By Emily Andrews
Editor’s note: April 2018 is Second Chance Month, a Prison Fellowship effort to affirm the dignity of incarcerated people and shine a light on the hope they have in Christ.
“I had people promise me the moon, and as soon as they found out I had a felony, it was over.”
It happened almost 20 years ago, but the disappointment in Rob Wickham’s voice still sounds fresh from my end of the phone.
He tells me he’s looking out the window and counts the deer playing in his backyard. It’s a rural, small-town life in Benzie County, Michigan, much different from his suburban Detroit upbringing. In his early 30s, Rob earned his HVAC certification. The first five years of that career were more discouraging than rewarding, but Rob slowly worked his way up. Soon he was living in Traverse City with his wife and daughter.
Then he got addicted to painkillers.
THE ONE THING HE WAS MISSING
“I’d been saved back in 1985, but I fell off the Christian path,” Rob explains. As a heating and cooling repairman, he could enter customers’ homes and take pills from their cabinets. This led to more stealing and break-ins, and he went to prison in 2001.
Rob would go to prison twice as he battled with addiction. The first time he was released, he lived in a rundown motel, moved into transitional housing, and learned how to use a computer to craft a resume.
Eventually he found work in a factory. It was good pay, he remembers, but it was difficult work. The hardest part, perhaps, was wondering if he’d ever have another chance to use the HVAC skills and education he’d built for years.
“I needed help to face those challenges,” Rob admits, “and recovery meetings just weren’t the same without God. It was all surface-level to me. I was missing that Christian community to help me stay strong.”
Rob barely lasted a year on the outside. He slipped back into drug use and went back to prison in 2006.
AN UPHILL BATTLE
During his second incarceration, Rob rededicated his life to Christ and began surrounding himself with other believers. It made all the difference in his recovery from addiction.
But recovery from his criminal record was an uphill battle.
“One of the most frustrating things was trying to find a job,” says Rob, whose second release from prison came in 2011. “Nobody in my trade would hire me … I just wanted a chance to prove I had something to offer. I even offered to come in, as a man close to 60 years old, to sweep the floors in their warehouse and maybe regain some trust.”
Rob hit a wall when he found out he would be required to renew his HVAC license. “I’d been out of that work for a while, so I needed to take the state exam again,” he explains. “But that costs a couple hundred dollars.”
“That’s a lot to spend if I’m not even sure I can get a job secured,” adds Rob.
He moved to a new county and joined a church, where he found support through a reentry ministry. He started making long drives to take whatever odd jobs he could find—mostly temporary labor jobs. After a church elder hired him to do lawn irrigation, someone else recognized Rob’s work ethic and gave him carpentry work.
Although Rob was thankful, he was also aging, and his body couldn’t endure much more manual labor. It was time to retire. Still, Rob knew he had work to do.
No longer on parole, Rob started volunteering at the local jail on Thursday nights. He realized they didn’t have a chaplain.
“I wondered if that was the spot for me,” says Rob. “I asked a chaplain from another facility, ‘I’m a two-time felon. Does that matter?’ And he said, ‘Who better to speak to these men than you?’”
Rob became the volunteer chaplain at Benzie County Jail in April 2016 and still serves there today. It’s been a “great walk,” he says. His voice cracks as he describes the journey:
“I watch people’s eyes get big sometimes when I say I’ve spent over eight years in prison. It gives my guys in jail something to relate to. My biggest challenge is getting them to understand they can’t go back to their old friends. They have to give up their old way of life. It’s giving something up. Believe me, you’ve got to change everything—where you hang out, who you’re friends with. And surrender to God. That’s the final thing. I tried the 12 steps [of recovery in] Alcoholics Anonymous, and they were fine, but to me it was more than that. It was about serving God … and finding support when you get out. You can’t do it alone. But it can be done.”
Today, Rob looks for every opportunity to share his testimony with others. He knows their road is difficult, but he’s walked it—and he believes there is hope for everyone. As part of his chaplaincy, Rob distributes Inside Journal, a newspaper by Prison Fellowship® for prisoners—a publication that gave him hope during his own incarceration.
“I love Second Chance Month because God gives us all second chances—sometimes three or four chances,” Rob says. “Thank God someone took a chance on me.”
This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s website.
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