritual growth I experienced because of him. How much harder life would be for all of us if my heart remained bitter.
God is working in José’s life and in the lives of my daughter and granddaughter. I hold to this promise, “He who began a good work . . . will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).
*NOTE: all names are changed except for the name of the prison
Andrea Jennings is a pseudonym for a writer who lives in the Southeast.
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