How can a twice-convicted murderer at age 18 become a pastor at 53? Moreover, can cops accept a reformed killer? It’s a story Danny Duchene enjoys telling, because it points to the greatest recovery program known to humanity; a gracious and merciful God.
Duchene grew up in Redding, California. Before he was out of elementary school he was a latchkey kid. As such, he had almost no adult supervision.
But Dechene’s parents were not struggling to make ends meet. Quite the contrary. They always had a nice home and cars. As a result, he grew up thinking that was his goal in life.
One day he came home and found his parents sitting with a friend in their kitchen. Spread out on the table before them were thousands of dollars in cash. Almost like Monopoly money, but it was the real thing.
“I was told they were going on a business trip to Peru and that I’d see them at Christmas,” Duchene said. “But my parents did not return from that trip. Instead, on Christmas Eve, 1979, I learned that my parents had been arrested in Mexico for smuggling cocaine,” he told the Orange County Register last year.
As a self-supervised 16-year-old, Duchene began using drugs, eventually becoming a habitual user. Moreover, he committed crimes to support his habit. Consequently, by 18, he was addicted to alcohol and narcotics.
“I struggled to keep myself supplied,” he said. “I was reckless and never worried about getting caught for my crimes, and I certainly didn’t consider the consequences to others. All this came to a crisis when I was part of a crime in which two men were killed.”
Duchene was arrested in September 1982 in Yuba City after a knife fight in which he and an accomplice killed two men. In lightning fast time (for the legal system) he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder on November 15.
The now convicted murderer said his sentence was just. He refers to his arrest as “being rescued.”
“I feel my crime was the most horrific it could have been because it seeks to value a human being’s life based on the lowly desire of alcohol and drugs,” he said. “At the time in my drug addiction, I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing.
“I took personal responsibility and pled guilty to two counts of murder, waived my rights and did not go to trial,” he added. “I was sentenced to two consecutive 25-to-life terms with eventual possibility of parole.”
But those are the reflections of a middle-aged man, not the 18-year-old incarcerated addict.
Repentance, Grace, and Forgiveness
Shortly after Duchene’s arrest, members of a prison ministry visited the young man in Sutter County Jail and talked about redemption through Christ.
“It was the first time someone looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have to stop lying to yourself,’” he recalled.
“Once I became sober, the full weight of my crimes and what I had done came crashing down on my conscience,” I heard Duchene tell a crowd at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California in 2016. “It was at my lowest point that God’s mercy showed up in my life. . . . I decided to serve Christ with whatever life I had left. And based upon my crimes, I didn’t expect it to be very long. On November 7, 1982, in a county jail, awaiting my trial, I asked Jesus to forgive all my sins, to come inside of me, and take over as Lord. . . . I rapidly grew spiritually in county jail. . . . I never expected to be paroled, but I knew I was free.”
So the man who admitted participating in the murder of two human beings, surrendered his life to Jesus. Yet his faith would be tested as he would likely remain locked up for the rest of his life. . . . Or would he?
Though Duchene pleaded guilty with a possibility of parole, he said he never believed he would get out. Still, his behavior was exemplary. He passed 32 years of confinement with no disciplinary actions.
Inmate Led Prison Ministry
Not only was his Christian walk exemplary in prison, but Duchene followed the urging of God to minister to inmates. After spending 20 years in three Northern California prisons, he found himself beginning a prison ministry at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.
The Purpose Driven Life
Duchene became familiar with Rick Warren through his book “The Purpose Driven Life.” It inspired him to start a church at the prison.
Duchene finished reading Warren’s book in 2003 and eventually contacted Warren regarding ministry tools and devotionals for the inmates. At the time, he had 20 inmates who wanted to participate. As a result, Saddleback staff sent videos and workbooks to the prison.
“We had the support of the corrections director of substance abuse. He let us know if there were enough men, we could expand,” Duchene said. “We thought maybe 50 men would participate in the small groups, but as we went door to door asking if men in the prison were interested, more than 200 guys signed up. People joined up to be part of something that broke up their routine,” according to The Register.
At the end of a set of curriculum, Warren and a team of Saddleback pastors visited Duchene at the Sierra Conversation Center. While there, they led a church service in the prison yard, with nothing but yellow caution tape as a security barrier, which everyone thought was comical.
