In 2008/2009 we saw the worst financial crisis in most of our lifetimes. Every other story we saw on the news during that time had to do with financial loss, closing businesses and the many things that trickle down from such a loss. My family was not immune to the crash in 2008, but my story begins prior to 2008 with a series of choices, both good and bad. In 2002 I decided to enter into the exciting world of real estate investing. Starting out was tough, but I had a corporate job to fall back on. After I purchased my first five homes, I was hooked and I decided to take a leap of faith and go into investing full time. Between 2002-2008 we purchased over 80 homes, far more than I ever dreamed possible.
During that time I was heavily involved in church activities like youth ministry, a men’s ministry and a marriage ministry. Slowly but surely I dedicated more and more of my time to real estate, it became my identity. Church activities had become a chore and making money became my passion. I wanted to provide nice things for my family, nice cars, a nice home and to never leave them needing or wanting for anything. Goals and achievements were my litmus test for success, one by one, I set a goal, achieved it and moved on. Never leaving time to celebrate my accomplishments or thank the people who helped me get there. My personality began to change and the thoughts in my head turned to material possessions instead of being present with my family. I was the dad that was there, but never really present. The stresses and pressures of owning my own business began to eat at me and change me. My moods were often dictated by how much money I had in the bank or if I had a closing that week. I was becoming a different person without really even knowing it!
Fast forward to 2008 when the entire economy crashed, in what seemed to be, overnight! Our business plan centered around holding our properties and renting them out to families. Most of our homes where located in areas with two working parents. When the economy crashed, so did the ability of our tenants to hold a job. The phone calls did not stop with stories of job loss and financial hardship. In the course of 3 months, my rental rates went from 95% to 60%. In 2009, we could not hold on any longer, and had to file for bankruptcy. It was shocking how easy the bankruptcy process was for us, fill out some paperwork and it would all be over, I could start fresh and the stress would be gone. Unfortunately, that was not the case for me! My situation was messy due to the real estate, my investors and one small detail I have left out to this point. In 2005, the first five properties we bought, we rehabbed and sold them right away to gain cashflow to start the business. I sold those properties to investors who qualified for the loans. During the process I made a huge error in judgement and committed a felon. When the investor came to the table for the closing, I paid the down payment for them. The first four homes I did this with, I had no clue it was wrong, but on the last transaction the title agent that was closing our loan told me I couldn’t provide the funds. I decided to move forward without acknowledging his warning not knowing how that one decision would effect my future. 2009 was rough, it was hard to swallow my ego and pride because I had become a big fish in a small pond. (or so I thought) We were losing everything, the cars, the houses, our bank account and my self worth. No longer could I identify as a success, I had failed. Not only had I failed, but I was dragging my entire family with me and it was painful to watch! That same year, I had a major surgery on my jaw which required an extensive recovery. I chose to spend that recovery in my very dark, very isolated basement. The recovery was my excuse to not have to answer questions from my family or from my investors. I could hide there and I had perfectly good excuse. Over the course of two weeks, my life became very dark. Just a short time ago, I was an amazing dad (in the world’s eyes), I had achieve “success” and thought people looked up to me. In less than six months I had lost everything and sat in my dark basement just waiting for the hammer to fall. I remember the day, I remember what I was wearing and I remember the hollow pit in my stomach the day I decided to end it. My recovery was coming to an end and I would have to face all those people who were counting on me. The message running through my brain was a ticker tape of failure, regret, anger and depression. Things got dark because I had lost all hope! My wife was a teacher and took the kids to school that morning. I had decided today would be the day! They no longer needed me, I could no longer provide for them, I was not even able to get off the couch and play with my children so there was no reason to be there. I decided I was going to do it in the bathroom. I wasn’t sure how, but that’s where it was going to happen! I got up off the couch, took two steps and that’s all I remember. to get to my bathroom in my basement, you have to pass the stairwell that takes you upstairs. The next things I know, I am standing at the top of my stairs and all I could hear was, “get in your car, get in your car and drive, get out of your house”. I immediately got in my car and drove off. In a haze, I passed a friend of mine I had not seen in a few years. He called me when he saw my Jeep and asked me how I was doing. I knew Doug to be a kind person and I took advantage of his question and told him, no, things were not fine. Doug and I spent the next three hours unpacking my discretions in Starbucks. There was a lot of crying on my part because I knew this was the first step to me dealing with my consequences and I was scared to death! This was the first time I had told anyone what I had done wrong and just how bad things had become for my business and my family.
