The Broken Road: Addiction and Redemption

The Story of Chaplain Mike Ensch, Former Administrator of Chaplaincy Services for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Alaska Correctional Ministries

Written by Richard Drebert

(c) Good Catch Publishng

Please note: I interviewed Chaplain Ensch in 2011 for a book written by several authors for Alaska Correctional Ministries called Warriors of Transformation. Mike passed away Monday, 11/11/19 and his story is republished here to remember his work with inmates and their families. See https://www.godinprison.com/ for more information about Alaska Correctional Ministries.

1970

You’d be shocked to hear who my heroin customers are. One is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy; another is a professor at San Diego State University. College students, high schoolers and businessmen slink to my office at the corner of 13th and Market Street, incognito — at least at the start of their drug dependency. (Full-blown addicts don’t care who knows. They’re so “in love” that they’ll do anything to anybody for one more beautiful fix. Heroin changes the mind — about living.) As a drug dealer and addict myself, it gives me pleasure knowing the “respectable” company I keep.

Photo by Salvio Bhering on Pexels.com

My office? A parked car; a stool in a dingy bar; behind a dumpster with ripe garbage. Here I chat over how much is needed, I make sure the cash is ready and I determine when to meet for an actual score. I’m the middleman in the transaction, cunning, engaging — and ruthless when it comes to my own heroin. And the best part of all — when I seal this deal, I’ll get rewarded for my efforts, which will keep me high for several days.

Hmm … guarantees? That depends on my connection. Of course, it’s cut (diluted) with a little sugar or starch or … but I swear: This batch is primo. My supplier has been pretty straight with me (except when he lies). Have I used his stuff?

I bare an arm. I stroke the needle marks.

Why do I do it? I used to ask myself that question when I had more brain left. I’ve lost 30 pounds, and I feel my teeth loosening at the roots. Sometimes my family intrudes on my heroin habit, and it takes all my shaky resolve to keep my sh** together. My mother … I hate it when she gets close to me. Can she smell the skag leaking through my pores?

My little sister is heartbroken. She stares at me with puppy eyes, and I ignore her. It’s best that she doesn’t get to know big brother now. During my visit home to collect my mail, we hear Dad closing the garage door, and suburbia invades the living room as he hangs his coat on a peg. He’s worked two jobs for as long as I can remember, and I feel him scanning me, the son who will carry on the family name: Ensch. He unfolds a newspaper, shaking his head, and listens to Mom pleading with me to get help.

Phyllis and Chuck’s boy is a lowlife.

Time to get back to my office.

*****

Was there ever a time when I cared what anyone thought of me?

The Ensches lived in a fine house with a dining room and silver settings, but Mom always expected more than what Dad provided. He worked as a firefighter, 24 hours on and 24 hours off, and during his 24 hours off, he spent eight hours at the San Diego Paper Box Company climbing a steep ladder to management. My mother’s emotions had over-ripened in an impoverished family as a child, and my father had skipped out on a decent upbringing with scant feelings at all — they seemed perfectly ill-matched.

*****

“I don’t care what you want! We need you to come with us!”

A tongue-lashing seldom moved Dad to change his plans, and their customary row usually signaled a lengthy excursion with Mom away from the house. My sister and I had been looking forward to pony rides at Mission Bay, and as we listened, the argument came to a crescendo. Then silence. Then a shattering percussion echoed from the kitchen. I peeked past a doorway to watch Mom, dressed for an outing, launching dish after dish at the closed door between the kitchen and the garage, where Dad locked out her pleas. After emptying the cupboard, she grabbed her purse, my little sis and me and rushed to the car sniffling.

Mom needed me to love Bach and Gershwin, to fill a hole in her own heart. In elementary school, she engineered my time with her own ambition. Every week, between recitals, my fingers danced on piano keys — while what I really wanted was to be playing football with my friends. Sports were too dangerous for Mom’s little virtuoso, and by my freshman year, I marched behind majorettes with my saxophone — it was as close as I would ever get to sports on the field. But playing in the band did get me close to girls, and I found them enhancing to my own personal goal: getting high. If my mother had known what I did with my free time, she would have blamed Tommy Jakes.

