My childhood is shrouded in mystery. I’m 41 years old, and I still don’t have answers, but this much I know: God wasn’t confused. He wasn’t absent. He’s always had a plan and purpose for my life (Jeremiah 29:11). I just had to come to the end of myself before I could receive them.
No one has ever explained why my biological mom didn’t raise me or why I lived with another family. I’ve always had more questions than answers. My mom battled something great; whatever it was, she ended her life when I was ten. Everyone worked hard to protect me—from what horrible truth, I’ll never know.
After my mom passed, the family I lived with adopted me. They let me choose my last name. I decided to use both surnames and joined them with a hyphen: Lightsey-Copeland.
Even though Mom wasn’t around much, she always made sure I knew she loved me. No matter what had happened, she would always be a part of me, so I wanted to honor her. But I also wanted to honor Mrs. Copeland, the woman who ensured I never wanted or needed anything. She was my mother now, and I even got three big brothers out of the deal!
In the Copeland home, I experienced love and positive male role models. But I took them for granted and became vulnerable to the world’s influences. My thoughts were quickly shaped by the lies of an enemy I was not even aware of, much less equipped to fight. Satan was prowling around like a roaring lion, and he was about to try to devour me (1 Peter 5:8).
I remember playing outside our apartment one day, when this guy walked by with sagging pants, a cocked baseball cap, and a gun in his pocket. I admired the confidence in his stride and thought, “Wow! He’s cool.”
I didn’t know who he was, but I wanted to be like him. I stopped playing with Legos and digging holes in the dirt and headed into high school with a new style and attitude.
My new look quickly attracted the wrong kind of attention. The colors I wore insulted gang members in my neighborhood, and I had to deal with them daily, even though I wasn’t in a gang. I was in their territory, and that’s all that mattered.
I couldn’t even walk to the bus stop without having to defend myself, but I didn’t back down, no matter how many fights I had to endure. I stood my ground and did what I wanted, and eventually, the bullying and the fighting stopped.
My rebellion grew rapidly, as did my ego. I started messing with drugs, using first and then selling. Once I tasted that fast money, I couldn’t walk away. It made me feel powerful, accepted, and like I was somebody.
I kept my grades up so my mom wouldn’t think things were off with me. Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint her. I followed the house rules, did my homework, and excelled in sports. After I graduated from high school, I went to college. But that didn’t last long.
I lived a double life, walking a tightrope between two opposing identities. My street ego grew and grew, and I felt invincible. Giving in to the lure of the fast life, I dropped out of college and hit the streets full time.
And then, one day a drive-by shooting happened in front of my mom’s house. No one was hurt, but it was quite the reality check. Those bullets had my name on them. I was ashamed as I realized the danger I’d brought to my family, not to mention the heartbreak.
But there was more disappointment ahead, and there was nothing I could do to prepare my family for it. I didn’t even see it coming until it was too late.
Something told me not to leave the house that day, but with full-blown arrogance, I ignored the warning and headed out, looking for trouble. I found it in a strip-club parking lot. Before the night was over, a man was dead, and his blood was on my hands.
I fled the scene and hid in a shed in the backyard of an abandoned house. Adrenaline pumped through my racing heart as I heard police sirens and a helicopter in the distance. I was twenty-eight years old and on the run for murder.
I’d never prayed before or even thought about God, but as reality sank in, I somehow knew He was my only hope.
“God, please help me.”
I didn’t expect an answer. At that moment, I felt as far away from God as a person could get. Why would He even listen to my prayer? I had just murdered a man!
But He heard it, and He didn’t waste any time responding.
“Are you ready to surrender your life to Me, Andre?”
It was a gentle but direct question, and I knew without a doubt that it was Him. I wasn’t one to hear voices.
What caught my attention was the use of my name. To think that God would know me by name! Suddenly, His presence was tangible, and I realized I wasn’t alone.
Frightened, I continued to run from the authorities and evaded capture for two weeks. But as I ran, that encounter never left my thoughts.
What could God possibly want with me? The thought was confusing. As far as I knew, my life was over.
When the cops finally caught up with me, I was relieved. They booked me into Pima County Jail and charged me with first-degree murder. The weight of what I’d done hit me with such force that I could barely breathe. I became numb and was unable to process what was happening.
Mom came to see me, utterly shocked by the charges against me. She had no idea the depths of my rebellion. “Son, I know you didn’t do this terrible thing,” she said. “Tell me what happened so we can straighten this all out.”
There was no fixing the situation. I had to tell her the truth. I was totally to blame for what had happened.
Alone in my cell, God’s question kept coming to mind, “Are you ready to surrender your life to Me, Andre?”
Fear. Shame. Guilt. Grief. Anger. Confusion. Waves of emotion washed over me. What did I have to give God?
“I don’t have anything to give you, God.” I finally told Him. “I’m a mess, and I’m probably in prison for the rest of my life.”
I knew nothing about the Bible, but when I picked one up, the Lord wasted no time speaking to my heart. He showed me Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV).
I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was reading. Jesus died for me even though He knew I was a sinner? Why? I had never paid attention to Him. Why would He care about me? But that’s what it said.
