MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–Jessie Reed was incarcerated in 1985, when he was 23 years old, for committing a homicide. After 24 years as an inmate, he celebrated his one-year parole anniversary in June.
Reed remembers envying some fellow inmates at the California State Prison in Solano.
“I heard men praising God and reading their Bibles, and I heard them saying how wonderful it felt to have God in their lives, and I called them ‘church fanatics,'” Reed, who recently graduated from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, said. “They talked about how they had purpose and felt good, and I began to wonder why I never experienced what they were talking about.”
Although he grew up in a Christian home in Oakland, Calif., where both of his parents were ministers, Reed said he chose a different path.
“I didn’t come from a troubled home. I had a good upbringing, but I didn’t want to go to church, to choir rehearsal, to Sunday evening services,” he said. “I was tempted to do what my friends were doing. When I got old enough, I ran as far away from church as I could, and I ended up in a bad place.”
Reed spent a total of 24 years in prison: five years in San Quentin State Prison, then Solano for five years and back to San Quentin for 14 years, before he was released in June 2009.
“God allows things to happen in your life for a reason,” Reed said. “He finally got my attention.”
The time he spent incarcerated wasn’t wasted, he said, because that’s where he developed a relationship with God and where his faith grew. He remembers when Jesus saved him.
“It was in 1995, in Solano State Prison. I made up my mind I needed to get to know God. At that time I was singing with a Gospel band called Redemption,” Reed said. “I was singing the words, but I didn’t have a real relationship with the Lord. I wanted to have that relationship, feel what those ‘church fanatics’ in the yard were feeling. So I asked God, ‘Why don’t I feel that way?’ Then I began to pray and seek God in earnest.”
He asked God for a change. He quit gambling and eliminated other things in his life, and even though he didn’t usually bargain with God, he told God, ‘If you get me out of Solano, I’ll change and never go back.’
Reed had been trying to get transferred from Solano for five years without success. He believes the transfer back to San Quentin that came through in 1995 was a response from God because of his earnest prayers and sincere attitude change.
“I’ve kept my promise to the Lord,” Reed said. “The second time I got to San Quentin, I quickly became involved with the Garden Chapel Christian Fellowship.”
The Garden Chapel Christian Fellowship is a chartered, nondenominational, incarcerated congregation serving the condemned row inmates of San Quentin: more than 1,300 men. At the time Reed returned to San Quentin, the chapel was led by Earl Smith, a chaplain who Reed credits with being an important influence.
Reed took several classes offered through the Garden Chapel Fellowship, including one called “Self-Confrontation,” which had a major impact. It was taught by Morris Curry Jr., a pastor who volunteered at the prison for 20 years before becoming chaplain of San Quentin’s Garden Chapel Fellowship five years ago.
“These men are not the same people once they ask Jesus into their lives,” Curry said. “God has done something to them on the inside. You can see the redeeming value of God in their lives, and I saw that with Jessie.”
Reed joined several Bible studies and eventually taught classes. In 2006, when Golden Gate Seminary began to offer accredited Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD) classes at the prison, Reed eagerly signed up.
The seminary launched CLD in 1980 to provide classes at a post-high school level to train Christian leaders. For those without a high school or college diploma, or for those with English as a second language, CLD offers an opportunity to become equipped and trained for effective Christian service in church planting, evangelism or Christian ministries.
“Jessie was determined to earn his diploma in Christian ministries in order to be competent to serve the Lord’s church,” Don Beall, national director of Golden Gate’s CLD program, said. “Jessie was in my ministry foundations class. He had a thirst to know more about Jesus Christ. He read all the books, handouts and writing assignments and began to discover who he is.”
After Reed was paroled, he contacted Beall about finding a CLD center in the Bay Area where he could complete his studies. With the help of a scholarship that Curry helped him find, Reed became the first Golden Gate graduate from San Quentin’s CLD program, walking with other graduates at the seminary’s Northern California campus in May.
Now Reed works for a nonprofit organization called IMPACT: Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things, serving as a mentor to at-risk young men in vulnerable Northern California communities.
“Incarceration is mental or psychological, as well as physical,” Reed said.
He continues to sing in the Gospel band Redemption. Now the six formerly incarcerated men are on the outside, joined by two others, and the group performs in churches and fairs as well as prisons throughout the state.
“There are people out here who really do care,” Reed said, reflecting on what he has learned. “Don Beall and this program followed through. He kept his word and helped me get the classes I needed in order to graduate. A lot of people promised things and didn’t follow through. Golden Gate and the seminary president are examples of keeping their word, from the inside to the outside.”
Phyllis Evans is director of communications at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.