Jesus Grins - Richard Callahan

In a world replete with art, we find that beauty is indeed often in the eye of the
beholder. The same painting that can convey grandeur and inspiration to one individual
can appear nonsensical and dull to another. Amongst God’s paintings, you won’t find a
more captivating work of art than that of Richard Callahan. Richard himself would call
you a fool to think such a thing, but without a doubt, God has gifted the world with such a
Richard comes from a long line of drug users. Both his grandparents (who modeled a
physically abusive relationship) used and sold drugs, and passed their drug usage down
to his mother, along with her six siblings. Richard’s mother and father met through their
mutual drug contacts. The relationship between them was always rocky, which led to
frequent moving between Ohio and East Texas for Richard during his growing up years.
Stories of drug raids, train robbing, and other various criminal activity by family members
were common for him to hear from his grandmother.
This was considered to be a normal life until, as a young teen, Richard finally noticed
his family was “different”. When his friends would come over, it wouldn’t be long before
his parents would openly smoke weed in front of them. His aunts would go on drug-
related binges for days, leaving his young cousins alone and resourceless. At one point,
Richard even ran away from home due to the constant drugs and fighting. He wanted to
confide in an adult at school, but sadly decided that he couldn’t for fear of being
considered the family snitch. Moreover, he wouldn’t be any safer with his aunts, uncles
or grandparents, so the situation seemed hopeless. Still a young boy, and unaware of
any options for escape or refuge, he quietly began to slip into feelings of depression.
Around the age of fourteen, smoking weed and drinking with older relatives became a
sort of rite of passage within the family. This temporarily seemed to help Richard with his 
depression, and led him to begrudge “society” for trying to control or condemn what his
family was doing. Law enforcement, in his thinking, became an enemy as well. This
shift in attitude was the start of a slippery descent. Angry and anti-social, Richard now
felt like he could do anything he wanted, as long as he could justify it in his own mind.
Alcohol and recreational drugs became commonplace. Additionally, being influenced by
the popularity of the Wiccan religion at the time, he decided he wanted to worship Satan.
The culmination of these life elements led to enough bad decisions that Richard found
himself in county jail for the first time at age nineteen.
It is frequently when we feel the most distant from God that He is as close as ever,
just beyond the curtain of our awareness, doing behind-the-scenes work that will
permanently pivot our relationship with Him as we know it. This was certainly the case
for Richard as he was preparing to go to prison. An older gentleman in jail who helped
look out for him during his stay gave him a challenge. “Callahan, I want you to read the
Bible. Stop arguing about who God is until you read the whole Bible for yourself.”
Richard accepted the challenge, believing that the Bible was a book of lies, written by
men. He wanted to know the “book of his enemy”, as he called it.
As he read through the Old Testament, he was unexpectedly influenced by the story
of the Hebrews being given only manna in the desert. In prison, he was at least given
one tray of food and a cup of juice. Even though he didn’t believe who the Bible claimed
God to be, something in that story changed his attitude about his own current situation.
“I couldn’t compete with that,” he remembers. A seed of gratitude was sown.
As he approached the New Testament, he argued that Jesus was less of a man than
other men. By his logic, if Jesus was who He claimed to be, and knew He was the Son
of God, then He didn’t have to live with constant doubt and wondering like the rest of
humanity. In his words, “Jesus was a wimp.” By the time he finished reading the
Gospels however, his thoughts had changed. He realized, “Jesus did something I could
not do. He died for his enemies. In my beliefs, I would let my enemies die. I would die
for somebody I loved. The Bible talks about that. What is it to love people who love you
back? It is true love to love those who persecute you and do you wrong. Jesus did that.
I realized that He was more of a man than I could ever be.” It was during this two-and-a-
half-year stint in prison that Richard committed himself to God. About halfway through
his sentence, he began going to the church services that the prison offered. Worship
was led by a woman singing songs and playing guitar. She and her husband ran a non-
denominational biker ministry out of San Antonio. “The peace and love that she had on
her, and the sincerity... When I saw her I thought, ‘God, I want that. I want the peace
that she has.’ “
At age 22, Richard was released from prison. Although he acquired a job and a
roommate, he still wrestled with the desire to use. He attended church for a while, but
was uncomfortable outside of the familiar prison church that he was used to. Drinking
and smoking weed quickly returned to his life. At age 25, as a result of addiction and
anger-fueled decisions, Richard returned to prison for another two year sentence. This
time around, he felt no desire to change his thinking or behavior. He simply “did his
time” and waited for it to be over. Upon release, and without any parole, he went right
back to drinking and using. His behavior then escalated to burglarizing homes. Within
four months, he was trying to escape on fishing boats in Florida to stay on the run. “I
was really running from myself,” he says. Due to his previous convictions, he was now
punished with a 25-year sentence.
This time around, getting locked up sparked a desire for reform. “When I got the
handcuffs put back on me the third time, that’s when I decided to change,” Richard says.
He was sent to Central Unit in Sugarland, Texas. It was a completely different
environment from his former incarcerations. Previously, he had been relatively in the
middle of nowhere, in facilities that had extremely limited programs for the inmates.
Here, he was offered college classes, in which he partook. He was able to spend time
with the volunteers who came to the prison, and eventually joined the mentor program.
