The Son . . . Made Me Free

By Doug Burnette, as told to Mabel Kreider
February 1980

When I was fifteen years old, I thought I had found the perfect answer to all my problems. I would run away from home. So I left my family in Dott, West Virginia and arrived in Oxford, Pennsylvania, where some relatives allowed me to live with them. My taste for school kept dwindling as my taste for alcohol increased, and by my sixteenth birthday I had joined the “dropouts.” School was definitely not for me.

I was on my own now, but It was difficult to obtain regular work because of my age. Several times I was arrested for disorderly conduct and for drinking. Before long, as a result of speeding and alcohol, I was hospitalized for a month and then transferred to Lancaster County Prison. While I was in prison, I made some promises to God, but they were forgotten after I was released. In the following three years I served three more prison sentences in Lancaster. On the road of life I was surely traveling the wrong direction.

Thinking a change of scene would be helpful, I moved to Delaware and worked there for a while. However, my problems only multiplied, and I came back to Oxford. Because of my violent temper and no sense of personal responsibility, I committed a serious crime in 1966 which I fully expected would land me in prison for life. I felt I had really hit bottom.

But God had other plans for my life, and I praise Him for all the love and patience shown me until He could get my attention. Through the ministry of a fine Christian pastor who worked with me at Chester County Farms, I opened my heart to the Lord and received salvation. What a difference that made in my life! The New Testament became precious as I read and reread it. I could again sleep soundly and without fear.

Since I had very little money, the court appointed a lawyer for my trial. I no longer worried about my sentence. I, Doug, was free before the Lord, even though I might spend my life behind bars, for “if the Son… shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (Jn. 8:36). A judge was also appointed and the trial got under way. God’s grace flowed freely as I committed the results to Him. My sentence was four to ten years. Most of that time I spent at Rock View, Center County, Pennsylvania.

A good program was available there with regular church services and also Bible studies. I received spiritual guidance and letters from Christian friends.

During those years I spent much time reading and studying the Bible. I dreamed of helping men in jail and of sharing my testimony with them. I wanted to help others stay out of a life of crime and experience the true joy of living for Christ.

For the final six months of my term I was transferred to Graterford, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and was discharged a free man on July 26, 1970. Returning to the neighborhood where my family was living, I continued to go with them to church for about nine months. Then the devil persuaded me that I was being a hypocrite and had better not attend church. So I stayed away from church for approximately three years.

I firmly believe that ex-prisoners need supportive Christian friends, fellowship, and encouragement even more than they need Sunday school and church on Sunday. Even though I tried to run away from God, I couldn’t get away from the tremendous power of prayer nor from the Word that was already in my heart. I learned that without the Lord’s help I could not cope with life as it was and realized that “if nothing is happening, something is happening.”

Around 1975 my wife again started attending church with the children and tried to persuade me to go also. When she gave up begging me to go, God intervened. He convinced me that if I wanted to be a Christian husband to my wife and a Christian father to our children, I needed to worship and fellowship with brothers and sisters in the church. It was my move.

After much prayerful consideration and visiting many churches, we felt led by God to unite with the Mt. Vernon Mennonite congregation. My marriage to Phyllis (Pat) had taken place before a Justice of the Peace. Now that we had become part of a church family, we wanted to renew our marriage vows in a Christian setting. Our brothers and sisters at Mt. Vernon rejoiced with us in a special service at the church on May 18, 1977. It was also a real blessing to travel home to West Virginia for reconciliation and renewing of family ties.

We prayed earnestly for guidance concerning a prison ministry and shared our hopes and dreams with our pastor and the congregation. The Lord has opened doors one by one and has cut the red tape, allowing me, an ex-convict, to go back to Chester County Farms Prison and share in a full-time ministry of Christian love.

Come with me on a visit to the prison where about 200 men are confined. At the desk I exchange my car key for a prison key, which allows me freedom for visiting with the men on the cell blocks. We spend time chatting about things that interest them, witnessing to them about Christ, and fellowshipping with those who have received Him. Some of the men are taking Bible study courses. Occasionally someone requests prayer.

The men ask many questions, like “Are you a preacher?” “How can God and Jesus be one?” “How do you feed on the Word?”

After a man is discharged, I do follow-up work, sometimes bringing him along home or taking him to visit our church. These men need sustained spiritual help during this crucial adjustment period.

We are grateful that the Eastern Mission Board and a growing number of congregations have also been lending support by prayer and gifts. God is good, and I praise Him with all my heart. He has made it possible for me to serve approximately forty hours per week in prison visitation. I am thankful for the administrators who not only allow but also encourage a program of spiritual ministry for the prisoners.

I remember the value Christ puts on one soul, and I continue to dream. I see a great need for a home as a rehabilitation center for the men after they are released, for someone to help them find jobs, to be their friend. Will you join us in prayer for the fulfillment of this dream?