The local headline read, “Emerson Faces 76 Years.” The national headlines weren’t any better: “Jail Term Set in Extortion” and “Man Suspected in Hoax Charged in Pennsylvania.” It looked like my dad would be going away for good.
In 1983, the FBI arrested my father for a string of crimes including 26 counts of extortion across three states. His addiction to drugs, alcohol, and gambling had driven him to find creative and bold ways to get the money needed to support his lifestyle—a lifestyle that I observed from a distance as a young teen.
Our relationship could have been described as shallow and lacking substance. He was not what you’d call a role model. My mother and father were divorced before I can remember, and he was largely absent while I was growing up.
His father before him had departed also, but differently. Abandoning his family when my father was just a child, my grandfather had left no trace. We didn’t even know if he was alive.
Things just did not look good on that side of my family tree. As a young man, you’re supposed be able to look up into that tree and find inspiration, not incarceration. Legacy, not felony. With no good father figure in my life, my own trajectory and destiny were questionable at best. I searched for different things to fill the void in my heart. I am certain the prayers of godly people from the other side of my family tree are all that kept me from following my father’s path early on.
My father’s incarceration caused him to miss a number of critical events in my life. Fathers are supposed to be there when you get your license, your first car, graduate from high school, and all those other milestones. You’re supposed to see him in the audience, hear his encouragement and support from the stands. But if there were cheers, I couldn’t hear them coming from my father’s prison cell. And each missed event added another layer of bitterness to my growing pile of disillusionment and disappointment.
But God was already moving in our lives.
My father was sent to a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, to start serving his time. Shortly after his arrival, fellow inmates invited him to some church services held by volunteers from a local church. Hurting and broken, he agreed to attend, but he was not the kind of guy who wanted a hug from a volunteer, and he told them so.
It wasn’t long before he found himself responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and a transformation began to take place. He didn’t go to that prison hospital for a heart transplant, but he got one when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior.
He didn’t know it yet, but that decision and another he made there—based on Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”—would impact our family for generations to come.
As my father began trusting God with his life, he began praying for the other people he cared about. With good reason, two of his biggest concerns were my brother and me. During their phone calls, my mother would tell him about the trouble we were getting into, and he was all too familiar with the direction we were heading.
Another concern was his estranged father, whom he had not heard from in over 30 years. Regardless, he started praying and, in his Bible reading, he ran across Psalm 138:8: “The Lord will perfect that which concerns me” (NKJV). His prayer for all of us was simple: “God, please send someone to share the gospel with them.” My father wanted us to experience the same love and forgiveness that he had come to know through Jesus Christ.
His bold prayers began a slow-moving chain reaction in my family tree, although the answers were not exactly the ones my father expected. The fruit of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—began showing up in his life. They were evident in his writings, phone calls, and our visits. I saw the change in my father, but I didn’t yet understand it.
After serving his federal time, my father had yet to face his state time, but favorable sentencing released him in less than five years. It was clear that God had plans for him. Upon leaving prison, opportunities to go back inside and minister to others began presenting themselves.
Meanwhile, my own trouble had begun, and my solutions for dealing with it were not working. I was in the Navy and recently separated from my wife. Heartbreak was a common occurrence, and the things I had put my hope in were letting me down. At a desperate place in my life, I went looking for something to relieve my pain, to fill the hole in my heart. One day, I found myself so desperate that I grabbed a Bible and a phone, crawled into my bunk, and called my father for help. Simply put, he had access to a power that I did not have, and I needed relief.
I told him what was happening and, through tears, I asked “Where do I go to find the help I need? I have a Bible—what page number do I turn to?” Our unresolved issues no longer mattered. I didn’t even care that my bunkmate was hanging out in the rack above me. All I knew was that, if this God were real, I needed His help. The pain was too great, and my efforts to fix things were not working.
I read the verses my dad recommended, but I kept trying to fix things in my own strength. I didn’t understand the concept of surrendering entirely to God. Things got worse.
I returned from the Gulf War with a broken relationship, a broken car, no money, and uncertainty all around. I was lost. But in the middle of that very dark time, my father showed up. He was waiting on the pier when we arrived; he was there when I really needed him. God had been preparing both him and me for this moment.
He came to live with me, and for the first time, I realized my need for Christ. God used my father to share the gospel with me so my life could be forever changed. I laid all my heartache, brokenness, and sin at the foot of the cross, where I found forgiveness and wholeness.
When you finally understand the context and depth of your own depravity and experience God’s forgiveness, you will run to forgive others. Colossians 3:13 encourages us to “forgive as the Lord forgave you.” That’s what I did, and my relationship with my dad was restored.
But the restoration story doesn’t end there. In 1993, my father traveled to Florida for a ministry conference. As he prepared to return home on the last night, he felt led to open the phone book on the nightstand in his hotel room. Right there, in black and white, was his father’s name, Allen M. Emerson, Sr.
The next morning my father called the number he’d found. He asked the man who answered if he had a son born on a certain date, and the man said he did. They agreed to meet. That day, my father and grandfather were miraculously reunited after 30 years. Their relationship was restored and, for the next nine years, they called and visited each other often. But my grandfather did not yet know Christ, so my father’s prayers continued.
When my grandfather was on his deathbed in the hospital, my father read Jesus’s words in John 14:1 to him. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” he said. “You believe in God; believe also in Me.” As he breathed his last, my grandfather came to know Jesus. And again, God had answered my father’s prayer to send someone to share the gospel— but instead of someone else, He used my father to reach those he was concerned about.
God has used my father to bring hope to thousands behind bars during a 30-year career in prison ministry. If you’re reading this from prison, I haven’t been where you are. But I’ve been where your children are. You may not be able to reach out to them physically, but your loving heavenly Father hears your prayers. He knows your concerns, and when you put your trust in Him, He will use you to impact your family as well as those around you.
Prayer is a powerful thing, and God can do miracles when we have faith that He will do what we cannot. My father’s prayers from prison changed the course of history for our family. Your prayers can do the same. Reach out in faith to Him today. †