The ringing of the telephone startled me awake. It was 12:35 a.m. Who would be calling at this hour? I squinted as my husband turned on the light and reached for the phone on the nightstand. The pained look on Gene’s face made it clear that he was receiving alarming news.
He pulled the phone from his ear and choked out, “Jason has been arrested for the murder of his wife’s first husband. He’s in the jail in Orlando.”
I tried to get out of bed, but my legs buckled. Nausea swept over me. Everything felt as though it was moving in slow motion. I had never been in shock before.
No strength. Dizziness. I had to remind myself to breathe. Jumbled thoughts swirled through my head.
This has to be a mistake. A case of mistaken identity. Maybe I’m dreaming. That’s it. This is just a horrific dream. Jason isn’t capable of taking someone’s life, certainly not in a premeditated act of violence. My son is a dynamic Christian. He’s a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He defends American citizens; he doesn’t destroy them. I’m going back to sleep. When I wake up, everything will be fine.
Still on the phone, Gene tried to calm our daughter-in-law, even while dealing with his own raw emotions. So many questions raced through our heads. How? Why? What happened? Was it an accident? Was it self-defense?
I stumbled to my office and called the local jail to see if he had been brought to that facility. The woman who answered the phone was rude: “Lady, we ain’t got nobody by that name, Jason Kent, in here. Your son ain’t here.”
For a few moments, hope returned. But within the hour, another call confirmed our worst fears. Jason Paul Kent, our only child, was locked up at the jail in Orlando. He was being held without bond on the worst felony charge possible—first-degree murder.
The next few hours were a blur of tears, panic, fear, and erratic, meaningless activity. Gene and I held each other and wept. We were parents caught in our worst nightmare.
Jason had been a joy to raise, and we loved him deeply. He was a focused, disciplined, compassionate, dynamic, and encouraging young man who wanted to live for things that mattered. He had dedicated himself to serving his God and country through military service in the US Navy.
When the unthinkable roared into our lives, our dreams for our only child came crashing down in a thousand broken pieces.
As the facts of the case unfolded, we learned that Jason and his wife had been pursuing multiple allegations of abuse against her first husband in regard to their children. Jason’s stepdaughters currently had supervised visits with their biological father, but he was seeking unsupervised visits.
Jason and his wife had prepared extensive paperwork on the abuse issues and taken it to an attorney, but they were told that, on a scale of one to ten, they had only an eight in provable abuse. Most likely, that would not be enough to keep supervision intact. Our son unraveled at the news until he did the unthinkable—he murdered the man in question.
We grieved over what Jason had done and the impact it would have on the deceased’s family. While we were planning for a trial of first-degree murder, they were planning a funeral. We were all experiencing deep sadness—crime impacts many and has lifelong repercussions.
Over the next several years, Gene and I found ourselves emotionally, financially, and spiritually devastated. We wanted to hide, but our friends stayed close. They launched a monthly email update, listing our tangible needs and prayer concerns. We became the recipients of lavish love as this growing list of people acted as the hands and feet of Jesus in our time of need. We had never been so needy, yet we had never felt so loved.
Our friends helped us endure two-and-a-half years and seven postponements of our son’s trial. When the trial finally came, Jason was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. As of this writing, all attempts for appeals at both the state and federal levels have been exhausted.
My son would tell you that he had made an idol out of his ability to rescue his stepdaughters instead of teaching them to dial 911, yell for help, and run away from danger. As a result, Jason made the most devastating choice he could have made, not only for his victim and his family but for his own family as well.
But, no matter the wrong choice, God can redeem it.
In His great salvage operation of redemption, He extracts value from even the most putrid rubbish. That is the promise of Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). As ministry leaders, Gene and I knew this verse well. Now we had to take God at His word.
We quickly discovered that God’s process of “working things out for our good” hurts. There were moments when we, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8, were under pressure “far beyond our ability to endure” (NIV). It felt like we were being crushed and wouldn’t live through it.
The enormity of our situation, however, like it did with Paul, taught us to stop relying on ourselves and to rely only on God. Every day, we had to fight the urge to control the situation. Putting Jason at the Lord’s feet was easy. Leaving him there was not.
Still, we knew only God could work out this mess. We poured out our hearts to Him daily. I took comfort in Psalm 38:9, which says, “All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you” (NIV).
So many questions tumbled around in my spirit. Lord, why didn’t You give Jason a flat tire before he got to that parking lot and pulled that trigger? You know his heart was centered on the protection of his stepdaughters.
Grief hung over us like a heavy cloud. Only our faith in God, His grace, and the love of others kept us standing.
Many people who heard about Jason’s arrest sent us cards. Most sent sympathy cards—the kind you get when someone dies. They were looking for appropriate words, but greeting card companies don’t sell cards for parents whose children have been arrested for murder.
One of my friends surprised us with a humorous card. It read, “Brain cells come, and brain cells go, but fat cells live forever.” I was stunned when I heard myself laughing out loud. I had thought I’d never laugh again. But in that moment, I felt alive.
I realized if Gene and I didn’t look for occasional splashes of joy in this journey, we’d be crushed beneath the weight of it.
It felt odd at first to laugh, wrong even. But eventually, we learned not to feel guilty about those lighter moments. We remembered John 10:10 (NIV), where Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
We memorized this verse and reminded ourselves daily that Jesus wanted us to choose life. God did not intend for our son’s action to be the end of anyone’s story. He still had a purpose for us all if we trusted Him. Trusting Him, though, would require steps of faith that made us vulnerable to the judgments of others.
