“You better take a good look at those streets, boy,” the detective said, “’cause you’ll never see them again.”
I was only 16 and was unable to comprehend the concept of “never.” I did not understand what that meant.
How could I never see my family again? I wondered if he was just trying to scare me. My only defense was my attitude. With my hands tied behind my back, I was helpless. I stared at the detective with my eyebrows furrowed. Anger and hostility were my only refuge. I refused to cry.
I was taken to jail and placed in the juvenile section. I wore the orange jumpsuit, which indicated I was a high classification case for my involvement in a gang-related shooting death.
The Los Angeles gang culture ripped my life apart. My oldest brother was shot to death at age 15. Two other brothers were shot multiple times in separate incidences but survived. As a teen, I joined the neighborhood gang, which furthered my spinning out of control. I fell for the lie of the streets and was swallowed up by them.
The judicial process is very long. It is not like you see on “Law & Order.” On TV shows, a crime is committed, and before the hour is up, a person has a trial and is sentenced.
I spent months in jail with time to think about everything that happened. My father visited me as much as possible. He would always remain upbeat, telling me that “God’s will will be done,” and we would pray for leniency. Like any child, I believed my dad.
My dad had planted the seed of the gospel in my heart since I was a little kid. He took me to church at times. He would have me pray over my food and before I went to sleep at night. But as I got into my teens, my attitude turned bad. Eventually, I kicked God out of my life.
Now I was paying the price.
Months had gone by since the crime. I spent my 17th birthday in jail. My bunk was next to a big window, which had a clear view of the moon at night. I could not sleep. The days were long on this journey, and I was just scratching the surface.
More than a year after my arrest, I had my day in court. The guards came and chained me up early in the morning. I was handcuffed, shackled at my ankles and driven to the Compton, California, courthouse for my sentencing. The courtroom was filled with people. My dad sat as close to the front as possible.
I sat there dazed, not realizing yet that every moment since joining a gang led up to this judgment. The consequences of my decisions and behavior had cost someone’s life, and now I would receive my punishment.
Suddenly, just like that, the judge’s hand rose high off the desk into the air as her black robe cascaded down. I heard the sound of the gavel slamming into her desk.
“Mr. Warth, you are sentenced to state prison for the term of life.”
I was in a fog. I know there was noise happening behind me, but, in my haze, I could not determine if the noise was laughter, cheers, sighs or crying. I was paralyzed inwardly, not knowing what to do or say. I had not yet comprehended the depth of my fate. I even missed the portion of the sentencing when the judge added a year for the use of a gun.
Before I could be removed from court, the judge had already moved on to the next case. An older man stepped forward and was sentenced to three years in prison. The convicted man burst into tears. I was shocked by his response. I wondered, had he not just witnessed my sentencing? The man sobbed uncontrollably. In the
moment, I was confused by his response, but soon I would experience my own breakdown as prison loomed ahead.
I arrived back at the juvenile section of the dreaded county jail in downtown Los Angeles by dusk. I was escorted back into my dreary cell, and my handcuffs were released. I sat on my bunk and rubbed my wrists as the officer slammed the cell door. It felt like a weight of despair was crushing me. My body bent over as my face pressed against my knees. For the first time, I really realized the depth, hurt and pain my crime had caused.
Hearing a noise coming from the hallway, I stood up and put my face against the cold metal bars to see who was out there. An old man slowly hobbled down the concrete hallway, passing out something. I stepped back away from the gate. I did not want to see anyone. Regardless of my defensiveness, the old man approached my cell with Christian literature in his hand. He tried speaking kind words of encouragement. Clearly, the man did not plan on walking away, so I dropped my hopeless story on him.
“Mister, I just got sentenced to life in prison,” I said, trying to shock him. “What can you do for me?”
After what I said, I expected the man to sigh or maybe move on. However, the old man did not move an inch. Instead, he did something so simple, yet powerful. The old man reached through the darkness of the bars and grabbed my hands and prayed over me in the “name of Jesus Christ.” For the first time, tears began to rain down my young face like a hurricane. In my darkest moment, this stranger penetrated my heart with the love of God.
Several days later, I had this strong and clear realization that sooner or later, whether it took 10, 20 or 30 years, I would wake up one day in prison with the thought, “Man, I wish I would have changed when I was younger.”
In my heart, I knew I did not want to wait. Even if I remained in prison forever, I wanted to die a changed man.
