My name is Carleous Clay, and I am an inmate at the Danville, Illinois, Correctional Center. I am also a student at Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary, which is located within the walls of the prison. This is my life story of resisting God’s call and living a life of crime, until He would not let me resist Him any longer.
I was born in Muskegon, Michigan, and was raised by my mother. My father was absent from my life until four years ago. I have five brothers and one sister. My mother is a Christian. She is Baptist but worships with a Reformed Church of America congregation in Michigan. She was raised by my grandmother, who was raised in the church. My grandmother is a God-fearing woman who instilled Christianity into my mother, who then introduced it to me. My mother was not as committed to the church as her mother. My grandmother has always been a faithful, active, church-going Christian while my mother went to church when she wanted to.
When I was six months old, my mother left Michigan and took my brothers and me to live in Los Angeles, California. We went from living in a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment, where I had to share a bedroom with four brothers. The apartment building where we lived was infested with rats and roaches. When I was about six, I was attacked and bitten by an army of roaches while I was asleep. Being raised in California was a big challenge for me. We spent the first five years in the projects. Life was not great for us, but we made the best of it. We did not go to church regularly. My older brothers were living like the people in the times of the judges: they did what was right in their own eyes.
From the projects we moved to south central L.A., which was a dangerous part of the city. My mother struggled to make ends meet, making a living from welfare and selling drugs. There was no father figure in the house other than my oldest brother. There was no fear of God and no proper upbringing as far as the preaching of God’s Word. As a child I heard of Jesus, but I did not understand who Jesus was. I grew up listening to the famous song “Jesus Loves Me,” which had no real significance for me. I had no understanding of the real significance of Jesus Christ. There was no reading Bible stories together. Sometimes we prayed before eating meals, but even our prayers were prayed without any real knowledge or understanding of God.
I attended one of the worst schools in Los Angeles. When I was in the third grade, I joined a gang. I had watched my brothers get recruited into one of the most well-known gangs in Los Angeles. I was encouraged by their folly, and I wanted in. Like a snare, I was enticed and led astray into fornicating with the world. A couple of guys jumped on me, and I had to defend myself. This was their way of initiating me into the gang.
From this point on, I went through a rough time. Emotionally I was a wreck. Because I did not have the fear of God in my heart, I did not see that fornicating with the world put enmity between me and God. I was excited with the foolishness that came with gang-banging. My love for the hood increased day by day. The book of Malachi describes my life perfectly. I played the whoremonger with crime and drugs, committing spiritual adultery against my Creator. “I abandoned Him for the lowest things of His creation,” as Augustine says of himself.
Gang membership meant rules and regulations. I was signed up to die. Most people would not risk their lives for the one true God. I was willing to die for my gang. I agreed to the rules of the gang, that I would do anything necessary that would benefit the gang. Like the church is one body that makes up the kingdom of God, gang members are one body that makes up the gang.
I got involved in basketball and football to escape the street life. I was good enough to make the football team and won several trophies for my participation. Then things changed: “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” (Eccles. 2:15). Unfortunately, I could not escape the street life. I was like the Israelites who were in bondage to Egypt. Although they were delivered from out of Egypt, Egypt was still in them. The gang was with me wherever I went. I could not escape representing an idol and a false god. Thinking that I was wise, I became a fool through worshiping the creation over the Creator. I exchanged the glory of God for gang-banging.
God gave me up to the lusts of my mind and to impurity. I started gang-banging full time. I dropped out of school in the eighth grade and traded in my school books for gangs and crooks. I gave up my desire to be a firefighter to starting a fire. My mother dreamed of me with a college degree, but I chose a career in drugs. Instead of earning A’s and B’s, I was getting shot at and shooting at people. I was assaulting the crown rights of God. At times I hungered for things that were right because my desire was to make my mother proud.
I started carrying guns, selling drugs, and doing violent things. Augustine was right when he talked about how friends can have a negative influence. Many of Augustine’s sins resulted from building bad friendships. Instead of friends, it was my own brothers who had a bad influence on me. We would leave the house in the morning, pretending that we were going off to school. We would get our guns and team up with others, and together we would commit crimes. We split into two groups of five to ten members and would catch the bus to cities outside of our neighborhood. From 8:00 AM to around 3:30 PM we would break into people’s houses. This became a normal school day for us. We were like the living dead. On many occasions we entered houses where people were waiting for us with their guns pulled. I’ve been in altercations and shoot-outs as a result of this.
