Although I’ve only met Fern once, a Bible that belongs to him lays continuously on my desk, a gift he received from his sister right after his conversion in the Miami-Dade Stockade Pre-Trial Detention Center. The Bible is a small and brown King James Version so worn that the golden letters on the cover that used to spell “Holy Bible” have mostly rubbed off. A white sticker on the first page bears the name Fernando A. Fernandez followed by a prison number. The inscription dates the gift as having been given January, 1996.
a page from Fern’s Bible
My friend Karsten, a middle school teacher and basketball coach, introduced me to Fern. Karsten and his wife Kim were very good to me in those years in my late-twenties when I was on my way to divorce. I spent many afternoons and evenings talking with them about my life. It was back then that Karsten started an informal Bible study that met once a week. I call it informal because one member might put in a dip of chewing tobacco; another might have a beer. It wasn’t the sort of Bible study I knew about growing up or attending Olivet Nazarene University as an undergraduate student. The camaraderie of the men in the Bible study helped me through a difficult time.
Karsten and I had not spoken for several years when he surprised me with a phone call to tell me about Fern. Karsten had just heard Fern give his testimony at a church. Karsten knew about Fern because he’d gone on a mission trip with Karsten’s wife Kim. She’d enjoyed her time with Fern and his wife and had come home telling Karsten that he had to meet the couple. Karsten invited Fern to the Bible study I’d attended a decade earlier, and one night Karsten asked Fern about the number stamped on the side of his Bible. Fern told him it was his prison number. I feel like I can see Karsten’s eyes go wide in Indiana all the way from here in Connecticut where I write.
As Karsten reflected on hearing Fern’s testimony at church, he reported to me that God had put it on his heart to call and tell me about Fern, to see if maybe I wouldn’t want to write about him. Some of you have no doubt that God does things like this all the time. Others of you, if you’re like me, tend to dismiss someone once they talk as if they’ve had a coffee with God and are merely reporting back to us on what they’ve been told.
Fern’s story challenges what I believe about how God works. It’s part of the reason I’ve been trying to tell it. Myself, Fern, Karsten, and Kim have recorded five conversations. You can listen to one of them below.
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If you asked me point blank whether or not if in the history of creation God had ever answered a prayer and changed a life, I’d say yes. Pin me down for some evidence or an example, what then? Do I go with Jonah’s cry of distress from inside the belly of the whale (how can that be?!!!) or the time when I was a kid when the family was on a 300 mile round-trip drive to watch the Hoosiers play basketball in Bloomington, and dad pulled off the road because our car had overheated? I prayed that the car might start working. Dad waited for a few minutes and started it back up. We didn’t have a problem the rest of the way. As a child in the backseat, that’s how I thought prayer worked with God: send up the request and expect immediate results.
Since then, I’ve seen that most times a mechanic has to fix the car. I’ve got to change the flat. In my twenties, I was married and divorced. When my first wife and I were separated, I prayed and even fasted for the marriage to be saved. I’ve watched those who I perceive to be believers and good people pray for addictions or cancer to be overcome. My first marriage ultimately failed. In other cases not mine, addictions seemed to win out, and young children’s earthly lives were not saved. I came to believe that God and prayer worked in some other kind of way that I couldn’t understand. As I entered my thirties and life post-divorce, I chose to focus on the physical and intellectual gifts I perceived God had given me, and I tried to use them in this world the best I could. For about a decade, I lived as if God never intervened in any life. I lived as if prayers were never answered and lives were never changed. Admittedly, I continued to pray some prayers in spite of myself. A series of events have unfolded the past few years that have opened my mind to new possibilities. That’s what I hope to share here in the coming weeks and months. I’ve met someone who claims God can change lives, and he offers up quite the story as evidence. I know this man as Fern, and part of what I’ll share with you is his testimony. Below you can listen to our first conversation.
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As a part of hearing my friend Fern’s testimony, in this podcast episode he remembers the night he stole a U.S. Marshal airplane. This is a point in Fern’s story that he has come to think of as a sort of flight to redemption, a night which eventually took Fern to prison where he began a process to start a new life. Fern and I start off by discussing an article I found published on January 18, 1990 in several newspapers around the country including the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel. The headline reads, “Marshals Plane Stolen.” I appreciate Fern’s honesty as he shares this difficult story as a way to illustrate how he believes God has helped him change his life.
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