I kept reading the Bible and learned so much. Jesus was a perfect man and also God. He died a horrible death so that I could have my sins forgiven. That blew my mind. I became hungry to learn all I could about Jesus, the resurrected Savior. I was fascinated by His teachings and the people He chose to be His disciples. What a motley crew! Then I learned about King David and how God used him even though he was an adulterer and a murderer (2 Samuel 11–12; Psalm 51).
As soon as I could, I got baptized and committed my life to follow Jesus no matter what, even if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison.
My case dragged through the court system for two and a half years. As I awaited my sentence, I leaned into God’s Word for courage and comfort. I discovered who I was in God’s eyes. Satan had been feeding me lies about my identity since my youth.
I attended church with my Spanish-speaking cellie, who was also a Christian. I didn’t understand much because the service was in Spanish, but it didn’t matter. God’s presence was there as those men sought the Lord. I soaked it in like a plant that hadn’t been watered in years.
God showed me that He had pursued me since I was a kid. He revealed people He had used to sow seeds in my heart about Jesus. God knew that, eventually, I would turn to Him, and just like the father of the prodigal son, He waited patiently for me (Luke 15:11–32).
I remembered a picture my mom had hanging in her house. As a child, I wondered who all those people were sitting around a big table sharing a meal. Now I know it was a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and His disciples (Matthew 26:26–29). Thinking of that picture now comforts my heart. I think maybe Mom knew Jesus too.
Waiting for trial was exhausting. I had no plea bargain, so when my court date arrived, I expected to get the maximum sentence. I thought I was dreaming when the jury found me guilty of a lesser charge, second-degree murder.
The judge’s voice was kind but firm on sentencing day. “Sir, I believe that you are a decent man who lost your way when you started hanging out with the wrong people.” She then handed me a 12-year sentence. It was nothing short of a miracle.
God’s hand touched my life that day in a way I will never forget, and I came to understand grace and mercy in a way many don’t. I was receiving a gift that I could never earn or deserve, and I knew it.
Within a week, I walked through the gates of Arizona State Prison to begin serving my time. I connected immediately with other men of faith. Wanting to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, I surrounded myself with those whose lives were testimonies of His transforming power. God worked through them to help me change.
Before long, I felt God calling me deeper. My salvation, a reduced prison sentence, and this new life weren’t for me to keep to myself. God wanted to use me for His purpose and glory (Ephesians 2:8–10). He wanted me to tell others about His grace and to help them avoid the mistakes I’d made.
Helping others was something I’d never considered before giving my life to Christ. To better prepare, I took advantage of the education available behind bars and obtained an associate’s degree in alcohol and substance abuse disorders. I also worked as a peer support facilitator, helping to prepare men for their release.
It was a privilege to pray for them and introduce them to Jesus, the true Friend who would be there every step of the way (John 15:13–14). So many people want to leave prison, enter the world, and live right, but it isn’t easy to do. With Jesus, these men could succeed.
Still wanting to deepen my roots in Christ, I signed up for a discipleship training program offered by Alongside Ministries in Phoenix. A mentor journeyed with me while I was still in prison. He became my friend and prayer warrior and met me at the gate the day of my release. He even took me out for a delicious breakfast before dropping me off at the ministry’s residential program that I still call home.
It felt great to be out from behind those bars, but Jesus had already set me free long before I walked out of prison. He freed me from the wages of my sin and gave me eternal life the day I believed in Him (Romans 6:23).
And not only was I free, but I was rich beyond measure. I didn’t have any worldly possessions, but I had eternal life, joy, peace, worth, and purpose.
Today, I work with and encourage men coming out of prison who are learning to walk with the Lord. It’s only been a few years since I was where they are now. Only God could have rewritten my story.
Genesis 50:20 says that God can take what the enemy meant for our harm and use it for good. Romans 8:28 promises that God works all situations for good for those who love Him and are called to His purposes. God has kept these promises and more. His undeserved kindness will remain beyond my comprehension.
I’ll never forget that I took a life and brought pain to undeserving people. I wish I could go back and make it right, but I can’t. All I can do is live my life in thankfulness, serving others and sharing the hope of Jesus. I want to honor God so He can bring purpose out of the pain I caused.
God offers this same chance to you. I hope you’ll accept it.
If you’re like I was, you’re wondering what God could possibly want with your life. And why would He bother? Let me tell you: God doesn’t look at what you’ve done. He looks at who He knows you can become.
He is calling you by name, inviting you to come, right now, just as you are. God loves you no matter what you’ve done. The blood He shed for you on the cross of Calvary can wash away the blood on your hands.
Brothers and sisters, the forgiveness of sin is a gift of true freedom that no one can ever take away from you, no matter where you find yourself (John 8:36).
ANDRE LIGHTSEY-COPELAND, having experienced God’s faithfulness and grace for himself, seeks to share that message of hope and victory to everyone he encounters. He enjoys the fellowship of his Alongside Ministries community and uses his testimony to encourage his family and students at St. Mary’s Skill Center in Phoenix.