John, tell me about your formative years growing up in Jersey City, NJ.
As a kid, I was in the foster care system in Jersey. The state took me away from my parents when I was eight. My father was an alcoholic, very abusive, he used to beat me a lot so they took me away. My mother was also an alcoholic. She took a lot of the beatings herself.
What happened after that?
Mostly I was running the streets as a kid, doing drugs, drinking, getting into trouble, getting into fights, and some violent stuff with the police and other people.
Are there any major events in your past that you might want to share?
When I turned 18 I tried to join the army and they wouldn’t let me in.
Why was that?
I’d been living at a juvenile group home and I’d gotten into an argument with a teacher. I went underneath the school because it was up on concrete blocks. We used to burn our names into the wood with Bic lighters. The teacher said that he thought I was trying to burn down the school, which I wasn’t. I had no idea that they charged me with arson at the time. So when I tried to join the army I went to the judge and told him that I didn’t even know that they had convicted me of anything. The judge said, “well, it stands, I can’t change it,” so they wouldn’t let me in. That was really major for me because it was the first time in my life that I wanted to do something to change and I kind of hit a brick wall. That’s when I really gave up on my life, I just hated everything and everyone; there was a lot of anger in me.
Where did that kind of thinking lead you?
It led me to prison. I was getting little “skid bits”, like six months or a year for fighting, mostly fights with the police. Then I started getting into stealing cars. Everything I did was related to either being drunk of getting high on drugs. I never did anything sober or straight. That was my way of dealing with life. If something got hard I would either get high or drink.
Besides the fights and stealing cars, was there any other trouble that you got into?
Yes, in 1989 it all came to an end. I’d been working up in Connecticut doing a restoration on a porch and I got into a fight with the owner of the house. He passed away as a result of my actions, but I don’t even remember it. I had drunk a fifth of Vodka and did some heroin so I was out of it. That happened on a Friday night and I was arrested on a Sunday in New York. They sentenced me to 25 years and I served one month shy of 20 years. I got out in June of 2009.
Tell me about St. Andrew’s and what they’ve done for you in your spiritual walk.
Kurtz Smith invited me to go on a men’s retreat. During that retreat I received word that my father had passed away. I made a decision that if I couldn’t find a way to forgive my father I couldn’t go back to St. Andrews anymore because I would have been a hypocrite. Being forgiven and given a second chance by society and God for taking a persons life, if I couldn’t forgive my own father, it wouldn’t have been right for me to go back.
So did you?
I did. At five o’clock in the morning I was out on the beach by myself, and I was crying and talking to God. I was pretty much begging Him saying that I didn’t know how to forgive him for the things that he did to my mother and me. Somehow God put it into my heart to forgive him and I did so that very day.
Do you feel that God has forgiven you for your past?
Absolutely. With everything that’s been given to me in the past 14 months, even though I’ve fallen a couple of times, I know that God has truly blessed me with so many good people.
It’s as though He took the anger out of you and replaced it with love. Where do you see this leading you?
Eventually I’d like to become a facilitator for “Life Plan” because that was the beginning of change for me in prison. These people took the time to teach me about who I was and why I became that person. They said that that’s not why God created me. I now know that it’s my duty to share my story with people and to help them to understand that anger and hatred and the anti-social behavior is just our way of coping, our way of surviving. We don’t truly want to hurt people, we don’t want to be alcoholics and drug addicts but that’s the only answer we’ve ever had or ever known.
So you want to give back by sharing your story with people who are incarcerated?
Yes, because it will teach them that God truly does have the power to transform your life if you will let Him.
Where do you see yourself right now and where do you see your life going in the future?
Right now I consider myself a lump of clay. I believe that I’m being molded into what God created me to be. I’m starting school in January at Trident Tech, and eventually I’d like to start my own heating and air conditioning business.
John, is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’m still learning, I still make mistakes, but 99 percent of the time my thoughts are about what I can do for someone else, not about what I want or how I can get it. It’s all about what can I do to help other people.
Based on an interview conducted by Pastor Christian with John Doherty in 2011.