The conversation with Doug was my first experience with talking to someone who didn’t offer a solution, he just listened and then listened some more. The next couple months were the scariest, most stress filled and confusing time in my life. The day that changed my life forever was the day the FBI came knocking on my door and they wanted to know about my business practices, especially those first five closings. A month later, they saw it necessary to raid my home with fifteen armed agents and handcuffs ready to take me in. The worst thing about that day was that I was not even home. My wife and kids were there having a garage sale, so they got to experience the terror of having the house raided and searched to find out where I was. I got the call from my wife telling me “they” were there to get me. Confused and terrified, I allowed my wife to tell me what had happened and that they were on the way to where I was to get me and take me in. It just so happened I was with my parents. So, not only had they raided my home where my children were a the time, now they were handcuffing me in front of my parents. I remember sitting in the back of the car thinking, why didn’t I just end it when I could have, but that was not the plan that was laid out in front of me. I was going to have to walk through my transgressions and now everyone I care for knows what’s going on.
Two months later I was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for the charge of mail fraud. I would spend the next 18 months of my life, without my family, in Manchester Kentucky at a Federal Prison Camp. How in the world had my life come to this? How could I have done this to my family? Those thoughts of regret and self-lothing darkened my head again, but almost immediately, I felt the ability to get through it! The day came when we were to tell our children. We sought out advice and counsel from our family and friends. Some told us to tell them I was going on a business trip. Some told us to lie because something like this would traumatize them beyond repair. Ultimately, we decided to go with the truth and trust they would be ok! I remember the day, I remember feeling completely helpless, there are no books out there that are titled: How to Tell Your Kids You Are Going To Prison. That night my wife and I sat there searching for the words to say, we prayed for the words, but nothing came to us. The power in that prayer was palpable, you could feel it! All we could do is whisper the name of Jesus. His name was so comforting for us, so we took them to the loft, sat them on the couch and told them. The only thing I remember was tears and hugs and sadness, but this was one of those steps I had to walk through, that WE had to walk through together. See this entire time, I had hid a lot from my wife all under the umbrella of protecting her. What joke, I wasn’t protecting her, I was just to much of a coward to admit my faults. When I was able to come clean to my wife and start conversation, those dark thoughts of divorce and my children being taken away, all disappeared and gave me confidence we could make it!
On December 31st, I reported to Federal Prison. I didn’t want to put my wife through the pain of taking me to Kentucky so I asked my parents to take me. A short time ago they got to watch their son be taken away in handcuffs and now they were taking him to prison. Before they dropped me off, I remember my dad looking at me and telling me he wished he could do this time for me. That hurt to hear, but was a beautiful picture of what it is to be loved regardless of your faults. Somehow, my parents love for me never wavered and never changed. If anything, this dark time drew us closer and helped us both to understand we are not perfect. Prior to entering prison I was fearful of my safety, would I get shanked, would I end up being someones girlfriend? Pure fear entered my body and it was difficult to walk in, but I had no choice! I had to walk through the consequences I had created!
