Murf the Surf. At seventy-eight years young, this man lives with more passion and purpose than anyone I’ve ever met. When Murf walks into a room, everyone takes notice, from the least to the greatest. His charismatic personality naturally charges the atmosphere, drawing in and holding captive anyone in his path.
I was immediately drawn to Murf the Surf when I met him a year ago. We share a common love for water sports that has resulted for both of us in Hall of Fame titles (his in surfing; mine in water skiing). We also share a love for Christ and a heart for prisoners. But it wasn’t Murf’s exciting storytelling ability, his incredible life journey, his fame and success, the Hollywood movies produced in his honor, or his handsome charm that drew me in. It was his heart.
Murf the Surf is the real deal. A true champion. He’s a man of integrity and humility. A selfless man whose compassion for others leads him to action. He’s a man who travels the world, sacrificing his time and resources in order to tell others about the Man who changed his life.
I entered prison ministry in 2013, sharing how God was moving in the hearts of inmates and how they were responding to the gospel, people would ask skeptically, “Do you really think those inmates have given their lives to Christ? Do you actually believe their response is more than just a grasp at something to get them through their incarceration? You really think they can change and that they will continue in Christ once they’re released?”
I can reply with confidence that, yes, I do think people can change. I don’t know if every inmate will continue in the faith, just as I don’t know if every person who responds to the gospel in a church will hold fast to it. But I do know that some, like Murf, will.
Murf the Surf is living proof of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. He is a walking testimony of how God can take the most hardened, selfish, prideful criminal and transform his life until there is absolutely no trace of the old man anywhere to be found.
When I stand before a group of inmates, sharing the hope within me, I picture Murf. I envision him as he once was—a desperate man in a gray jumpsuit, sitting in the last row of inmates, filled to the brim with hopelessness and pride, and totally skeptical of the message I am sharing. I think to myself, “There’s a Murf out there. There’s a man or a woman who’s getting ready to grab hold of this message for the first time and be radically changed by the love and grace of God. There’s someone who’s ready to embark on an adventure with God and be used by Him to change the world!” And then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I bring it. Murf’s life motivates me to keep going into prisons, to keep telling, and to keep loving.
Jack Roland Murphy wasn’t always a man of character. He was a character, all right, but not a man of character. There’s a difference, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. Recently, Murf and I ministered together at the Citrus County Detention Center (CCDC) in Lecanto, Florida. With incredible power and passion, he brought God’s message of hope to hundreds of inmates. He has been bringing this same message for thirty years in over 2500 prisons worldwide.
Why would a man go back to a place that nearly killed him? Why would someone who had been released run back to the prison gates and ask to be let back in? To Jack Murphy, it’s simple. There are hundreds of thousands of men and women drowning in a sea of hopelessness, being beaten down by shame and despair, anger, bitterness, and fear. Those people, Murf will tell you, need to know there is a better way. They need to know there is hope, and that hope’s name is Jesus.
Murf’s message of hope to the inmates of CCDC began something like this: “You know those sayings, ‘once a con, always a con,’ and the infamous ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’? Well, let me tell you something—those sayings are nonsense. One hundred percent lies. I was a con once; one of the best.”
Murf related bits and pieces of his life of crime to his audience as they sat in tattered jumpsuits of various colors. “In 1964, my partner and I pulled off what was dubbed the ‘jewel robbery of the century.’ We stole the JP Morgan jewel collection, which included the Star of India, the largest star sapphire in the world, and twenty-seven other precious gems, straight from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We scaled the 125-foot high wall overlooking west Central Park, slid down a thin rope into the gem room, and took everything they had! The crime caught the attention of newspapers around the world. Even Hollywood captured the scene back in a 1975 movie called Murf the Surf. And another movie is in the works.
“I served three years in the infamous New York City Tombs and Rikers Island prison for that little rendezvous. And I left that place a changed man. A hard man. In the years following my release, I slipped deeper into a life of crime, racking felony charges across the United States, including a couple of murder charges. In the end, I was sentenced to serve two life sentences plus twenty years. I spent twenty-one years in maximum security prisons, the worst of the worst. I know what it’s like to be sitting where you are.”
With a release date of 2244, it certainly seemed that, statistically speaking, Murf’s life as a free man was over. That old dog wouldn’t be learning new tricks anytime soon; not in this lifetime. But one day, while sitting in a place similar to where we sat that day, something happened in Murf’s heart. It was changed…changed by a Man named Jesus. And it is this Man that Murf passionately and unashamedly declares to anyone who will listen.
“For years, I had heard about God’s love,” Murf says. “But I didn’t want any part of it. I was my own man—a tough guy, and I didn’t need anybody. I was a mover and a shaker, both outside of prison and inside. I was Murf the Surf. A man who had enjoyed respect and success in every world I had ever entered. I wasn’t about to give that up.
“One day, a visiting friend said to me, ‘Murf, you need to get into the programs—especially the chapel—because if nothing changes…well…nothing changes, and, pal, you need some serious changes in your life and situation.’
