Growing up with six siblings in an abusive home, I always thought it was strange when Mom would tell us on Sunday mornings to get up and get ready for church. She’d act like everything was okay, but the truth was, everything was crumbling around us. There was a wolf in our house—my father.

So I would go to church and listen to the preacher tell me how God is good and that He had a plan for my life. But my ears were closed to hearing anything about Him. Why would a God who was good allow my mom, siblings, and me to experience such a deep lack of love and abundance of pain?

Without love and a support system, I buckled under peer pressure. I turned to the streets to find purpose and a place to belong. I used drugs and rebelled against authority. I was already on a fast track to destruction.

At 23 years old, I found myself in a courtroom, on trial for first-degree murder. My father had always told me I would never amount to anything—I guessed he was right. Much to my attorney’s dismay, I saw no reason to fight the charges. I figured if I didn’t expect anything good to happen, then I wouldn’t have to be disappointed. That’s how I’d been raised.

I was sentenced to die in Florida’s electric chair in 1984. The devil had me right where he wanted me. I was living under a death sentence, totally disillusioned, afraid, angry, and isolated. Like the serpent he is, Satan had wrapped his lies of hopelessness around my mind and was suffocating the very life out of me.

When I arrived at Florida State Prison, I knew I’d reached my burial ground. The mere sight of that place filled me with fear, and it intensified as I saw the faces of the condemned prisoners that lined the narrow way to my 6′ x 9′ cell.

I developed a friendship with the man in the cell next to me, but he was executed six months later. His death amplified my despair. Again I asked myself, “What’s the use of fighting?” Death was all around. How do you fight death? 

I grasped at anything to help me overcome my despair. Drugs didn’t help. I turned to Islam and lived as a Muslim for 17 years, but that didn’t help either. I was the most righteous Muslim on that death row—but I didn’t realize I was filled with the very spirit God was against. The spirit that denies Jesus Christ.

In 1994, a young lawyer fresh out of law school took on my appeal. We became close, much beyond a normal lawyer and client relationship. Seeing I had no support system, he introduced me to his parents, and William and Nan became the loving parents I’d never had. They visited faithfully and loved me like a son. At every visit, Nan would tell me, “God loves you, James.” She was a Christian; I was a Muslim. We were on opposite ends of the religious spectrum, and I stood my ground.

But in 1998, that ground was shaken when God sent me a woman from thousands of miles away. Hannah was from Denmark, and this is how we met.

Some people from Denmark were visiting another inmate on death row. Meeting me, they asked if I’d like a pen pal from their country. I agreed. So when they returned to home, they placed an ad in their local newspaper with my story, asking for a pen pal for me. Hannah found the ad.

Sitting at her kitchen table, she sensed the Holy Spirit saying, “Go to that condemned man.” Six months later, she left her job, family, and home and came to visit me on Florida’s death row. When I asked her why she’d come, her reply was simple: “My Jesus loves James.”

“My Jesus.” She always referred to Him in such a personal way. I didn’t get it, but I could tell He was incredibly real to her.

For years, Hannah visited me. Every time, she shared the Word of God and displayed unconditional, Christlike love. Yet I refused to receive it. Why did I need her Jesus when I had Muhammad? She would smile and say, “My Jesus rose from the grave just for you, James.”

She was so consistent in her faith and kindness toward me. Finally, one day, God’s grace opened my eyes to His love. He drew me to Himself (John 6:44). I realized that all my years of following Muhammad had left me without peace. Maybe Jesus would bring me His peace and take my pain away.

I confessed this desire to Hannah, and on February 4, 2001, in that small cell, I asked Jesus to come into my life and rule as my Lord and Savior. In that moment, the Prince of Peace invaded my darkness and made me whole. I experienced what John 8:36 says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus freed me from my pain.

I was freed from death row four years later on January 17, 2006, when my death sentence was overturned to a life sentence with parole. I am thankful for all those who prayed for me and stood by me, and for the lawyers who diligently fought for me. But I am most thankful for Jesus.

For 22 years, I had been waiting to die, but God had other plans. He not only gave me eternal life, but another chance at life here on earth. John 10:10 says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (NKJV).

Today, I am living an abundant life behind prison bars. I may not have my physical freedom—I have put that in God’s hands—but I do have freedom of the soul. God has delivered me from death row and brought me to the front row of His kingdom. Every day is an adventure.

It’s humbling that God would save me, a condemned man. That He would send someone from across the world to reveal His love to me. And not only that, but now He chooses to use my life to reach others. Every day, I get to help young men behind prison bars find peace, purpose, and worth through their own relationship with Jesus.

You know, a death sentence isn’t always an actual sentence like mine. Sometimes, it’s a situation, a relationship, a religion, a prognosis, or even a job that’s suffocating the very life out of you. Listen—you don’t have to stay there. You can find freedom in Jesus Christ.

Surrender to Him and let him deliver you from your bondage, no matter what it is. He will bring peace to your mind and move you from death row to the front row, where life begins.   †