What Can Kill You Can Also Save You

I am not a chef, and I wouldn’t insult anyone who learned the things necessary to proudly make that claim by stating otherwise.

That said, I did evolve into the life of a restaurateur during the late 70’s and the 80’s and the business seemed to be a perfect fit for me – were it not for my obsession with drugs and alcohol which constantly created obstacles in my professional – as well as my personal – life. I recall the need to dip into the office for a quick ‘line’ of coke, and after work it was Bacardi and a drinkable, legal coke. Throughout the day, while working, I would sneak bottles of Michelob into the office and drink them down to take off the ‘edge’ produced by the coke.
The restaurant business didn’t produce the drug and alcohol habit. Indeed – had I not had those habits, I could have taken life more seriously and actually learned a more professional approach to a business I actually loved (and still do).
Those habits, however, went on to almost kill me, literally, as my inability to cope with myself led me to death’s doorstep following a nearly successful suicide attempt in August of 2009. It was turning to God that actually prevented that attempt from being successful, but that is a story for another time. The fact that I lived meant that I could face the monster I had become and 7 months after that attempt I went to federal prison for 4 years.
Upon my release, I moved from the prison in Louisiana to Central Union Mission in Washington, DC where I quickly became a volunteer in the kitchen, which led to a job on the Mission kitchen staff. Today, I am in the final stages of developing a career training program for men served by the Mission. Men who have surrendered to hopelessness due to a lack of education or vocational training, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, growing up in extreme poverty or in a physically or emotionally violent environment, as a result of a lifetime of making poor choices, or of having a criminal history.
The individuals we select become part of a six month “Work, Learn, and Earn” program developed around a retail business featuring a line of baked goods consisting of muffins, scones, and handheld pies that are produced, marketed, and sold by program participants in a retail environment while we work with the business community to secure permanent employment or entrepreneurial opportunities for them.
We believe we can help to eliminate the “Will Work for Food” mentality and replace it with a “Will Work for my Future” mentality that not only sees the potential for a future, but is accompanied by the determination to work for it. No matter what is in a person’s past, we believe each one of God’s children can have a future, and we consider it our obligation to help them, see it, work for it, and realize it.
We believe that by giving an individual the best we can offer of ourselves we can teach him to reach for the best he has within himself.
The name under which we will operate is ‘Mission Muffins’, and we believe that ‘Muffins with a Mission’ can change a person’s life.

This business (the restaurant, or food-service, business), which can be more draining and demanding than any of us could ever adequately describe, can provide us with excuses to dismantle our lives through the use of drugs and alcohol.

But this business can also be used to rebuild lives – even the same lives it helped to dismantle. By focusing on the future, the demands of this industry can actually be a crucial part of providing a future for individuals who thought that a future was for other people.

“Using Pride to Redefine Prison”

Far too many people who have experienced incarceration allow the negative aspects of their time spent in prison to publicly proclaim who they are and to dictate what they will do with the rest of their lives once they are released.

In many ways, this is understandable and I can relate to it. After all, I was there.

I did my time, short though my 50 months was compared to the decades others faced or had served. There were moments when I felt the negativity that existed in every corner of the prison compound nibbling at the edges of the positive bubble I surrounded myself with. It was definitely not easy to prevent it from breaking through the delicate exterior of that bubble, but it was easier for me than many others because I had decided to allow God into my life and His presence and involvement produced the peace within that is required to look at things through eyes that see things differently.

God certainly does not prevent all negative things from happening in our lives, but His accepted – and welcome – presence within us does allow those things to be confronted with a positive attitude and a peaceful confidence that we are not alone.

It is not always easy.

Let me repeat that.

It. Is. Not. Always. Easy.

It is quite difficult at times, in fact, and I would be lying if I alluded to anything different. Some days it is harder than others, but when our focus is on God, we grant ourselves a vacation from ourselves, and that is most often where the majority of our problems lie anyway. With hard work, constant prayer, and intense focus on Him, that vacation can last the rest of our lives.

Of course, how we focus is important. We have to look to Him through the eyes of surrender. We must seek the sound of His voice with the ears of obedience. And we must feel His presence through hearts of Faith.

Understanding this will help you to understand what follows.

No matter how long a sentence one serves in prison, or how different the crimes which caused the sentence to be imposed, everyone serves their sentence the same way: One day at a time. Society sentences men and women to do specific amounts of time in prison. Once we have entered the system we actually have a tremendous amount of say over how difficult that time is.

Please do not misunderstand me: Prison is still a place where you have no family, very little freedom or say in day-to-day activities, and there is always the possibility that someone will find something about you irritating enough to want to cause you harm. That said, all of that takes on considerably less significance when God is within us, shaping the way we think, act, and see other people around us.

In the Bible, pride is repeatedly pointed to as a dangerous, sinful thing to display, but having God within us gives us the ability to see pride as an entirely different word with an entirely different meaning. My preferred definition is something I recall being on signs in the break rooms of a west coast drugstore chain I worked for 35 years ago. Those signs boldly proclaimed PRIDE as meaning, “Personal Responsibility In Daily Effort.” I am confident that interpreting pride that way is not in the least offensive to God or considered sinful or disobedient in any way, since being personally responsible in whatever we do on a daily basis ultimately helps us to be obedient to God. Personal responsibility is required of us if we are to obey God’s commands and the ability to be personally responsible on a daily basis is not only possible with God’s direct control over our lives, it actually comes naturally as a result of it.

