70x7: Journey to forgiveness for Muskegon prisoners

“We believe in second chances, third chances, fourth chances, 100 chances, 200 chances ... The choice is yours."

While state lawmakers are trying to reform Michigan's prison system, one man is taking it upon himself to close the revolving door that he believes plagues not only the state's but the country's prisons -- one compassionate gesture at a time

MUSKEGON, MICH. - The name "70 X 7 Muskegon" stems from verses in Matthew 18.

"Peter came and said to Him, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'"

The 70 X 7 Muskegon prisoner re-entry program has assisted 35 to 40 former inmates, acclimate to society outside of the cell blocks, with the intent to never return.

The organization began in March of 2016 and was mirrored after something similar in Holland.

In order to really understand its methodology, you’ll need to learn about the man behind the program.

Meet 36-year-old Nathan Johnson. Born in Grand Haven, Johnson’s family moved to Muskegon a day after he was born.

As a child, Johnson was an athlete.

“When I was 10-years-old, I ended up winning state championship for Punt, Pass and Kick,” Johnson said. He qualified for nationals that same year and took home fifth place.

“I was gifted athletically, but I didn’t have someone to mentor me and it’s not that if I did I would have listened, but there wasn’t someone there to help nurture and develop that gift so that it could be something,” Johnson said.

Similar to most young boys, Nate and his brother Eli were rebellious.

“I was always one of those kids, if my mom told me not to do something, I always thought that there might be something fun there and I wanted to go check it out,” Johnson said.

As time went on, Johnson became increasingly curious.

Towards the end of junior high school, he inadvertently made a decision that would change the rest of his life. “It’s like the old thought, you become what you continuously gaze upon,” Johnson said.

Nate went one way, and Eli went another.

“It went from larceny to a building to car theft,” Johnson said. “Then eventually at 15 and 16-years old, I got turned over to the drug game and began to hustle crack cocaine.”

He became invested. This time, his involvement in criminal activity grew deeper.

“5TH, 6TH and 7th Street, Mason, Merrill and Monroe—that’s the Mason Street neighborhood,” Johnson said. But to police, these "neighborhoods," were also synonymous with gangs. Johnson remembered how often the different neighborhoods would get into physical fights with one another, until eventually, there was bloodshed.

“October 10th, 1998 my best friend was murdered by some guys from another neighborhood,” Johnson said. “They pulled up and did a drive-by, and as we were running away from the car my friend had got hit and he died within a matter of 10 seconds.”

Nearly one year later, Eli’s decision caught up with him.

“His thing was selling drugs—he didn’t get involved in the crime things like robberies and things like I had, but he got involved with drugs, selling drugs and then eventually using them.”

November 1999, authorities found Eli dead from a drug overdose in Indiana. “I remember the night that it happened, I was actually on tether for a crime I had committed,” Johnson said.

An autopsy showed eight different drugs in Eli’s system including cocaine and Xanax.

“I just left the house, I got up and put my clothes on just took off,” Johnson said.

Something inside of Johnson had shifted. This time it wasn’t hustling anymore, now Johnson turned violent.

“We ended up robbing particular guys that were in this house and a week later I was arrested on armed robbery, felony firearm charges,” Johnson said. “I was on probation for a delivery of cocaine narcotics and violated my probation on that for catching the robbery case and was locked up a week later in the Muskegon County Jail.”

He was sentenced to five to 20 years on the delivery of cocaine charge and was sentenced to 12 ½ to 30 years.

During this time, Johnson swore that if he could get his sentence decreased, he’d change his ways.

 “I’ll go to church, I’ll even start reading my bible, I’ll try to quit smoking—I’ll be as good as I can type thing,” Johnson said.

Because of a technicality, Johnson’s wish came true. He would serve 12 years.

“I stuck to my end of the bargain and I said I’m going to church,” Johnson said.

He picked up a Bible in the prison chapel, and began to read a chapter or two a day.

“There just became a conviction, a deep conviction on the inside to where now, it was like 'man these thoughts were something has to change,'” Johnson said. “I can’t keep doing this, if I get out and I keep doing this stuff, it’s just going to be a matter of time before I end up back in here.”

This time, he faced an internal struggle. He had been accustomed to living his life on the criminal side for almost his entire life.

“When I would think about giving my life to the Lord, it was like the sun would come up on the inside, when I’d think about staying where I was at it was like these gloomy clouds would overshadow me and I was like 'man, something has to shake,'” Johnson said.

On April 28, 2003, he made a decision. This decision was 100 percent intentional.

“I was on the top bunk, I turn my T.V. down, the volume down, I just came to a place of just transparency and just cried out to God and said ‘look God, if this is the real thing, give it to me. Look I know, I’m tore up from the floor up, there’s no need going into everything I’ve done, you know it and I’m ready to give my life completely to you,’” Johnson said.

So he got to work.

He threw out his cigarettes, his magazines and even wrote a letter to his then girlfriend, breaking up with her.

“That night, that was the first night that I went to sleep, since I was younger, with a clean conscience,” Johnson said.

Nate Johnson had broken free from his chains.

“I’m free to be who He says that I am and I’m free to be me,” Johnson said.

May 13, 2013, he was released -- for good.

“All of these dreams that I’ve had about what I’m going to do when I come home, it’s possible now and the ball’s in my court,” Johnson said. "I’m the producer and director of my film."

His transition into the world outside the cell proved to be interesting. In order to get a state ID, he needed to retrieve his transcripts from his former high school.

“The kids are doing this [playing on a screen] and I’m thinking ‘why do they let the kids have games, like Gameboys at the school? They’re supposed to be here learning!’”

Of course they weren’t games the students were playing. They were texting.

“I had never been introduced to texting, I’d never been on the internet, you know Google, what is Google? WiFi? What is WiFi? I had no clue, so all of this is like completely crazy so it was a bit of a culture shock,” Johnson recalls.

He didn’t realize that time stood still while he was locked up.

“When I went in I was 19, so I’m a teenager, I come home and I’m 32 years old.” Johnson said.

He was determined to never return to his former mentality, let alone prison.

“It was like that old person was like a well-worn pair of shoes, you can easily slip back into them they’re comfortable,” Johnson said.

In his mind, the prison system was a revolving door for so many.

“I’m like, ‘man, if everyone’s coming back then something has to change and at the time I couldn’t figure it out, I’m like it can’t be that hard out there but then again it could, but why are guys continuously coming back?’” he questioned.

It was then that Johnson’s purpose had become clear.

“I was created to solve this problem,” Johnson said. “We just took several years just talking about it with people, casting the vision of what it would look like, building momentum and raising funds to be able to do it.

"So we did, and this year March 1st,2016, we planted and launched 70x7 Muskegon here in the Muskegon County area.”

The idea is to give members the tools for long term success.

“Our biggest thing is the ball’s in your court. You make the choice. We’re here to help and assist and we’ve provided everything for you to succeed, the choice is yours.

"You’re the producer and you’re the director of your film. If it’s a flop, you got you to blame; if it’s a hit, you got you to blame.

"The choice is ultimately yours,” Johnson said.

Forgiveness, whether it’s forgiving yourself or others, is the heart of the organization’s goals.

“We believe in second chances, third chances, fourth chances, 100 chances, 200 chances,” Johnson said.

If he can do it, so can you.

“I get to have that same impact even if they don’t know me, even if they just hear the story, I get to have the same impact on those who are locked up,” Johnson said. “Like you know what, this is real life you can really do this."

If you'd like to participate in the program, visit 70x7muskegon.org or email natej@70x7liferecovery.org.

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