He also participated in a victims-awareness program.
One of the predominant activities during his time in Central Unit was writing to
Houston churches, asking them to send mentors to the prison. At that time, the waiting
list for inmates to receive a mentor could be as long as two years. With his newfound
biblical knowledge, Richard respectfully reminded the churches of the examples of Paul
and Timothy, Moses and Joshua, and Jesus with his disciples. He told them, “Mentors
are biblical! Iron sharpens iron.” Other prisoners began to bring him stamps, asking him
to request bilingual mentors as well. One of the churches he reached out to was
Chapelwood. He received a letter back from Mercy Street, offering to send him
transcripts of the sermons every couple of months. The messages had a great impact
on him, and he anticipated coming to Mercy Street once he was able to.
After serving ten years of his twenty-five-year sentence, Richard was paroled in 2015.
While it would be understandable for him to feel bitter or perhaps robbed of so much of
his life, he instead speaks about the ordeal with humility and deep wisdom.
“It’s ok,” he says. “I deserved it. I don’t feel like I’m a victim of the system or anything like that. I used to feel that way, but this time I really changed my perspective and beliefs. I had to take a look at my family and the way I was raised, and realize that most of the way I was raised was wrong. Now I’m trying to break the cycle that my grandfather started. I’ve got cousins who are trying to do the same thing as me, but then I’ve also got cousins who are the fourth generation of drug users, and who are not doing much with their lives.”
When Richard earns his degree, he will be the first one on his mother’s side of the
family to finish college. He has also begun his own business. When he is not working,
taking classes, or facilitating Toastmasters twice a week, he can be found in the last
place you’d look— back behind bars. In fact, the desire to return to the scene of his
lowest point in life was stirring in his heart before he had even left. Having seen and felt
the need for mentors firsthand, he has become the change he longs to see within the
prison system. He is involved in Mercy Street’s Kairos prison ministry, and mentors at
the Carol S. Vance Unit.
“You build up a rapport with people. You build up a dialogue, a
conversation. You really get to know somebody, and can really help people. As they get
to know you, they trust you and start sharing more. So to me, mentoring is pretty
important in there. The mentoring I received showed me a different example of what a
man could be, and what a man could do in Christ. My mentor has grown into a father-
figure to me.”
Richard has deep admiration for programs like Revision, which attempt to “break the
cycle” before the kids become adults. “Me, I’m trying to break the cycle when they hit
the handcuffs,” he says. He understands the frustration and feelings of hopelessness for
prisoners with lengthy sentences ahead of them. The potential for spending most of
their time gambling and fighting behind bars is a very real threat. Easily sucked into this
mentality, the years go by before inmates realize that they can and need to make
changes for themselves. This is where Richard’s true calling is— trying to connect to the
men in county jail, and to show them that there are programs available, people to talk to,
and ways to break the cycle! Of equal importance, he wants them to take on the
responsibility of helping to better not only themselves, but the other men around them.
He challenges them to start thinking and dreaming about how they can do good, right
where they are, and right now.
“My calling ain’t to go way out somewhere and try to
serve people,” he says. “My calling is to serve them right here, where I’m at.”
What higher calling is there than to love on people who are in a place of brokenness?
What greater act of charity than to pursue individuals whose reality exists within a
system that hardly offers anything life-giving, and rarely encourages acts of kindness? 2
Corinthians 1:3-4, which Richard committed to memory over ten years ago, has become
the theme of his service to God. The New International Version says, “Praise be to the
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all
comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble
with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
A significant self-discovery during Richard’s time in prison was that of his great artistic
ability. Starting simply, he purchased carbon paper and other supplies through the
prison commissary, and traced cars out of hot rod magazines. He had no way of
knowing that this God-given passion, discovered within the confines of a cell, would lead
to significant sales and commissioned pieces down the road. When complimented on
his talent and success, he responds with authentic and deep humility.
“I think of God saying, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant.’ When I’ve read that in the Bible, that just makes my heart, like, joyful. I yearn for God to say that to me. And I sure don’t live my life for Him to say that to me, but to me, that would be success. I don’t care if I stay broke the rest of my life. When I go to heaven, if God will say that, or if Jesus will just look and give me a grin, then I’ll be happy. To me, that’s success.”
Years of substance abuse, depression and anger do not define Richard’s life. And by God’s kindness, a prisoner’s time of punishment and isolation would be the genesis of truly stunning works of art. As singer-songwriter Roland Orzabal once wrote,
Some cry shame
Some cry shame
We tore them apart
We failed to imagine
God might claim
God might claim
The works of art
We failed to imagine
Great wide stretches of canvas
Signed by a godless name
Strange bright colors of madness
Only a fool would frame
Sketches of pain.¹
Leave it to God to see beauty where the world sees brokenness. Where we fail to
make sense of the strange colors that seem to be thrown against the canvas without skill
or prudence, He is claiming and reclaiming works of art. And every time Richard
Callahan sits across from a scared, angry, or forgotten man on the brink of
hopelessness, there is no doubt that Jesus grins.
- "Guardians" by Richard Callahan

¹Tears For Fears. Raoul and the Kings of Spain. Sony, 1995. CD.