Editor’s note: April 2018 is Second Chance Month. Find out more about this important recognition of human dignity.
"I was always high every day . . . always in fights, always getting shot at or shooting at somebody," Jon Kelly says. "I for sure did not think I would make it past 16."
Growing up in north Philadelphia with a single mother and a little sister, Jon was the epitome of a disrespectful, troubled teen. He grew up in a rough neighborhood. Multiple schools—including a disciplinary school he says was "like prison, but you get to go home"—couldn't keep him out of trouble. He dropped out by ninth grade.
Jon began selling crack cocaine when he was only 12 years old, but in his teens, he decided it was more lucrative to rob drug dealers. "I thought it was a good thing," he says. After all, "I wasn't bothering law-abiding citizens."
Plus, Jon knew that no drug dealer would report him to the police and risk getting arrested. Even so, the plan was risky. One night, Jon and his friends went to a drug dealer’s home and robbed him. Things got out of hand, and in the process, one of the group shot and killed their victim.
'There's hope for you'
Jon remembers the day he was arrested. It was a Friday—March 15, 2002—and he had just turned 19 two months before. He was arrested for his role in the murder and brought to jail, but it was overcrowded from the city's violent crime. The only place with room for Jon was in isolation, or solitary confinement.
A couple of the corrections officers would talk to Jon from time to time. That first week in jail, Jon was so bored he asked if either of the men could bring him something to read.
The officers handed him a New Testament. On the cover were the words, "There's hope for you. Jesus cares."
"I read God's Word for the first time," Jon says, "and I haven't been the same since."
Jon had not yet gone to court when he became a Christian. His lawyer didn't believe he was serious about his newfound faith, dismissing it as "jailhouse religion." Even so, Jon knew what he had to do.
"Part of being a Christian is repenting and taking ownership of your sins," Jon told his lawyer. "I would like to plead guilty. And whatever the judge wants to do to me, he can do."
In the end, Jon pled guilty to third-degree murder, a crime that usually carries a sentence of 20–40 years in prison. Standing in the court before the victim's family, Jon asked for forgiveness. He apologized to the judge as well for wasting the court's time and taxpayers' money. He didn't ask for mercy or blame someone else. Instead, Jon told the judge that he would respect his sentence, no matter what it was.
"It didn't matter that [the victim] was supposedly a drug dealer," Jon explains. "At the end of the day, he was a young man who didn't deserve to die."
Miraculously, the judge sentenced Jon to 6–15 years in prison, with 5 years of probation for robbery.
A fresh start
When Jon was released on parole, he stepped out into a world that for many former prisoners can be overwhelming. He needed a place to live, a job, and a community of friends who would support him. In prison, he made the most of his time by taking classes and getting his GED. He decided to approach reentry with the same mentality.
Jon moved back in with his mother. She no longer lived in the rough neighborhoods of Jon's childhood. Instead, Jon was welcomed into a safe community. He found a local church, and with that came a new circle of friends who cared about him. His first week out of prison, he even managed to find a job as a painter, thanks to a man who had volunteered at Jon's correctional facility.
Looking back, Jon sees how God directed his life during that period of transition.
"I don't believe that God allowed me to leave prison so that I could kick up my feet and enjoy life," Jon says. "There's a lot of men who have done less than what I've done and are still in prison."
'Until the Lord calls me home'
Today, Jon Kelly is the pastor of Chicago West Bible Church, a 2-year-old church he helped start after receiving his bachelor's degree from Moody Bible Institute. He is married and has two children.
"It's been an amazing journey, and I praise God for that," Jon says.
But it's also been a tough one. "I don't care who you are—when you tell someone you went to prison for murder, you're out," he says. As a former prisoner, Jon's criminal record follows him, and with it collateral consequences that limit his opportunities to thrive. Which is why Jon is passionate about second chances and reentry.
"For me, prison ministry is a no-brainer," he says. "I'm going to do that until the Lord calls me home. . . . I want to help the parole board see that people can change. . . . I want our senators and lawmakers to have a different mentality, and I want the people who are coming home to have the resources they need."
This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s website.