Never once did I stop to think about the people I was robbing. Some of them were God’s elect. I was robbing the kingdom. I was using the gifts that God gave to me to build up the kingdom of darkness. I was like Jephthah’s brothers in the book of Judges, who tried to rob their brother of his inheritance.
I was first arrested at fifteen and charged with attempted murder. I had nothing to do with that murder except that I was guilty by association. Because I was a known gang member and befriended the shooter, I was accused of being with him at the time of the shooting. The truth was discovered a few weeks later, and I was released from juvenile home.
After this experience, jail became part of my life. I was one of the well-known, respected members of the gang. I was considered to be down for the hood. I was involved in the Rodney King riots. I helped sinners sin and rebel against God. We thought we were doing a good thing at the time, but really we were stirring up the wrath of God. We had become consumed by sin and became comfortable with our sins.
The riots brought a lot of the gangs together. Our focus changed from hurting one another to hurting others. We turned our animosity toward the authorities instituted by God. I saw God’s authority figures, like the police, as enemies. I never saw them as supervisors of the King. It never occurred to me that God has placed police officers in their positions and that to rebel against them is to rebel against God.
At sixteen, I met my first love. She was everything to me, or so I thought. Little did I realize how much of an idol she was. I had become an adulterer and fornicator against the Creator. My heart had become what John Calvin called an idol factory. I had placed an object and things before God. What should have been my first love I made my second love. I was lukewarm in my feelings toward God.
My girlfriend became pregnant and had an abortion against my will. She rebelled against God and assaulted His crown rights as the life-giver. She murdered the child to whom God had given life, my only child. I think of my child every day. He or she would be fourteen in 2014. My girlfriend claimed that she was not ready for a relationship or a child. She was woman enough to lay with me, but not woman enough to stay with me. I ended the relationship with her and really felt like I had hit rock bottom. Not only did I lose my girlfriend, but I also lost my child.
I moved out of my mother’s house to become an independent young man. I broke God’s commandments. I didn’t honor my mother and instead rejected the authority that God had given to my mother over me. I stopped listening to her advice and began doing as I pleased. I talked back to her and lied to her. I was like the three people in Exodus who coveted the authority God had given to Moses. I feel like a fool today and still hurt from hurting my mother. I hurt from hurting God. I sold drugs to provide for myself. I was worse than the prodigal son, who at least had enough sense to return home. I, on the other hand, returned to jail! How foolish I was to think that I could treat my mom in whatever way I wanted! I thought that I could live as I desired.
At seventeen, I watched a couple of my best friends get murdered. This should have caught my attention, but it did not. I felt like I could be next. I understood that dying was a part of life, and I was so caught up in sin that I was willing to give my life for it. I had no motivation to change. I was a friend of the world. My mother could not figure out what had gotten into me.
Again, I found myself back in the place I hated, which was in jail. I remember sitting in a jail cell thinking about everything that I had experienced. In my heart I knew that if I did not change my way of living, I would spend the rest of my life behind bars. Still seventeen years old, I got out of jail and thought that I was old enough to make my own decisions. I packed my stuff and moved to Michigan to live with my older sister. This was a major breakthrough. I managed to find a good job working as a third-shift stocker at a Meijer store.
I held a job long enough to make some friendships. Having lived in California gave me an advantage with the gangs of Michigan. They were not as dominant or aggressive as I was. I surrounded myself with people whom I considered dumber than myself. I had every intention to start my own posse with myself as the chief sinner. I can relate to Saul of Tarsus, who was a persecutor of the church. I was leading others astray for the glory of the kingdom of darkness.
I lived a life that was constant folly. I dishonored God and myself. I broke every one of God’s commandments and willfully submitted myself to the devil. I forfeited life in Christ for no life at all. I was a friend of the world. Two years after my arrival in Michigan, I again found myself in prison. I had degraded myself in the worst way. I was given a sentence of five-and-a-half to ten years.
During my incarceration, I realized that I had become more rebellious than when I was sent to prison. I did not take advantage of educational programs that were available. I was hypocritical like the Pharisees. I didn’t know anything about God’s grace. I thought that if I would clean the outside of myself that would be sufficient to undergo a metamorphosis of the whole. I was a fool to think that I could rob God of His glory. I considered myself to be good without a transformation by the Holy Spirit.
