In high school, I was a gifted athlete and a successful student, popular among my peers. Even my teachers liked me. But very few people knew the real me. I didn’t even know the real me.

Like many of my peers, I didn’t give life much thought. I went to class, did my schoolwork, played sports, and then partied hard on the weekends. I was the life of the party. If someone asked me why I hung out with known drinkers and drug users, I’d reply, “I don’t do what they do,” and they’d believe me. I had everyone fooled.

But when a sports injury shattered my dream of playing college baseball, the hidden me began to be exposed. Losing my identity as an athlete hit me hard. I’d spent my whole life competing in sports—now what? Who was I if I wasn’t a star athlete on the front page of the newspaper? 

I didn’t know, but instead of finding out, I just partied harder. I never considered where my choices might lead me—and where they led me was prison.

On December 2, 1981, I was sentenced to nine years for trafficking cocaine and given a $50,000 fine. It was my twenty-second birthday.

I regret the shame my actions brought on my family. Mom’s heart was crushed when the front page of our town’s newspaper exposed me as a leader of a local drug trafficking ring. Greenville, North Carolina, was a small town where everyone knew everyone. My mom and brothers were humiliated.

I decided to use my prison time wisely so I could move on with my life when I was released. Through a work-study release program, I finished my biology degree at East Carolina University. A volunteer picked me up every day and took me to class.

The other students had no idea that when I left campus, I returned to prison—a hellhole of a place where I studied at night by a stream of light that shone through a slit in my cell door. It was quite the contrast from the average college student, but I finished my degree. I didn’t yet appreciate how much God had blessed me with this opportunity.

After serving three and a half years of my sentence, I was released from prison. I knew I needed to get away from my old peer group if I wanted to have a different outcome in my life, so I packed up my things and moved to Daytona, Florida. 

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that changing locations didn’t guarantee success. The darkness I’d been drawn to in North Carolina was in Florida too. It wasn’t long before I was doing the same things I’d done before I went to prison.

I lived in Daytona for a year, then moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida’s masters program for exercise physiology. Maybe if I got more serious about my future, my party nature would subside. It didn’t.

No amount of incarceration, education, or busyness could fix what was wrong with me. I was all bound up inside. Broken. Deceived. Confused. Misdirected. And so, the cycle of self-destruction continued.

In 1990, a friend invited me to a church service, and there, for the first time, I heard about God’s love and the forgiveness He extends to me through His Son, Jesus.

Hearing about God’s grace stirred something in me. I felt an innocence I hadn’t felt since before I’d started smoking pot in the eighth grade. So much had happened since then—could I really be forgiven for all of that? But what would I have to give up to follow Christ? 

In the end, the fear of letting go of my familiar ways kept me from surrendering my life to Jesus. I chose instead to hang on to the things that were taking me down.

That refusal led to yet another painful consequence—a DUI. I went out partying with a friend to celebrate my getting into physical therapy school. Several drinks later, I got behind the wheel of my car. On the way home, I was arrested for driving under the influence. It was the wake-up call I needed.

The very next weekend, I went to church and gave my life to Jesus. I gave up my way for His way, for good. I was so tired of messing up; I knew I couldn’t be trusted to run my own life.

Desperate for change, I stood up in front of 300 people and, with sweat rolling down my back, walked to the front of the church. An older gentleman at the front led me through the sinner’s prayer. I said something like: “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior.”

It was a simple prayer, but I meant every word of it. And true to His Word, God received messed-up Mike Shank as His child. He made me new from the inside out. I am a living example of 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

I walked out of that church free of the regret and weight of my sinful past. I didn’t completely understand what had happened to me, but I knew I’d made a good choice for once in my life.

I became committed to the way of Jesus and began studying the Bible and renewing my mind with God’s truth. I no longer looked back to my old ways. Instead, I walked forward in the light of Jesus Christ.

In His light, I finally understood my true identity. I wasn’t the has-been athlete, family disappointment, drug-trafficker, or ex-convict I saw myself as. No, I was a child of God. I was loved. And God was ready to use my life despite my failures. I had longed for the love and acceptance of a father for years. Now I had it forever. In Christ, I found everything that had been missing in my life.

As a new creature in Christ, I was concerned about having a DUI charge to my name. I began to pray earnestly for God to prevent that arrest from going on my record. My attorney thought I was nuts and said it would never happen. But four days before we went to court, the district attorney threw out my case.

“Okay, who do you know? Who have you been talking to?” my attorney asked.

I had been talking to God Almighty. This blessing sent me sky high! I went to work the next day at my physical therapy job and started telling everyone about Jesus. That was in 1992, and I haven’t stopped telling people about the love of God since.

Having experienced the darkness of incarceration firsthand, I wanted to go back into prison and minister the hope I had found to inmates. So in 1993, I joined a local Christian band called The Grateful Life. We traveled into various prisons in the Gainesville area, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. For seven years, I ran the band’s sound and shared my testimony with inmates, and then I felt the Lord leading me back to my hometown.

In March 2001, I moved back to Greenville. There, God blessed me with something totally unexpected—a full pardon for my drug-trafficking conviction. Once again, I was featured on the front page of our local newspaper, The Daily Reflector, but this time for my story of redemption.

Even now, I almost cry when I think about how Governor Hunt’s decision impacted my mother. That pardon brought healing to my mother’s wounded soul. I’m so thankful, and I’m in awe of God’s goodness.

In North Carolina, I continued ministering in prisons and youth detention centers. The impact of sin on broken families grieved my soul, and I started a family support ministry. I also became aware that many people who are released from prison don’t have the support system or opportunities I’d had when I got out.

It bothered me that all I had to offer men as they walked out of prison was a high five, a word of encouragement, and a reminder that Jesus loves them. I was giving them nothing tangible to help them move forward. Very few people or organizations were at that time.

The reality is, most people who are released from prison don’t have a job or place to live. They have no clothes, food, or money—and yet we expect them to change their lives. I couldn’t not help, so I founded Pardoned by Christ Ministries to assist men in transitioning back into society. In 2009, we opened our first transitional house in Raleigh, North Carolina. We now have three homes. It’s been an amazing journey of trusting God to provide for our ministry and our residents. God is moving mightily in the lives of our men.

No one ever came to me in prison and told me about a better way. No one ever said to me, “Hey, Shank. What are you doing with your life? What’s going on in your heart? Do you know there’s a better way?” 

That’s why I am so committed to going behind bars and helping these guys. I don’t want them to walk out of prison the same way they went in. I want to show them a better way, one that can change everything. Just like it did for me. Just like it can for you. 

Jesus is that better way. †