“‘No way, man. I’m just not ready to give it all up,’ I responded.
“‘Give up what?’ my friend asked.
“‘My life, the action, the world I rock in.’
“We stood there, looking down the long, crowded, gray hallway of the Florida State Prison. Yesterday’s men. Forgotten men, hardened criminals of every sort, prison guards, tension, danger, and a door at the end of the hall leading to death row. This was my world.
“My friend looked up and down the hall and at the crowd and calmly said, ‘I get it, Murphy. Why would you ever want to give all this up?’ Shaking his head, he walked away.
“I realized he wasn’t wrong. What was I holding onto? This wasn’t life. This was madness. Maybe I should check out the chapel and see what this Jesus thing was about. It probably wouldn’t work for me, but what did I have to lose?
“I started my journey with God with this simple prayer, ‘Help me, God. If You are real, then please help me. I need serious help.’ I believe with all my heart that at that moment, God heard my prayer. You know, if someone is drowning in a lake, they wouldn’t need to form elaborate words to get someone to respond to their cry. They would just yell out, ‘Help! Help!’ And people would come running. Why would God be any different?
“When God hears one of His children crying for help, He comes. Jonah cried out from the belly of the whale, and God answered him. When I cried out, ‘God, help me,’ He answered my prayer, too.
“One by one, He began sending people into my life to teach me more about Him. But you know what? I sent them away. Funny how we call out to God for help, and then when He answers our prayers, we don’t recognize His hand in our lives. That was me. I pushed people away and kept going as I’d always done.
“But God didn’t give up. A while later, I was sitting in the back of the crowd at a special event being held for inmates. I heard a superstar athlete talk about God. He shared how his life had been turned over to a new manager, someone who had his back and who was giving him victory. As a sport’s buff, a business man of sorts, and an accomplished musician, I knew what it meant to have a manager. I also knew how important it was to have a manager who was on your side and who wouldn’t fail you.
“What the speaker said next pierced my hard heart: ‘If the best your life’s manager has been able to offer you so far is a prison jumpsuit, then you need a new manager.’
“As I looked at my life, I realized with sudden clarity the truth. I needed a new manager. In the past I’d had friends, teachers, coaches, agents, attorneys, and others who helped manage my life. There’d been success, money, women, drugs, parties, travel, toys, and lots of action—but every plan or dream had fallen short. That day, in that end-of-the-line situation, I was ready for a new life. I asked Jesus to come into my heart, to forgive me of the mistakes I’d made and the pain I had caused, and to be the manager of my life. It was a total surrender. No longer did I want to be in control; I had only made a mess of things. God could take my life and use it however He saw fit.”
And use it, God has. As Murf allowed God access to his heart and mind, God went to work. There was such a radical change in Murf’s life that people in high places began to take notice. There was no denying that this once riot leader had become a peacemaker, a humble servant who was radically influencing the lives of other inmates. Murf’s life was so marked with change that his life sentences and even his parole were removed. This man who’d had a release date of 2244 walked out of prison in 1986— 259 years ahead of schedule! When a reporter asked him what he was going to do with his life, Murf replied, “I’m going to do God’s business.”
It was a promise he has been faithful to keep. Murf will tell you, he hates jails and prisons. He hates everything about them. But he goes back, time and time again, all over the world. Why? He has nothing to gain. There’s no money or fame. But Murf’s not concerned about what he can gain; it’s about what he can give. And, boy, does he have something to give—the very thing people of all walks of life need. Hope.
“I’m not doing anything new. It’s just my turn to join the awesome army of the cross who visit Jesus when they visit the least of those, His brothers and sisters in prison. I want people to find life. They need to know there is hope for a better life. People can change, even a con. By God’s grace, I changed. Victory in life comes from a person deciding to make one right choice after another. It’s not always easy, but with God’s help, it can be done.
“These men and women need to know that they don’t have to be a statistic. Studies show that 70 percent of inmates will return to prison within three years of their release. Studies also show that 70 percent of inmates’ kids will be incarcerated in their lifetime. It’s a terrible cycle, but it can be broken. And it starts with a choice.
“Like rungs in a ladder or steps on a stairway, choices can carry you down into the darkness of defeat and failure, or they can lift you upward into the light of victory, joy, success, respect, love, and adventure. My life is undeniable evidence that even when the lights go out at the end of the tunnel; when everything shuts down and living or dying doesn’t make any difference; when all that keeps you staggering and swaggering from day to day is hate, pride, and all of the dope and booze you can get your hands on, that there at the end of the line, at the bottom of the pit, it isn’t too late!
“All it takes is one choice at a time to change the course and quality of your life. Anyone can be a winner or a loser; champion or chump. From the losers’ circle to the winners’ trophy room of life is just a matter of choices. The choice is yours.”
I’m so thankful for Murf’s choice. It has made not only a difference in hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, but in my life as well. His life is a constant reminder that if a heart is willing, God can use it. No matter whose life it is.
What will your choice be?