Coming full circle: A former prisoner on a mission for the Lord

April 30, 2018

Editor’s note: April 2018 is Second Chance Month. Find out more about this important recognition of human dignity.

Alone in a county jail cell, Tish Belk was scared. She had been on the run for almost a year, and now she faced as many as 20 years in prison. Tish had never felt so lost.

An uninvited guest

As Tish looked around her empty cell, her eyes rested upon a Bible. She did not know how it got there, and she tried her best to ignore it. But the book seemed to take on a presence, like an uninvited guest who had barged into the bare concrete room and invaded her solitude. As the book tugged at her, Tish finally relented and flipped it open. She started to read.

Once she had picked up the Bible, Tish could not put it down. She poured through Scripture every day as she read through it chapter by chapter.

"I got to the book of Romans, and I started weeping and crying," remembers Tish. "I knew then that I had to give my whole life to the Lord, because He's the One that kept me through everything that I've been through."

Her "everything" entailed depression, drugs, addiction, and abuse. At that moment, Tish knew that shedding a lifetime of rage and regret would be no easy task. Looking back now, however, Tish says her life has come full circle, and though her journey begins and ends in the same place, her heart has been changed forever.

A vicious cycle

Tish grew up thinking fits of rage were a normal part of day-to-day life. Her father, an ex-Marine and Vietnam vet, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. His wife and two children lived in constant fear of setting off yet another explosion of irrational fury.

"We walked on eggshells," Tish says. "[My father] would get very angry and blow things way out of proportion. I swore I'd never be angry like my dad. But those dreaded vows . . . that's where you mess up."

As wrong as it felt, Tish found herself mirroring her father's acrimony. Confused and depressed, Tish tried to get help, but in prescribing medications, doctors unknowingly set her on a path of addiction and on a constant quest for escape.

Nearly raped by a family member, Tish confided in her parents, who did not believe her. "As a child, you think you should be able to tell your parents everything," muses Tish. "When they don't believe you, everything gets crushed."

Tish began mixing her medications with alcohol. As she slid deeper and deeper into the darkness of despair, she turned to illegal drugs—first marijuana, then crack, and finally methamphetamines.

A precarious refuge

Anxious to flee a life cloaked in anger and resentment, Tish graduated from high school and, at just 17, immediately sought a precarious refuge within a young marriage. She had her first child, daughter Courtney, but after a year and a half, her marriage ended in divorce.

When Tish wed her second husband, both were steeped in addiction, so the marriage was volatile at best. Still, the couple had two children together. Christy and Clint entered a world where drugs were commonplace and the rules of the street were law.

This destructive lifestyle tore at Tish and her family. Multiple drug charges began to stack up against her. With her husband already locked away in prison, Tish left her children with relatives and fled. After spending a full year on the run from the authorities, Tish was caught and went to jail—where she finally found the "escape" she had long sought.

Rounding a corner

Almost immediately after her arrest, Tish says, God began revealing himself to her. Three charges on her file should have earned her up to 20 years behind bars, but the judge dismissed most of the charges and sentenced her to two years instead. "The Lord was showing me who He was," says Tish, “. . . and I just knew I had to serve the Lord."

Tish followed this conviction into a Prison Fellowship transformational ministry unit at the Dawson State Jail in Texas. This faith-based, rehabilitative program introduced her to Lyn Wright, a former Prison Fellowship employee who still volunteered in prisons in the Dallas area. "[Tish] was one, from the very outset, that I could see had a love for the Lord that was very real and very different from the average person," says Lyn, who became Tish's mentor.

With Lyn beside her, Tish flourished within the program and the many classes it had to offer. Soon, student became teacher. Tish took over one of the parenting classes and passed on to fellow prisoners what she had learned about being a faithful parent. More than anything, though, she was also eager to share what she had learned with her children.

After her release, Tish says God and Lyn led her to enter an intense, year-long reentry program at Calvary Commission Bible School in Lindale, Texas. The director and counselors were so impressed with Tish, that when she believed God was leading her to leave the program to return to her children, they allowed her the rare privilege to complete the program requirements from home.

Circled back again

Tish has been out of prison for nearly several years. She was a straight-A student while taking general education courses and eventually shifted her focus to addictions counseling, "because that's what God saved me to do."

There was only one obstacle standing in Tish's way: her drug conviction. Academically, Tish was ready to take the board certification tests within one year. However, Texas state law requires a longer period of time between a drug conviction and test administration. Tish learned she would have to wait another three years to achieve her certification.

"I knew that if this is really what the Lord wanted me to do, He would open a door," Tish explains.

But then, a certified counselor who had already gone through the process soon advised Tish to talk to an attorney about having her felony expunged from her record. Tish did just that, and "saw how God [was] orchestrating all of this" when she learned exactly how long it would take to clear Tish's name: one year. She was able to take the board right after she finished school. Tish explains. "God has just made it very clear that this is what I'm supposed to do."

"She has an amazing love for the Lord," says Lyn, "and her passion to serve Him will keep her from ever going back to where she was or who she was."

Coming home

In a way, though, Tish has gone back.

She returned to her old neighborhood, and is even living in the same home where she was raised. And though it is true that she has circled back to where it all started, she is discovering new and completely transformed beginnings.

Tish is rebuilding loving relationships with her parents, and she shares her faith with her children every day. Working with the youth at her church, Tish also ministers to the kids of the people she used to sell drugs to and do drugs with!

In addition to all of this, Tish completed yet another revolution within her new life when she returned to Calvary Commission Bible School—as a counselor.

“The Lord brings you full circle with the past so you can face it the way you are now instead of the way you used to be. I'm just on a mission for the Lord.”

A version of this Prison Fellowship article was originally published here.

Beth Reid

Beth Reid is a writer for Prison Fellowship.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24