I was strictly forbidden to “play” with my best friend, and so every moment I could, I skateboarded past his house to signal him for a secret rendezvous. Tom had a mind for crime, and I loved the thrill in my chest when I followed him into a store to steal Playboys or a fifth of whiskey. Our floppy coats hid our booty until we were safely out the door and gone.

In a vacant field, I felt the world sway and my words slur for the first time. I soared high above my father’s disappointment in me and my mother’s weighty expectations — liquor unshackled me from moral boundaries. I was making music my way now.

And pushing boundaries was Tom’s way, too. On a windy day we experimented, using a match shoved hind-end into his cigarette — a slow fuse for igniting wavy stalks of brown weeds. The flames quickly licked the vacant expanse clean, and we abandoned the vantage of a baseball dugout as the fire spread. The flames grew intense and crept near homes in the subdivision. Sirens wailed and loudspeakers bawled as we hid on a distant rooftop to watch the commotion we had caused. Firemen, like my dad, doused the flames at the border of the subdivision in the nick of time.

Not so in my own young life. A pleasant inferno had leaped boundaries in my soul without a drop of regret to hinder its wasting advance.

*****

Obsessions.

In junior high, Tom and I banded with other misfits and happily invited girls into our circle. Any innocence or mystery concerning the opposite sex evaporated in marijuana fumes, and I suddenly thought that I “understood” the reason why I lived and breathed. When I was high, I was a fun guy, and the people, my classes, my music — everything — seemed manageable. Deadened to reality, I could hover somewhere in the clouds while my family and my teachers scrambled around like ants below me.

I decided that if marijuana helped me feel so “detached” from my tedious life, what new “high” was I missing? I scored some hashish and immediately felt the punch of fresh potency I was looking for: longer highs, a deeper sense of wellbeing. Why had I waited so long? I loved everything about my laidback hippie culture, so detested by my strict mother and father. Their son smoked dope every day and had even crossed into felony territory by peddling drugs to kids at school, but if they knew, they never let on.

I seethed over my mother’s haranguing me for my lagging interest in music and school. I hated her and the “establishment” behavior she so desperately tried to force down my throat. My grades were plummeting, and I slid into the world of LSD. I dropped acid every chance I got, at remote camping sites and often at older friends’ houses. Toward the end of my LSD binging, my trips into these altered states began to worry me — I thought I could handle the strange visions I experienced, but I had no control over what my body did in the dimension where I lived real life. One time I awoke to someone kicking me mercilessly; I had freaked out at a married couple’s home and crawled into bed with them. They were not amused.

During another unpredictable LSD trip, a friend rescued my girlfriend as I struck her over and over again. He hauled her upstairs until I came down off my high. My girlfriend understood; she was tripping, too.

By my junior year of high school, I lived a good portion of my life in an alternate reality to cope with Mom, classes at school and working at a boring music store. And when my dealer friend, Ray, introduced me to crystal meth, gradually my celluloid reality shouldered into the real world.

No needles. It was the final “moral” boundary line I had promised myself never to cross.

“Man, you gotta’ do this, Mike. Just try it. And don’t smoke it. You’ll get high like you’ve never been.” My dealer handed me the bag of crystal meth and a syringe.

I had enough for a friend, too, and we mixed our poison. I watched him fix first; then I tied myself off and drew the crystal meth into the syringe. I pierced a vein in the crook of my arm and pushed down the piston. Like my first swig of alcohol, like my first hit of weed, it changed my mind. I suddenly felt like I breathed pure oxygen, and I rolled my head back on my shoulders and flexed like a body builder. A flush of sheer exhilaration coursed through my blood, a thousand times more potent than booze or pot or even hash.

Contentment, warm and soothing, confidence and acute awareness of my surroundings invaded my senses. And when the initial high diminished, a new feeling replaced it: a cocksure knowing that I could take on the world. I was invincible for hours, but when the sensation drained away, depression sucked my emotions dry, and I schemed about how to get another fix.

Somehow it never occurred to me that dope might kill me. No one I knew was dying and even though my appearance had taken on a Twiggy-like aspect, my young body seemed to adapt to drug abuse without breaking down completely. At least that’s what I believed.

