Understanding the mercy and forgiveness of God

Understanding the mercy and forgiveness of God is something that comes hard for some, and Danny Croce was no exception. And, if trying to figure out just how deep God’s mercy and forgiveness can be, how is this for irony? Only God could choose a killer to lead others into new life, and turn prison from a place of punishment into a place of promise.

Young Danny Croce was always “attracted to trouble,” he reminisces—gangs, gambling, booze, cocaine: high-risk activities to jolt him out of the numbing pointlessness of life. Before succumbing to that “inevitable grey tombstone,” he craved some thrills.

But in his mid-twenties he played a perilous game: After downing a six-pack of beer for lunch, he would return to his job of “hanging iron, ” laying steel girders atop some of Boston’s tallest skyscrapers.

Danny managed to avoid calamity on the job. But in February 1984, a cold rainstorm forced the crew to quit early—so they launched into a bar-hopping spree to warm themselves up. Later, “drunk out of my tree,” Danny was heading home when he rammed his car through a wooden barricade and struck a police officer directing traffic. A few days later, the officer died. Danny was charged with vehicular homicide.

A sobered Danny couldn’t escape the python of guilt coiled around his heart. “I’d replay the accident in my mind,” he explains. “I tried hard to change the ending, but I couldn’t.”

He wanted to go to the officer’s family to tell them he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to rip away their father and husband. But Danny’s lawyer immediately nixed that plan, afraid he might say something that would jeopardize his case.

A year later, when Danny decided to plead guilty to the charges, he met the officer’s widow for the first time—in court. Her distressing comments “cut me like a knife,” he recalls. “In all this time,” she told the judge, “he’s never said he was sorry.”

Danny wept as the bailiff handcuffed him and led him from the courtroom. He strained to turn and face the woman. “Mrs. ______, I swear to God, I am so sorry.” But the bailiff pushed him on.

Days later, confined in a five- by seven-foot cell in the Plymouth County jail, Danny still wrestled with haunting memories of the deadly crime. “At 3 A.M.,” he says, “I’d turn my pillow over, trying to find a dry spot; I’d been crying so hard.”

One day Danny recounted his tormenting story at an inmate support group—who mostly fed him useless platitudes. But one “hippie-type,” an inmate named Wayne, ventured a subtle witness: “Have you ever tried to pray to God?”

Spurred by that simple question, in bed that night Danny repeated a one-line prayer—the only thing he could think of: “Please, God, please.” Next thing he knew, the stirrings of morning had roused him from his first restful slumber in a long time. For several nights following, his unpolished but pure prayers led to peaceful sleep. Then Wayne gave Danny a New Testament, a book he had never read.

As Danny read the Gospels, Jesus’ power both amazed and frightened him. He touches blind people and they see, Danny marveled. He makes deaf people hear. Who is this guy?

Then he got to the part where Jesus talked about the consequences of sin, “about weeping and the gnashing of teeth,” Danny recalls. “I knew that I was in big trouble. Guilty.”

Danny turned to jail Chaplain Bob Hanson, and under his gentle guidance, the repentant inmate yielded his past, present, and future to Christ, gratefully receiving His forgiveness and promise of new life. Danny renounced his reckless high-wire act for a stable walk of faith grounded in God’s Word.

“It was such an eye-opening experience for me to meet God in jail and have all this time to immerse myself in the Word,” says Danny. “I really grew in the Lord.” During Bible studies and chapel services, Chaplain Hanson would encourage the inmates, “If you have a question, write it down.”

“So I’d come in with two pages!” says Danny. “He taught me so many things because I was so hungry.” As God satisfied that hunger with Himself, old counterfeit lures lost their appeal: cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, gambling. “It wasn’t like, ‘You’re a Christian now; you’d better stop doing those things,’ ” Danny says. “I just didn’t want to do them anymore.”

Acting Like a Dad

During one of his personal Bible studies, Danny came across 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.”

“That hit me right between the eyes,” he remembers, because there was a little girl out there who was most likely his daughter.

Seven years earlier, Danny had longed to marry his lover, “but I just couldn’t tie her down,” he says. When they finally broke up, “I was crushed. I was a professional boxer at the time, and it was the hardest hit I’d ever taken.”

So three weeks later, when his ex called to say she was pregnant, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with her. She’d been seeing all these other guys behind my back; it could be my child, or it could be someone else’s.”

And once a year, that’s the answer he gave the Department of Social Services when they questioned him about being the father of little Melissa. No one ever suggested a paternity test.

But there in his jail cell, reading 1 Timothy 5:8, Danny felt the racing heartbeat of conviction: If Melissa is my daughter and I’m not providing for her, I’m in big trouble! But what could he do from jail?

Then, as Christmas approached, Danny “was absolutely blown away” when Myles Fish, then a Prison Fellowship staff member, came to tell the inmates about PF’s Angel Tree® program—a way for them to give Christmas gifts to their children from prison. Danny couldn’t believe it when Myles said people from churches would buy and deliver the gifts. “Brand new?” he asked. “Brand new,” Myles assured him. And volunteers would provide not only the gifts, but also the Good News of Jesus Christ, in a written form that a seven-year-old like Melissa could easily understand. Danny was thrilled: “That’s the thing I wanted most for her.”