At first, most of the people who knew our story lived in Florida, where the crime had occurred. Gene and I lived a thousand miles away in Michigan, and that provided a temporary reprieve…but the news soon made its way north.
Once the local paper made the connection, a shocking headline informed the entire community of our painful situation: “Jason Kent, son of Gene and Carol Kent, arrested for murder.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. I had a hair appointment the next day. Every part of me wanted to cancel and avoid the judgments of all those women in the salon. But I knew if I was ever going to hold my head up again, it had to be right then. Otherwise, I’d never find the courage to face the world.
Conversation ceased the moment I walked through those salon doors. I could almost hear the thoughts swirling under those dryers: “Oh, no! There’s the mother of the murderer.” “I can’t believe she’s in public. She must be embarrassed!” “Should I make eye contact?” It was an awkward moment for all.
I wanted to turn and run, but Azam, my Iranian friend who worked there, came to my aid. Feeling my pain, she took me by the hands and led me to a private room in the back.
There, she put her arms around me and said, “I’m so sorry about what’s happened. I am praying for you, your husband, and your son.” Then she pointed at the wall that separated us from the other women. “Don’t worry about them,” she said. “They’ll find someone else to talk about next week.” And they did.
Holding my head up after a devastating experience wasn’t easy. I had to be strong and courageous and trust that God was with me. (See Joshua 1:9; Proverbs 3:5–6.) I couldn’t allow feelings of embarrassment and false shame over my son’s wrong choices keep me from living.
Gene and I agreed we needed to be open and honest about our family’s journey, even though that level of authenticity would be difficult. Some people criticized us for speaking out about our journey, but for every critical person, there have been nine others who have said, “Thank you for being the real deal and sharing what’s happened.” Many then ask if they can share their stories with us.
One woman told me her husband had been incarcerated for 18 years and was being released in a month. I asked her if he was coming home to live with her. She said, “We’re going to try to make a go of it.”
Then she stood up straight and said confidently, “Today, you’ve given me the courage to tell my story. I’m going to quit hiding in false shame, and I’m going to tell people what’s happened to us and how God has brought us through it. I want to give people hope like you’ve given me.” (See 2 Corinthians 1:3-7.)
As I wrote in my book, When I Lay My Isaac Down, “I used to wonder how any good could come out of reviewing the details and reliving the pain of an unwanted experience. But I’ve discovered tremendous power is released when we dare to speak up and communicate our personal stories.
“What’s in a story? The opportunity to give hope to somebody else. By doing so, we remind others that life is an unpredictable journey for all of us.”
Through our experience, Gene and I have learned about the needs of inmates and their families—a population we’d never considered before Jason’s arrest. Now we are part of that world, and we’ve been able to use our journey for God’s glory.
Since there are over 2.2 million incarcerated individuals in America, Gene and I prayerfully brainstormed practical ways to minister to people whose lives, like ours, hadn’t turned out as expected. A year after Jason’s trial, we launched Speak Up for Hope, a national nonprofit organization that provides hope to inmates and their families through encouragement and resources. This outreach has given Gene and me a meaningful life during our challenge.
Choosing purposeful action in the middle of hopeless circumstances was perhaps our most important step on this journey. When we concentrate on the needs of others, our problems seem far less intense and depression does not squeeze the hope out of us. The more involved we get in helping others, the greater joy we experience.
It’s been 23 years since Jason received his life sentence. As the mom of a “lifer,” despite my deep sorrow over my son’s crime and the resulting consequences, I’m thankful that my son is living for the Lord in an unlikely place.
Early on, Jason became aware of the unspeakably harsh pain his actions had inflicted on his victim’s family and that the life he took could never be restored. He asked God to forgive him for his sin of murder.
He also asked the father of his victim for forgiveness. He’s never received a response—which has been difficult but understandable. Thankfully, God’s grace forgives even the most devastating choice (1 John 1:9).
It took time for Jason to fully embrace God’s forgiveness. Only then could he experience the redemption that is born out of deep sorrow for wrongdoing, total brokenness, and a recognition of his inability to fix anything apart from divine intervention. Jason knows he can never make this right, but he has committed to living the remainder of his life for the Lord.
God has used Jason mightily in the past two decades. He’s led hundreds of inmates through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course. He has mentored others, taught reentry programs, and used his Christianity and leadership skills to dispel tensions and bring peace to situations that only the Holy Spirit can provide.
I asked Jason how he keeps depression from enveloping him. He said, “Mom, I have a gratitude list. When I feel like I can’t go on, I list everything I’m thankful for, like having parents who are my advocates and family members and friends who put enough funds in my inmate account that I can share with those who have nothing.” Then he paused and said, “And I’m grateful that I have ministry opportunities every day on a compound that houses up to sixteen hundred inmates.”
Being grateful, laughing, living, serving, and being willing to be vulnerable and authentic has kept our family from being defeated by our circumstances. And it’s given our pain purpose.
There can be purpose in your pain too. Choose to have unshakable faith in your unthinkable circumstance. Life isn’t over. There’s hope for you and your family. Christ is your hope. And as Romans 5:5 promises, that hope will never put you to shame.
CAROL KENT is the founder and executive director of Speak Up Ministries, a multifaceted organization that teaches Christian speakers, writers, and leaders to communicate well. Carol and her husband, Gene, founded the nonprofit Speak Up for Hope to provide resources to inmates and their families. For more information, visit speakupministries.com and speakupforhope.org.