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Finding Purpose after Prison
By Kirsten Strawn

Kenji was on the street corner. He was required by his parole to sell newspapers to raise money for his drug rehab program. Discouraged and skeptical, he called out to God. “If you’re real, then I need a sign. You need to show yourself to me.”

Not more than a few minutes later, a car pulled up alongside the curb. A woman rolled down her window and handed Kenji a pamphlet that read, God is alive.

That planted a seed of faith in Kenji’s life. But seven years would go by before an unlikely turn of events took Kenji from gangster to God.

Impacting Those Who Love You

As a current volunteer with the Rock Church Prison Ministry, Kenji Stratton recently shared his testimony with students and moms gathered in a home for a weekly teen Bible study. Rock Pastor Shawn Wagner, also a former gang member, was there to share his story too.

Wearing a striped blue rayon shirt over dress slacks, Kenji appeared professional and clean-cut. He pointed across the room toward the freeway.

“Not too far from here, in Mira Mesa, I ran with my homies. I now look back to see how God protected me. The knife wounds missed major arteries; I dodged bullets that should have killed me,” he told the teenagers in the room.

I now look back to see how God protected me. The knife wounds missed major arteries; I dodged bullets that should have killed me. -- Kenji Stratton

In and out of prison for fifteen years, Kenji described how choices to drink alcohol, do drugs, and hang out with the wrong friends led him down a path of destruction he never imagined. His life of crime impacted not only his own life but those he loves most.

“If you’re not going to make good choices for God, then make them for your mom,” Kenji said. “Would you want someone to hurt your mother?” he asked.

Mesmerized by his testimony, the kids shook their heads. “Then why would you want to hurt her?”

Kenji admitted that he can never fix the pain he caused his parents. He would disappear for months at a time without even a phone call to inform his parents that he was alive. There were times his mom felt more at peace when her son was in prison, because she knew where he was, and that he had a bed to sleep on and food to eat. He admitted that he was numb to their pain. “I didn’t care about myself. How could I care about anybody else?”

But things changed. “Now I have Jesus in my life and the same way I once was high on drugs I’m high on God. He is personal. He talks to me through His Word. He loves me. Now I want to please Him.”

An Unlikely Pair

God had bigger plans for Kenji than to leave him locked away.

At a drug rehab program mandated by the state after release from prison (he did three years on an armed robbery charge he said was false), Kenji met the love of his life.

With her master’s degree in the criminal justice field, Charlene supervised the re-entry counselors working with parolees. When her supervisor position shifted to a new location, Kenji pursued her to discover the reason for her joy and passion for life. Learning of her love for Jesus, he invited Jesus into his heart as well. Although Kenji paid consequences for his wrong choices in life, he came to realize Jesus died in his place to forgive him and save him from the eternal consequences of his sin.

They were married a few months later. Charlene admits they made an unlikely pair. During her career serving as resource coordinator for parolees, as chair for the reentry program in San Diego, and as a key volunteer for four years in the San Diego Rock Church Prison Ministry, Charlene never considered a relationship with someone previously incarcerated.

Also, during all those years, Charlene counseled and prayed with family members devastated by the choices of the incarcerated. But she never fully understood their pain until two months after her marriage.

Fellowship of Families

Newly married, Kenji became intoxicated, which broke his parole and sent him back to prison for five months. Charlene experienced firsthand the shame, guilt, and betrayal of her incarcerated husband. When she cried out to God in her pain, her heavenly Father comforted her with words of peace and purpose, which now allows her to comfort those who have loved ones in prison relating to their pain.

In prison Kenji experienced true repentance before the Lord. He completely surrendered his life to Jesus, discovering joy and peace for the first time. Immediately after his release he publicly professed his faith in Christ through baptism. In a moment everything changed--delivered from his wrong thinking, his addictions, and his sixteen years as a gang member to live a life of purpose: loving and serving God.

Today Kenji and Charlene testify to God’s faithfulness and transforming power. God brought this couple full circle to begin the Prison Support Group at the Rock Church for families of inmates.

The first meeting of the Prison Support Group is scheduled August 26, at 6 PM in Rm 225. Family members of the incarcerated can find comfort, support, prayer, hope, and new friends. For more info, contact Kenji Stratton at [email protected]. Or visit the Rock Church Prison Ministry at

“The fear of God keeps me from leading the life of crime I used to live,” said Kenji. “I know God is personal. He answers my prayers. I see Him at work around me every day.”


Kirsten Strawn is a volunteer writer with Rock the Word: The Rock Church Writers Ministry. For info, visit

For more info on the Rock Prison Ministry, visit

For more information about the Prison Ministry, click here »