After Christmas, Melissa visited Danny and thanked him for the gifts. He’d stepped out to build a bridge . . . and she’d walked across.

And for the rest of his sentence, Danny prayed he’d be able to minister to others as Angel Tree had ministered to him and Melissa.

Released in 1986, Danny again went to the Department of Social Services, this time with a different answer to their query. “I’m a Christian now,” he said, “and I need to know for sure if this is my daughter or not.” He asked for the blood test. The result: A 99-percent certainty he was the dad. Now taking full responsibility, Danny began paying child support, including several years’ worth of penalties and interest for missed payments.

During one of his visits with Melissa in the Boston suburb of Holbrook, dad and daughter took a walk around the block. As they neared Brookville Baptist Church, Danny noted the sign advertising Vacation Bible School. “I really wanted her to learn about Jesus,” he says—so he went in and asked the pastor if Melissa could attend. From there, both dad and daughter regularly attended church services, and Melissa accepted Christ as her Savior and Lord.

Settled into a new relationship with his daughter, a new church home, and a new job in construction, Danny set out to serve others as he had promised God in jail. He worked with the handicapped, taught Sunday school at Boston Children’s Hospital, started a basketball league for teens, and visited prison inmates. Through his ministry he met his wife, Kim.

Together they worried about Melissa, living with a mother who still dabbled in drugs and promiscuous sex. Then one evening, a couple years out of jail, Danny got a call from the mom. “I can’t handle her,” she said of their 10-year-old daughter, whose distressing home life had spilled over into trouble at school. “Do you want her?”

“Of course!” Danny and Kim immediately agreed, and soon welcomed Melissa into a safe, loving, and healthy family. They enrolled her in a Christian school, “where her straight F’s turned into straight A’s” boasts Danny. She also gained a new baby brother.

Hitting the Books

In 1991 Danny experienced still another dramatic life change: the opportunity, at age 35, to go to college. “You need to finish your education,” challenged a Prison Fellowship staff member, explaining that Illinois’ Wheaton College had a Charles Colson scholarship fund, set up specifically to help ex-prisoners.

“Prison Fellowship blew me away again,” says Danny—who juggled painting jobs and academic studies for four years to earn a degree in Bible and theology.

In 1996, a year after his graduation, Danny became a chaplain with the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, assigned—at the invitation of his jail mentor Chaplain Hanson—to Plymouth County Correctional Facility! “The inmates are younger now; they’re gang-bangers,” Hanson told him. “We need somebody younger here.” And Danny could speak their language.

Like its former inmate, the facility had gone through a striking transformation. “When I was there, it was dirty, scummy, had cockroaches,” Danny describes. The new buildings, housing 1,500 county, state, and federal inmates, provide clean, state-of-the-art secure accommodations. “Best of all, I can go anywhere I want in it, and can get out the same day!” he jokes.

Now serving as senior chaplain with three assistants (Hanson retired in 2002), Danny pours his heart and energies into ministering not only to the inmates but also to the officers and their families. He teaches Bible studies, counsels, visits the sick, comforts the grieving. “I bring not only the good news, but sometimes the bad news,” he says—like word of a death in the family. “The phone’s always ringing or another e-mail’s popping up”: distraught spouses and parents imploring him to visit or put in a good word for their imprisoned loved one. As head chaplain, he juggles numerous administrative details, screening clergy and lay volunteers, scheduling services and other events, making sure that inmates from a variety of religious backgrounds have the means to express their faith.

And yes, every Christmas he makes sure that inmate fathers have the same chance he had to sign up for Angel Tree.

“I love being back where I found God, or where God found me,” he corrects himself. “I was the one that was lost.”

He knows that countless others now stumble through that same engulfing darkness, groping for a way out of their confusion, guilt, and shame. In his nearly eight years at the jail, Danny estimates that “thousands have come to Christ.” Many are now back on the outside, “working hard, being good fathers, serving as deacons and elders in their church.” He still gets calls from a lot of them: sometimes asking guidance for a problem; sometimes telling him how much they appreciated his care and counsel, and how it set them on a stable path, illumined by the light of Christ. He tells of one former inmate, “a bad dude” named Ed, whose construction business is booming because “everybody saw the change in him.” He describes another inmate, Bob, whose hard work and upbeat disposition prompted a corrections officer to plead, “Tell me about this Christ.” The inmate led the officer in a prayer of surrender to the Lord.

“I love seeing God work in these bad boys’ hearts to give them hope and meaning and a reason to live,” says Danny.

His own life is a prime illustration: a former “bad boy” transformed into a respected minister, loving husband, father of five, and grandfather of three—thanks to oldest daughter Melissa, now in her twenties and happily married.

You can find this and many other inspirational stories of hope and encouragement at www.pfm.org, an organization dedicated to help prison inmates and their families that way founded by Charles Colson.

Looking back, “I hate what I did,” he says soberly, referring to the deadly car crash. “I wish to God it had never happened. But God still takes bad situations and turns them over for good.” God’s merciful irony.

Submitted by: Becky Beane