Now that we have redefined PRIDE, we can use it to redefine PRISON. Prison is generally seen as being a negative place, and on many levels, and in many ways that is correct. But looking at it through the eyes God gives us, we can develop the ability to exhibit “Personal Responsibility In Spite Of Negativity.”

When we have allowed God to help us learn to be responsible for our actions on a daily basis and to do that regardless of whatever negative forces may be at play around us, we are ready to view the world around us differently and a desire begins to grow in us to lead others to a better place.

It is from that place I began praying and asking God to open my eyes and help me to see how I could use some of the talent and abilities He had blessed me with which, until that time, had essentially been wasted. During my last 2 years in prison I began to work on plans for ways to help others alter the course of their own lives. I believe that God guided the development of  those plans and would reveal to me how to implement them at the right time.

As I have written in the past, I have lived and worked at Central Union Mission in Washington, DC since my release from Oakdale FCI in May of 2014. I began working in the kitchen as a volunteer, and was hired as a staff member a couple of months later. I worked preparing meals for almost a year until the middle of June when the opportunity arose to begin implementing those plans.

For the last 3 months I have worked on developing a career training program for the Mission. It is a program through which men will learn to develop and produce a line of baked goods and sell them as:

I have begun a fundraising campaign at GoFundMe, for which I will provide the link, but I am more interested in you taking the time to watch the 2 videos provided there and learn about this project. You may not wish to donate to the campaign, or you may not be able to, and that is perfectly fine. What is more important is that you understand that my ability to develop this program came from allowing God to help me redefine 2 small words in a way that has had a huge impact on my life. I continue to pray that He uses that impact to help impact the lives of others.

If you can donate, please do so. But whether you can or not, please share the link that follows with as many people in as many ways as possible: Email, FB, Twitter.

Please go to www.gofundme.com/missionmuffinco and see how God can use PRIDE to redefine PRISON.

“HOPE” by Tony Casson

“I pray that God, the source of Hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in Him.” (Romans 15:13 NLT)

My dear friend, Diane, passed on a letter sent to her by George, the voice of these “Chronicles” from inside the fences that surround Oakdale FCI (Federal Correctional Institution).

Here is an excerpt from that letter:

                                                                                                Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ciao Diane,

Thank you for sending the posts. I am enjoying reading more of Tony’s posts from the past – though now I guess they are reposts in the present. Also, thank you for sending Phillip the Mission Newsletter – http://www.missiondc.org/past_newsletters/164-year.2014_164-id.209715942.html  It was joyful to see all that the Mission does, and to see Tony contributing to their work. In fact, the photo of Tony in the kitchen brought tears to Phillip’s eyes. In that photo he saw freedom. A freedom of a SO (Sex Offender) out in the free world making a positive difference.

I’m not sure that most people know the anxiety most SO’s deal with as they believe society’s notion of being worthless – of forever being an outcast. It is so difficult for many SO’s to imagine having any type of success or any standard of living after leaving prison. Though I don’t know all of Phillip’s feelings behind his tears, I did feel that he saw Tony as a beacon of hope. A light on the shore telling all of us still out in the fog that it is possible to safely reach land again. Whether Tony knows it or not, his joyful efforts not only serve those in DC, or those who read his book, but they serve us here. Both as an example to us that meaningful life goes on, and as an example to a larger community that SO’s are not the monsters they imagine, or are supposed to imagine.

Well George, I appreciate those kind words and I post them in the hope that others may be encouraged as well.

But I must stress to all who read these words that God is our hope – mine, yours, the worlds. It is God who repeatedly reaches out to each of us (whether we know it or not) and tried to let us know that He is there, ready and waiting, for each of us who is lost to call out to Him that He may guide us safely home. It is God who is the beacon of light on the welcoming shore of safety, peace, and joy.

If I am anything, I am but one example of the incredible grace of our great God who then gives us the strength, through Christ, to be restored, renewed, and to grow as children of God.

As the Bible tells us, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” (Philippians 1:4 NLT) (Emphasis mine)

My hope is that everyone everywhere will see that their hope, too, is in God, and when they place their complete trust in Him, His beacon will shine brightly for them as well, allowing each one to reach shore safely and overcome their own circumstances which will enable them to rise out of their own pits of despair and hopelessness.

God cares for us in incredible ways. All we have to do is ask Him. Most of them are so small we often fail to recognize them as being of God, but collectively, those many small things add up to joyful, vibrant, productive lives lived for God, who then rewards us in ways that are too numerous to count.

There is hope, my friend. There is a beacon of light to guide you safely to shore. There is life after prison, after tragedy, after a single mistake, or a lifetime filled with them.

That hope lies in God, and if anyone is encouraged by my story, you now know the “secret” source of this new, wonderful life I have been given.

May God bless all who read these words.

And as for George and all the others I left behind: I love you guys. Know that I pray for you and think of you often. Stay on course, and keep asking God for the strength, through Christ, to arrive safely, joyfully, at your final destination. May you all someday say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.” (2 Timothy 4:7 NLT)