My stay in prison isn’t the typical story you hear every day. The day I entered prison I was met by 13 men I would eventually come to know as my brothers. Prior to entering prison, I was really struggling with how I was going to make it through such a long period of time away from my family. My church family, with good intentions, filled my head full of the idea I was going to go in there and save souls, just like the story of Paul in the New Testament. I ate that up, this was it, I was going to bring people to Christ and be a disciple. The first two weeks I was in prison, I told anyone and everyone what I was there to do…..save souls! Those 13 men I talked about listened to me and allowed me to make a fool of myself. One friend, Chidi, from Nigeria, was one of those that allowed me to tell my story. One day, he had enough and was tired of listening to me. We were in the chapel, waiting for chow and I was rattling off, once again, what I was there to do. Chidi took his bible, slid it over to me, and asked me if I could show him in the bible, where Paul was imprisoned for committing a felony. For those of you that might not know Paul’s story, he was imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. Chidi looked at me, because I must have looked white as a ghost. I knew the answer, I wasn’t going to find that story in the bible. Chidi went on to say, I wasn’t going to find that story about Paul, because he was imprisoned for the the sake of the gospel, but I was imprisoned because I committed a felony. Ouch, that really hurt, needless to say I was really upset with Chidi. He had just ruined by coping mechanism, my mission in prison. For the next two weeks, I didn’t speak to Chidi. One day we were sitting in the chapel again and he came over to talk with me again. He said he left out the second half of Paul’s story that he hopes I follow. He then told me about the Joy Paul sought and experienced in prison. His prayer for me was that I would experience the Joy of Christ that Paul felt. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and care for me. In two honest and raw conversations, Chidi completely changed the trajectory of my stay in prison. He had brought me off my pedestal and allowed me to see the other inmates as people and not a spiritual conquest. Immediately my time there changed and I met so many amazing men who knew they had done wrong and were walking through their crap! When my stay came to an end, I remember standing in front of the church congregation, wondering why I had gotten so much out of my stay when God spoke to me. I was standing in front of over 100 men who’s transgressions had been made public. The veil of lies was removed and we were able to get real with each other. The conversations were filled with honesty, care and love for one another because we didn’t have to wonder f the person sitting across from us was telling the truth. We knew everything about each other (and some things were really hard to reconcile) and it was beautiful! Those men provided me with my first experience of true male friendship and acceptance and I lived in that for 18 months!
The day I left was filled with excitement, but a little bit of sadness. Most people think I am crazy when I tell them a little part of me didn’t want to leave, only because of the brotherhood I felt. I was nervous I wouldn’t experience that kind of brotherhood when I left there. The time came when I would walk out those doors and start a new chapter with my family who was there for me and loved me.
Life today is a mixture of ups and downs, life still looks dark at times, but I know that suicide is not an option for me. I know that my family loves me and are better off with me being here! I know there are people who need to hear our story! I know God uses our testimony to offer people Light in a dark world. So often, I see men finding their self-worth in how much or how little they provide. What does a world look like where material items do not define us? I still slip into that thought process, but I catch it and turn my thoughts to helping others, to helping myself, to helping my family. My prayer today is one thing and one thing only. Lord, please reveal my ego and pride in everything I do. Lord, you provide all I need and all I want. You provide me the Peace I used to search for elsewhere! Lord, your kindness overwhelms me at times and allows me to see the world for what it is, a world full of people in search of something.
I have been called to tell my story to anyone who will listen. My story has helped me to see that everyone has one, everyone has something to say, everyone has an example in their life that can provide Hope in people who see nothing but darkness. If you are hurting, please find someone to tell! If you see someone who is hurting, love them, listen to them, don’t offer solutions, just listen! You will see that you are well equipped to love another human!
I find Hope in only one way, that is through the Love and Hope of Jesus. I know there are a lot of people who had the bible thrown at them at different times in their life or they see Christ followers as hypocrites or hateful due to their beliefs. I get it, I understand more than you will ever know. Once everyone knew I had committed a felony, the church seemed to fall away. There were a few people who went on the journey with me, but most left. In all honesty, it hurt to be looked at as a felon. It hurt that I lost so many friends and that my reputation was destroyed. Most of that failure and resentment was in my own head and not what others felt, but my thoughts of the church were not really high when I needed them the most. Isolation was my downfall, I didn’t allow anyone in to help me because I thought I could help myself and work my way out. The church was not my problem, my transparency or lack thereof was my issue.
When I was at my darkest moments, it was my friends and family that showed up and road this thing out with me. I have been out of prison for four years now and have had an opportunity to work with many organizations that have the same heart for helping. There are so many people hurting, but also so many people willing to help! I am very encouraged to see that the stigma of suicide, depression, anxiety and mental illness are being squashed, one story at a time!