I was a grown man with a childish mind, a weak mentality. I was a weak link who portrayed toughness on the outside. I was influenced by others, and, instead of standing up for God, I fell. I did not stand up for myself in the way that I should have, which is why I landed in prison again.
My brothers followed the same path. Every one of us has served time either in prison or jail. We have been split up since we were teenagers. I cannot even remember the last time all of us were out of jail at the same time. I haven’t seen one brother in thirteen years and another one for twenty-five.
God ordained a second bit for me. This was a hard thing to swallow. I thought that I was making my own decisions out of my own free will. There is no such thing as having a free will because even that which we think is free is governed by God. I believe there were several times when I had guns pointed at me and I could have been killed. I prayed and asked God to rescue me, promising that if He would, I would change my life. I lied to God. It was foolish for me to think that I could change myself. Three different times I was facing up to life in prison for crimes that I did not do. When I contemplate my past, I know that there were many times when God spared my life. Now I see that God was with me all the time. I truly believe that God in His providence had His shield around me.
It is such a blessing that God has pulled me out of the mire. He has set my feet upon a rock. He has given me a new foundation through His Son, Jesus Christ. I have a desire to preach God’s Word. I believe that God is calling me to preach. He had ordained that I would become a minister of the Word of God even before I was born. I was fifteen years old when I started seeing shadows of what was to come. Although I was a gang member, I was also a peacemaker. I was a type of Christ, but for all the wrong reasons. I was a mediator between my friends and our enemies.
Thinking back now, I see that I was more of the Jonah type. I knew there was a calling for my life, but I ignored it. I chose to run from God every chance that I got. I was like Moses when he told God that he was not qualified for the task ahead. Moses tried to use his inability to speak as an excuse to rob God. I tried to use my shyness as a justification for ignoring the call of God.
In my ignorance, I did not realize that God had predestined a plan from which I could not escape. God knew that I would get tired of running before He became tired of waiting. So many folks tried to bring me down, destroy me, or lock me away in prison forever. The truth is that what God has blessed no man can curse. Hallelujah!
God was speaking to me, but I would not listen. I would not allow God to have fellowship with His child. I put enmity between us by my submission to sin. If I had listened to God back then, I would not be in the mess that I am in now. Knowing what I know now, a lot of things would be different. I would have stayed in church and school. I would have joined the navy, which was one of my goals as a child. I wanted also to be a firefighter. I made all of these plans only to become a prisoner. God, in His providence, used the foolishness of this world to shame me. But I am grateful that God used my imprisonment for His glory. I could not be who I am without my experiences.
There was always a part of me that enjoyed going to church. I enjoyed the singing and hearing about Jesus. I did not see myself as being a preacher at that time; however, I knew that I had the ability to communicate well with people and believed that I could get people to listen to me. I made intercession for people—just not in a godly way. My interceding was more in a negative way that glorified Satan. Had I used the gifts that God had given to me, I would never have been a prisoner. I would have been obedient to God and His Word.
God used my present incarceration to awaken me. The Holy Spirit led me to the cross. I was able to see my sins for the first time in life and understand my state of depravity. Not only did God save me from my sins but He also saved me from myself. I started to fight against engaging in willful sins. I was headed down a path that would have either killed me or led me to prison for the rest of my life.
I believe that God in His providence ordained my incarceration. God had a plan for me, and prison was the means He used to reveal His plan to me. God knew that I would not have reformed had I not experienced prison. I would never have presented myself in the way that I have, as a living sacrifice of gratitude.
Being in prison was a state of humiliation for me. It is humiliating sometimes to see myself as a prisoner, and I have tried to encourage myself by looking at my experiences as a lesson. It was a chance for me to learn about the one true God. Prison was my elementary school for seminary. It was here that I learned about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was a tool used to equip me. I appreciate and thank God for His sovereignty over all of my humiliations because it was through them that I saw Him. He became real to me when I had to face my Red Sea. He used prison to sanctify me.
I remember when I was criticized by family, friends, and the media. I was looked at as a failure and loser. Thinking that I was a failure was what turned my attention to God. Throughout all of this, God revealed Himself to me. He showed me exactly who I was in Him. I was able to understand my purpose for living and that I was put here to glorify God.