This realization, coupled with the reality of my terrible condition, drove me to my knees. I cried out to God for help. It wasn’t even a prayer. It was more of a grunt of severe emotional pain.
What unfolded in the next 16 years was the miracle of God spoon-feeding me His love and teaching me how to love in return.
I didn’t know what love was and I sure didn’t know how to show love. But as I grew spiritually, my love for God also grew. Here are some ways I learned to love God:
1. I learned His true character.
As I studied the Bible, I learned the true character of God. I learned that God was loving (Ephesians 2:4), forgiving
(1 John 1:9), patient (2 Peter 3:9) and great in mercy (Daniel 9:9). Wow! My image of God as a kid was wrong. I could only imagine how many people are living their lives with a wrong image of God. The more I learned about the true character of God, the more my love grew. How could I not love the One who loved me even when I rejected Him?
2. I learned to trust Him.
My life was shattered by sin. I had no hope for a future. I was condemned to die a slow death in a dark prison. But one of the first lessons God taught me was to trust Him. He put this vision in my heart: “If you serve Me and don’t give up, I will eventually set you free to impact the world with the gospel.” How was I to respond to that vision? Trust.
I started to trust God to protect me, lead me and restore my life. God inspired me to take just one step at a time. Guess what? He met me every step of the way. The Bible teaches if we draw closer to God, He will draw closer to us (James 4:8). The more I trusted Him, the more He worked in my life and thus my love for Him grew more and more. “The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in Him” (Psalm 32:10).
3. I experienced His power.
We serve a God who answers prayer (Matthew 7:7–11). He encourages us, almost challenges us, to ask Him to show up big in our lives. I started to pray little prayers and then grew into praying big ones. Not all my prayers were answered, but when one was, it ignited my heart for the Lord. The biggest prayer was, “Lord, please set me free from this life sentence.”
4. I started to serve others.
As I allowed God to use my life to help others, I started to see the power of God unfold in miraculous ways. Hearts were healed. Lives were restored. Fresh hope was given. Seeing God work in other peoples’ lives through my broken life gave me such a profound appreciation for the Lord.
Jesus said He came “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). It humbled me to be able to partner with Jesus in His mission. I needed to know my life could still be used for good.
5. I embraced God’s great mercy.
I was like the woman who was caught in adultery: 110 percent guilty. I knew my sin. I felt the sting of my sin. I knew I didn’t deserve another chance at life. But I learned that God is great in mercy (Ephesians 2:4), and His mercy is especially for the guilty (me). God made a provision for the guilty, and it’s His mercy. This blew my mind and, in turn, ignited my heart. The more I embraced God’s mercy, the more my love for Him grew.
In 2008, God miraculously set me free from my life sentence after 16 years in the darkness of prison. It was a long, winding road, but His love led me back home.
Today, I am a husband, father and pastor of Chapel of Change Christian Fellowship, a Free Methodist church that meets in Paramount and Long Beach, California.
Today, I love God not out of obligation but out of the overflow of His mercy in my life. He has done great things for me and is doing great things through my restored life. He took me in when the world kicked me out. He loved, protected and transformed me. He gave me a vision for my life. God’s love did for me what the world couldn’t do.
It has been more than 20 years since I called out to the name of Jesus for help. My heart is still on fire for Him. Yours can be too.
7 Core Values
Pastor Brian Warth explains the core values of Chapel of Change Christian Fellowship on his blog. Here is a condensed version.
We love to celebrate God’s work in our lives. We believe the church should lead the way in celebration in this world.
We want to fall madly in love with Jesus. We want to give our all to Jesus.
Our motivation for holiness is to be more like Christ. We believe Christians should be different and distinct from the world.
We want to do life together. We all need Christians who are tracking through life with us.
5. City Focused
We want to impact our city for the good. We believe in being the church more than just coming to church.
We want to be a picture of heaven on earth. Everyone in heaven is together worshipping the Lord. We want that now.
We want to be a church of radical givers. We are generous not just for the sake of doing good.
Go to fmchr.ch/warth7 for the full text and scriptural basis.
Brian Warth is the founder and lead pastor of Chapel of Change Christian Fellowship, a multiethnic church with a mission to give fresh hope to families and the city. He recently released his autobiography “Young Man Arise: Fresh Hope Emerging from the Darkness,” which can be purchased at fmchr.ch/ymawarth.0