“Friendships That Might Have Never Formed but For His Grace”: A Reflection from Larry Fitterer, OCPM Board Member

On my first Sunday of the Last Judgment after I became an Orthodox Christian, I heard our deacon read the Gospel from Matthew 25. For reasons I did not understand at the time, Christ’s words deeply struck me that day: “I was in prison, and you came to Me.” It wasn’t long after that my close friend, Lazarus, was shockingly arrested, convicted of very serious crimes, and sent to prison for decades.

I felt compelled to “visit” my friend, even while he was in prison. I started writing to Lazarus, and when I visited him in prison he introduced me to Mikhail, an inmate friend of his serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murdering a man of a different race. I began corresponding with Mikhail, too, and I visited him numerous times.

I wrote to Mikhail that my parish was praying The Canon for Racial Reconciliation and Healing after the death of George Floyd. Mikhail asked for a copy of The Canon and later told me he was praying through it in the prison yard with other inmates of different racial backgrounds. This was so incredible to me that I had to look up the author of The Canon, Dr. Carla Thomas, just to tell her this amazing story. Soon Dr. Carla and I were sharing our passion for prison ministry, and she introduced me to OCPM

Mikhail has since introduced me to a number of other people in prison over the past few years, like my friend, Moses. Moses was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. About five years before his release, he dropped out of a prison gang and embraced the Orthodox Faith. He completed his parole in one year with no violations and now manages a grocery store in northern California. He spent this past Christmas with us, and we truly love him as part of our family.

I met Aaron 29 years into his life sentence, mandated by California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. He was given his third strike for stealing $150 from a restaurant to feed his drug addiction. When Aaron was first incarcerated, he was tested at a third-grade reading level. Now, he has graduated from the Offender Mentor Certification Program as a drug and alcohol counselor and is pursuing his Master’s Degree. I watched him graduate, a truly joyful occasion for staff, inmates, and their families. Aaron recited a poem he had written for the occasion that perfectly captured the graduates’ sense of pride and accomplishment.

After getting involved with OCPM, I very quickly realized that there are literally hundreds of stories of men and women in prison who have turned their lives around. Friendship, relationship building, and faith are at the core of those stories.

I treasure my friendships with Lazarus, Mikhail, Moses, Aaron, and so many other inmates I have met through my prison ministry. As a volunteer and now as a member of OCPM’s Board of Trustees, I hope I am able to share Christ with those in prison, but I know beyond any doubt that these men bring Christ to me. It is just as Our Lord said in Matthew 25: we encounter Christ when we reach out to the captives. I am so grateful to God for opening doors to friendships that might never have formed but for His grace.

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