Now that I understand a few things about who God is, His omnipotence, and His omnipresence, I know that He is sovereign over everything. I know that He was in control of my past. I think that He was molding me at such a young age to raise me up as one of His elect. While I was out sinning, Christ had died for me. He had given His life up so that I could have a childhood in Him. I thank God for revealing Himself to me through His Word. Because of God’s grace, I have a chance to be a child all over again with Him as my father. Right now God is equipping me and training me to honor Him. He is teaching me how I must obey Him rather than man.
In 2012 I began to accept my calling to be a prophet, priest, and king for God. I began to seek God, and I asked Him to make a way for me. I recall telling people that I was going to go to school to learn about God. I didn’t know anything about theology or what a seminary was. I did not know then that at Danville Corrections, a Reformed Bible seminary was in the making. When it came into existence, I knew this was God’s way of speaking to me. I was amazed! I was excited because for the first time in my life I felt like I saw God face to face. I saw what He was doing in me.
Divine Hope Seminary has been a blessing for me. In fact, it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not only has God used Divine Hope to sanctify me, but He has also used it to give me hope. Since joining the seminary I have come to the realization of a lot of things concerning God and His Word. My love and respect for God have increased.
When I think about what I thought I knew beforehand. I now realize that I didn’t have a clue. Previously I would read through God’s Word like any type of book. Now I read through His Word with a different pair of eyes. Now I have the Holy Spirit leading and guiding me into His truths. He is showing the connections of His Word and how it relates to Christ. I am able to understand things like the covenant and how it was applied back then and how it is applied to me today.
I find myself doing things I never thought myself capable of doing. God is using me in awesome ways that I am grateful for. I understand how to write and read Greek now. It is such a blessing to be able to read the Holy Scriptures in its original language.
I remember how well I thought I knew God’s Word, but little did I realize that I could take those same words and see things completely differently. I was ignorant of things like the knowledge of God because I always thought that I knew Him. The names of God have been significant in showing me who God was and is. Things like His attributes can easily be overlooked by the naked eye, but He has shown me what is meant when we speak of His communicable attributes. These are the things He allows us to see and be able to testify to.
I have learned that in order to be able to understand and explain God’s Word, a person must know things like the doctrine of sin, which deals with total depravity and the fall; Christology, which deals with the offices of Christ; justification; resurrection; and more. Now I understand anthropology and the doctrine of man. I am aware of the origin of man, creation, and man’s role in creation. I enjoyed learning about ancient church history and brothers such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, and others. Before joining seminary I was against catechisms and any creed or confession. This was because not only was I ignorant in these areas but also I wouldn’t give these documents a chance. Now that I’ve taken classes on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort and understand them, I have to admit that I am guilty of loving them. The Belgic Confession is one of my favorite documents. I love what brothers like Guido de Bres and Elector Frederick stood up for. I can’t get enough catechism in me. That tool has helped me to grow in many areas.
I did a study on the book of Romans, and the Holy Spirit really opened up my eyes. Every important theme of the Bible is in that book. It helps us know how the Old Testament points to the New Testament. We can see the connection between the two and how Christ is illuminated in them both.
How did I come to the Reformed faith? It was truly because of God. God has helped me to see and believe what is true concerning His Word. I was raised with a Baptist perspective, but truthfully I don’t know what I was. I think I didn’t know enough of God’s Word to say who or what I was.
The Holy Spirit, along with my professors, John S. and Nathan Brummel, have played a major role in my transformation. As I began to pray and understand more of God’s Word, I was led to see that the Reformed view is biblical. The Reformed doctrine highlights Scripture and honors the Word as having the final authority. The doctrine appears to be real and true to me, and I believe it a hundredfold. It is sufficient in its teachings and solid in its unity. I don’t believe in any other doctrine apart from the Reformed faith, nor do I ever see myself departing from its teachings. To be informed is to be Reformed.
The Spirit has been working in my life, sanctifying me and guiding me into all of God’s truth. I will continue seminary training following my release from prison in the winter of 2014. God through His Spirit has made His plan for me perfectly clear.
I have the heart
and desire to be a minister for the Lord and to leave here as a workman approved to serve God and to rightly divide His Word of truth.
I am thankful for the seminary and for brothers and sisters like you who help support it. I love you all. God bless you! Peace like a river.
Visit the Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary website to learn more about its professors, curriculum, and students and to find out how you can visit and be a help to it: http://www.divinehopeseminary.org/.
Mr. Carleous Clay
is an inmate at the Danville, Illinois, Correctional Center. He is also a student at Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary, which is located within the walls of the prison.