From Prison to Praise
I was around ten years old when Claude came to live with us. Claude had been discharged early from the State Penitentiary for good behaviour. He had been sent to prison for armed robbery and theft. While in prison he became a Christian and had been discipled through our church prison ministry. My dad helped disciple him and sponsored him to be released to early probation. During his first few months of probation he lived with me and my family.
Those first months were supposed to help him get back into society and give him time to find a job ,without the pressure of rent and bills. It also gave Claude time with his new wife and to go to church and meet his brothers and sisters in Christ that had helped him through his prison sentence and his journey to a new-found faith.
Claude didn’t just become a Christian, he fully immersed himself into the historical roots of my Presbyterian church and became a full-fledged Calvinist. His ability to espouse this nuanced theology was on display whenever he spoke publicly about his criminal past and his new life in Christ.
Claude was the perfect poster boy of what a new life in Christ is supposed to look like. From a hardened street criminal to a soft-spoken family man. If anyone doubted the power of God’s love…Claude was the closest thing to absolute proof you could ask for.
Calvin and Claude Celebrate Thanksgiving
A few months after Claude’s release, he and his wife moved out to a nearby town. His wife was working, but Claude was still struggling to find a job. Not an uncommon plight for someone with a long rap sheet. We didn’t see them much after they moved, but we did get an invitation to hear Claude speak on Thanksgiving, at a nearby Presbyterian church.
I was excited to see Claude again and to find out how he was doing. The service was typical Presbyterian, but with a little more liturgy than my own church. When it was time for the sermon, Claude was introduced and he wowed everyone with his stories of neglect and crime. And how he had been rescued and transformed by the Gospel. I noticed that Claude had geared his testimony to the 5 points of Calvinism (TULIP). He would tell a little of his story that would demonstrate each aspect of Calvinism.
He even took a jab at Arminians, claiming that Jonah must have been an Arminian and that’s why the whale spit him out (I didn’t realize ocean creatures could detect good doctrine through their taste buds-who knew?). When he was done speaking, there was a crowd after the sermon that wanted to shake his hand and congratulate him for his new found faith. It was a happy moment for Claude…
A few weeks after Claude’s sermon, I noticed my parents on the phone. They were speaking in their concerned voices. I made out from their side of the conversation ,that they were speaking with Claude’s wife. She was upset and frustrated that Claude seemed to no longer be taking an active role in finding a job. She wanted to be a supportive wife, but she wasn’t sure what to do.
These calls seemed to happen on a weekly basis. I asked my Mom about it, but she assured me that they were just having normal struggles as a new couple. Being that I was only ten and had never even kissed a girl, let alone been a couple, I assumed that all would end well for Claude. After all, he was a Christian now. God would help him to do the right thing.
It was weeks before I would hear anything else about Claude. I quickly forgot about the whole thing and returned to my world of Beatles records and baseball cards.
Final Phone Call
I still remember the last time I spoke to Claude. He called collect and I accepted the charges. Claude asked me how I was doing and I told him I was fine. He sounded nervous and he asked me if my Mom was available to speak. I told him to hold while I trekked upstairs to tell mom that Claude was on the phone.
When I told her Claude was on the line, she looked worried and then did something that she has never asked me to do, before or since. She asked me to lie and tell him that she wasn’t home. I was confused, but did what I was told. Claude now sounded desperate, and pleaded with me to make sure my parents called him back. I hung up the phone and then turned to my mom to find out why she had made this strange request. Why did she have me lie to Claude?
Mom sat me down at the kitchen table and began to explain that Claude was back in prison. I couldn’t believe it…what happened? Was it just a mistake?
No, this was no mistake. Claude had taken up crime again. But this time, he wasn’t just stealing, he had also raped a woman during a robbery. The testimony at trial was that he had a metal pipe and told his victim he would sprinkle her blood across the snow if she didn’t let him have his way. He was a monster, a raping, stealing, lying son of a bitch monster.
Just months after standing in front of the church and busting Arminian theology, he was now raping and stealing his way across the Philadelphia suburbs. I was shocked and frightened that I had actually lived under the same roof with the man.
Lessons and Questions
I can’t say I have a wealth of lessons from this experience with Claude. But I do know one thing that I learned. Doctrine doesn’t mean you are living a good life. You can quote all the saints and reformers you want…I don’t care. Meaningless in my book. Show my what you believe by your actions, not your esoteric theology. I couldn’t care less.
Piper, Grudem, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Peter Pan….I don’t give a rip. Claude taught me that you can articulate a complex theology and still be a rapist at the same time.
One of the questions that Claude’s story leaves me, is this….Why is God so bad at making people good?
I mean, scripture teaches that we are new creatures in Christ. We have the mind of Christ and the righteousness of Christ. But how can that really be true when people like Claude can claim Christ and still rape and steal? I just don’t understand how Christians can claim that faith makes all the difference, when it clearly does not in so many instances.
In the end, neither Christ nor Calvin could help Claude. One thing I know, there are victims of his crimes that wish he would rot in hell. I can’t say that I blame them.