God Didn’t Pass Me By
Divine ways of connecting with a human being's deepest need.
by Anna Marie Whiting as told to Jewell Johnson
Glancing toward the door of my prison cell, I noticed a book wedged between the bars.
How did it get there? I wondered. It was Living on the Ragged Edge, by Charles R. Swindoll.
I opened to the first chapter — the story of King Solomon, taken from the Bible, a book I’d never read. Like me, Solomon had tasted everything life offered. He concluded that all was emptiness; nothing mattered but to love and serve God. As I continued to read, I came to the same conclusion.
I was raised in the ghettos of Brooklyn, New York. My parents didn’t attend church. But when I was twelve, they sent me to religion classes, where I felt drawn to the large building and the stained glass windows. Later when I confessed my sins, I was disappointed when the minister told me to recite a prayer.
Is that all? I thought. I felt as though God had passed me by.
In my high school I, like most of the students, smoked pot and often stayed out all night — most, that is, except Phil, a junior whom my friends and I labeled “Mr. Straight Guy.” Though we thought he was weird, we liked him because he had a car.
One day Phil invited me to his house. When I walked in, I knew I’d made a mistake. A group of people sat in a circle with Bibles in their laps. This is what I get for going somewhere with Phil, I thought. But the presence of God touched me in that meeting. At home I told my family, “God is real! I felt Him at Phil’s!”
My father rose to his full height. “You’re not going to be one of those holy-rollers, are you?” he asked scornfully.
I didn’t know what he meant, but I wouldn’t do anything to displease my dad, so I never went back to Phil’s. Again, God seemed to pass me by.
After high school, I became more involved with drugs, eventually selling them. One day a businessman, who also dealt in illegal substances, asked me to work for him. I was to travel overseas and smuggle in drugs. In my heart I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I agreed to the deal. Immediately, I felt my heart grow hard.
I had servants, lovely clothes, big cars — anything money could buy. I was living the life of the wealthy, traveling to exotic countries and staying in luxurious hotels. But it would soon end.
On a trip overseas, the authorities came on the plane and escorted me off. They placed me in a dark, filthy cell where I was fed only white rice. But I didn’t cry or pray. My heart became harder.
After one month, I bribed my way out of prison with money I’d put aside for such occasions. I returned home to New York City where I continued to deal in drugs. Only now I, with others, began making controlled substances in a lab in my house.
Two years later I was again arrested, this time for cocaine possession. My boyfriend had said he wanted me to have the whole world. To prove it, he had given me a huge globe. But when I stood trial, he testified against me in exchange for leniency. I discovered that such was the love of the world.
The first night in prison I lay on my bunk, afraid. Fifteen years! Can I do this? I asked myself. I began to weep. I must stop. I don’t want the guard to hear me. I tried to control the crying, but the weeping turned into convulsive gaspings. Desperate, I screamed into the darkness, “God, if You’re real, help me!” It was my first real prayer.
Instantly, the loud weeping stopped. Peace covered me like a soft blanket.
Peace and prayer
When I awoke the next day, cockroaches were crawling on me, the cell smelled dank; but peace was still there. Later as I read the book that had mysteriously appeared in the bars of my cell, I learned about the One who had given me the peace. This time God did not pass me by as I knelt and asked His Son Jesus into my heart.
My first job in prison was cleaning bathrooms. I liked it because I often found religious books in the trash that prisoners had received from relatives and then discarded. One day I found a book about God’s power to heal sicknesses. I was so taken by it, I, too, wanted God to use me to pray for people’s needs.
Discovering the Bible
As yet I didn’t own a Bible, nor did I think I needed one. I thought Bibles were only for the clergy. But when a fellow inmate gave me one, I began to read it. For the first time, I realized that God had forgiven all my sins. Now I didn’t care about being released from prison; my joy was in knowing I would live forever in eternity.
After I had been in prison about two years, a voice seemed to say to me one night, “Feed My sheep.”
“I can’t do it,” I told Him.
The next night a Christian inmate said, “Anna Marie, I think God wants you to start a Bible study.” Then I realized God was serious about having His sheep fed.
Five of us began meeting in a small room to study the Bible and pray. Soon we needed a larger place. As we learned more about God, we became concerned about inner purity, our motives behind our actions and words, and our accountability to each other. I also learned about prayer and fasting and saw wonderful results when I followed these disciplines.
A ‘brother’s’ transformation
I was then moved to a prison where the women reportedly were 80 percent homosexuals. They called each other “brother.” They were hard women, also cruel, sometimes slashing other inmates in the face with razor blades they had hidden in their hands. It would have been easy to be afraid, but God’s peace prevailed in my heart.
One evening before lockdown, one of the “brothers” came to my cell. “I’m afraid, Anna Marie,” she said. “I’m passing green stool. Could this be God’s judgment on me?”
As we prayed together, this woman began to change. She became soft and feminine-looking. Immediately, she stopped attempting to look and act like a male. Other changes happened gradually. As the woman read the Bible and understood its teaching on homosexuality, God renewed her mind to be who He intended her to be. She spent long periods of time reading the Bible, and she attended chapel services and our Bible study.
In another prison I was placed in an open room with 36 other women. At night I’d tell each one, “I love you.” They were skeptical at first; but little by little, they came to the Bible studies and chapel services. Eventually all 36 accepted Jesus.
Trying for parole
As I studied the Bible and realized more about God’s great care for me, I thought God might have better things for me outside the prison walls. I thought about asking for an early release, but my caseworker discouraged it. “Anna Marie,” she said, “there’s no chance the board will give you one.” Yet she filled out the application.
One year later I stood before the parole board. “Why should we release you early?” they asked. “Have you earned a college degree?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m a born-again Christian.” No doubt they had heard that before.
After the meeting, my caseworker put her arm around me. “I’m sorry,” she said, positive that I wouldn’t be released. Yet in a year when I was assigned to a halfway house, the caseworker cried when she head the news.
I ended up serving six years of a fifteen-year prison sentence, then began the difficult job of adjusting to life outside the gray walls. My family did not understand the radical change that Christ had made in my life. My zeal — extreme to them — made them push me away. Yet one year after my release, my brother and sister also accepted Jesus.
As an ex-prisoner, I had only two weeks to find a job, or my parole would be revoked and I’d be returned to prison. I scrambled to apply for jobs as a cleaning lady or dishwasher — any job. Each time I told prospective employers that I had been in prison, as the law requires ex-prisoners to do. I was turned down every time. Then two days before my parole was up a kind-hearted man in a small print shop hired me.
Continuing the call
God didn’t pass me by when I needed a Savior; He had the book placed in my cell bars. Later He called me to feed His sheep. After my release He was there, too, helping me slowly, piece by piece, put my life back together.
I continue to say yes to the call, serving Him as a girls’ Bible club leader, visitation team member, and church greeter — wherever that call takes me.