“When Rick spoke, more men came out of their cellblocks,” Duchene said. “When he gave an invitation to men to come across the yard and give their lives to God, as one came, more began coming and a very rowdy prison yard became still. Even men who didn’t come forward still respected the moment.”
Warren led inmates in prayer as they humbly knelt together it the dirt and gravel.
“They claimed the Sierra prison yard as God’s holy ground,” Duchene would say in his 2016 testimony.
Following prison baptisms for those who surrendered their life to Christ, they did something symbolic, yet very unique in a prison environment.
“As an act of humble reverence, this group of men stood in a circle on the prison yard, and we all removed our shoes,” he said during his testimony. “And we began to pray for the men in the cell block buildings.”
Removing shoes on the prison yard is the equivalent to erasing differences, including racial tensions, gang affiliations etc. These are all major factors in the prison culture.
A few months later, Pastor John Baker returned to the prison and trained Duchene and others to lead Celebrate Recovery—a Bible based 12-step program to help free people from addictions and other sin in their life.
Twenty-six years ago the Christ-centered 12-step recovery program was launched from Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, deriving out of Pastor Rick Warren’s sermon series, “The Road to Recovery,” reported stream.org.
But as a member of Saddleback Church, I was also there in 1991 when it launched. Over the years I became a witness to the incredible life-changing stories. Moreover, on a personal level, my own life was transformed in a way that salvaged my marriage.
Baker developed workbooks on the series to help people struggling with “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” and Celebrate Recovery was born.
The haters will hate, and skeptics are many, but the results of thousands upon thousands of people are inarguable.
Typical recidivism rates range from 66–70 percent, depending upon the source. Yet the recidivism rate for those completing Celebrate Recovery are incredibly less than 4 percent, according to the U.S. Justice Department as reported by lifeinprisonministry.org.
Reformed Killer Becomes Prison Pastor
“There was something about Danny that was truly authentic,” said Baker. “You could see the pastor’s heart in him. He was doing everything he could to be a man of God. Rick turned to me and said, ‘We’ve got to hire Danny.’”
Within a year, prison officials dedicated an entire 200-man cellblock to prisoners participating in Celebrate Recovery.
“I think the normal prison environment teaches men to be isolated,” Duchene said. “They’re separated from their families. They have guilt and shame of their crimes. By hoping for a changed life and not coming back, they find support of other men who want the same thing compared to the normal environment of prison peer pressure to do the wrong thing – to become part of a gang, or take a racist or an anti-authority perspective.”
While Warren was unable to hire Duchene on the spot, his desire was fulfilled more than a dozen years later after Celebrate Recovery had exploded to several hundred thousand inmates incarcerated across the nation.
The process began with a letter in 2014. Warren wrote the parole board asking them to offer Duchene clemency. If granted, Saddleback Church would hire him as their pastor of Prison Ministries.
Through a series of steps, God’s providence brought Duchene freedom. And as promised, Warren hired him as pastor in charge of prison ministries at Saddleback Church in April 2016.
“I still expected the governor to reverse the decision,” Duchene said. “When he didn’t and I got the memo I was released, I felt a tremendous humility. I felt grace and mercy had been shown that I didn’t expect.”
Duchene can speak to the destructive nature of sin about as well as anyone. Yet Warren’s letter, along with God divine providence, was able to convince authorities that he would not only be ministering to like-minded people in prison, but he’d be employed by a church that would facilitate his spiritual growth and accountability.
“It (Warren’s letter) meant to the parole board and the governor that I will not only be employed for life in my appointed vocation that I feel God called and prepared me for, but it also represented that I will never have to live life alone,” he said. “His letter also demonstrated that I must also be accountable morally and ethically to the elders, pastors, leaders, and members of Saddleback Church. And that they have agreed to be my partners and accountability support team.”
Duchene Commissioned as Pastor at Saddleback Church
As head of the prison ministry, Duchene oversees 900 prison programs nationwide. Inmates participate in Bible based programs. He also ministers to inmates and helps those being released get connected to churches in their area.
Why does this matter? It is relevant since there is so much vitriolic hate and division in our culture that all options for peace need to be explored. Furthermore, everyone ultimately needs to decide what they will do with the claims of Christ as outlined in Scripture. He didn’t simply claim to be a good teacher or prophet; he asserted his role as the Messiah for all humanity. What we do with his teaching will have an impact on our eternal destiny. It doesn’t matter if we’re a cop or convict; conservative or liberal, God has the final word.
(Photo: Screenshot YouTube video)
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