“I seen some go to jail. I seen some be murdered. But you know the thinking as a teenager, ‘Not me. That won’t happen to me.’ But everybody says that.”
J.L. Simpson had always thought of himself as a good kid. He loved his family and wanted to be just like his dad. “We walked alike. We had the same mannerisms. We conducted ourselves the same. He taught me everything I knew about football and about chores around the house.”
But when J.L. was 15, his parents divorced. “I was a little angry when they divorced, because I was used to him being in the home with me. Definitely some disappointment, some hurt and just not understanding.”
He was especially angry at his dad. “I put myself, my energy a lot into sports. So that helped cover some of it …that helped hide some of the hurt or hide some of the pain.”
Still, he felt the void left by his father – especially on game day. “Mainly missed him when it’s Saturday, it’s time for a game, and he’s not at the game, or we’re not riding to the game together. I didn’t realize how much of a toll it was taking on me at the time.”
J.L. started to rebel in small ways at first; coming in late, disobeying his mom. She hoped that church would give him the guidance he needed. “There was a “Sandra household rule, ‘you were going to church.’ I didn’t like it. I never had a relationship with God for myself.”
J.L. didn’t just lose his role model, he lost his identity. He thought he found it by playing football. “I never was on the bench. I played every game. I was a starter. That meant a lot to me. That kind of helped me because you’re talking about somebody with identity issues, self-esteem issues that nobody really knows about. Through sports I began to get an identity.”
By now J.L.’s influences were his peers, and he started drinking and smoking pot. After high school, he saw them as role models. “I’m now admiring these same guys that I admired on the football field, now they’re selling drugs, and there’s a part of me that wants to do what they’re doing. They had the cars. They had the clothes. They had the money.”
But at 19, J.L. knew he didn’t have the guts or reputation to make it on the streets. He still wanted a name for himself, so he crossed a line. He and a friend were getting high before a party, when they saw some guys walk by. One was wearing a cool jacket – and they wanted it.
“My friend said ‘Hey …you should get that jacket.’ We approached the guys and asked them ‘Hey, we want your jacket. Take the jacket off.’ Yeah. He refused to take the jacket off. Then my friend pulls out a gun and says, ‘Well now take the jacket off’ …and he takes the jacket off. And bam – we’re off and on our way to the party with the jacket.”
Later, at the party, they stole equipment from the DJ – also at gunpoint. J.L. didn’t understand the gravity of what they’d done. “In my mind at that time, it was just funny. I didn’t even take it that serious.”
Within two days, J.L. and his friend were arrested. “The next thing I know, I’m being read my rights. It was just shocking. It was one of the worst times of my life. But something happened on February 26th, 1992, that began a transition and a change in my life forever.”
While in jail awaiting trial, J.L. was invited to a Bible study. “I didn’t know many Bible stories. But I heard about Paul and Silas being in prison, they praised God and the door swung open. So I’m thinking, ‘hey, you know what, I’m going to Bible study.’ They asked anybody who wanted to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and I received Jesus.”
Finally, the things he’d heard in church started making sense. “This relationship with Christ, this loving God who died for me, who loves me.”
J.L. was later convicted on two counts of armed robbery and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Though he was terrified, his growing faith gave him hope – and his real identity.
“I could never fulfill who I was because I could never define who I was. But it wasn’t until I came into a relationship and a working knowledge with Christ, that I understood that I’m complete in Him. And so that helped me tremendously with my relationships. It also helped me cope and deal with being incarcerated.”
J.L. had to serve only three of the 12 years. When he got out, he pursued his new calling as a pastor.
(J.L. preaching) “I’m so thankful to God.”
J.L. later married Shannan and today they have a big family of seven. He guides his kids to look to the Lord for their identity. His message, especially to youth, is clear.
“God is able, He’s so gracious, He’s so merciful, so kind, that even though I made those mistakes, now He can use those mistakes. He can use that story. He can use those things I’ve been through, to be a blessing and help somebody else, so they won’t have to go through those things.”