My eyes told my family a different tale. Sunken and bordered with dark circles the size of small fists, my bloodshot eyes darted away from bright lamps to a general direction of conversations, seldom connecting with the one speaking. I wore long-sleeved shirts on hot days to hide my needle tracks, and I sweated even in the direct flow of air conditioning. I knew I smelled “different” with the odor of methamphetamine oozing from my pores.

One night, after a three-day meth binge, I lay in bed, heart thrashing inside my chest like it begged me to open its cage. Without warning, my life force, or whatever was me, began lifting away from my sweating body. The room, the walls, my furniture melded into one white sheet … and then me came back again, along with explosive pain. I almost welcomed the pounding in my chest — I thought that my soul had escaped and might never come back at all. During my hours recovering, I decided that I had to kick this crystal meth habit and find a drug that offered fewer “consequences.” I never wanted to come this close to death again.

My good friend Ray had the answer. He supplied me raw opium for a time, to quench my craving, and then he offered me paradise: heroin. I could sell it for him and get my own supply — what a deal.

Like most first-time users, I puked my guts out, but I was determined, and soon I was mainlining several times a week for an effect that was nothing less than “celestial.” Minutes after a fix, my euphoria subsided, and a secure feeling wrapped me in a warm blanket, from the inside out. Unlike other drugs, for hours after my rush, I still felt high and downright sociable. But the “bitter end” always stalked me as the feelings weakened and died away.

After my fixes, I despised squeezing back into my regular-guy skin, and a single purpose consumed me, whether I performed in the school marching band or picked up my graduation gown: Get more heroin.

*****

Why I enrolled in Grossmont College I’ll never know. Girls and getting high had dominated my career path since junior high, and now I stared at 40 pounds of books on the table, as if they were written in Sanskrit. From my second-floor vantage in the college library, I stared into the scholarly hustle and bustle, checking out great figures and nailing the other longhaired guys who looked as strung out as me.

My new campus was awash in drugs, and I felt right at home, except for the stupid rules — college was too much like high school. Still, I felt like I owed my mother at least one try at obtaining a music degree. Mom clung to the vision of setting out the crystal at dinnertime for her son, “the music teacher,” and I might have stayed in college longer had someone handed me a saxophone and a bag of heroin instead of books — but history, math, psychology? Get real. I decided to explore this life for a while and get some new connections. Dad was footing the bill, anyway.

In a few weeks, I abandoned academia and firmly fastened to the underbelly of San Diego. I was 18 years old and believed that I was finally free; but a heroin addict can use up a lifetime in a few compressed years …

*****

On the streets of San Diego, I encountered a smorgasbord of religious do-gooders. A few were actually users, but most were goodhearted, well-meaning folk who had no idea what heroin addiction is all about. Months after leaving home for good, a Methodist lay minister, Jack, invited me to lunch. He had been a drug addict in his distant past, and Mom had pleaded with him to try and help me. Jack told me his story, and my lying eyes pretended sincerity as I listened.

“I tell you, Mike, Jesus set me free. He can do it for you.”

But I was free, and nothing on earth could sell me on handcuffing myself to this Jesus. Often Jack found me on a street corner or in a bar and tried to gently lead me toward getting treatment for my addiction. One day he scooped me up, and we headed for the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

“What’s it all about?” My eyes were glued to the pretty girl in a group of young adults seated in his van.

“The preacher is Katherine Kuhlman. She prays for people …”

In an overflowing 7,000-seat auditorium, I figured that I was in for a real show. The woman must have been more than 6 feet tall, and she wore a flowing white gown that touched the floor. When she gestured, her sleeves spread like angel wings, and, oh, how she gestured! I glanced around at her “flock,” who hung on each carefully-crafted syllable when she announced: “I believe in miracles …”

I felt entranced, listening to her describe a “Holy” spirit. The music, the praying, the theatrics — was I having an LSD flashback? The woman pointed to sections, naming diseases people suffered. She called for the sick to rise in faith and come for prayer, and they came.

Suddenly a strong, unearthly wave of energy coursed through my body, and I stood like a tuning fork, wondering what in the world had just tapped on my soul. Kuhlman was laying hands on hurting people at the front, and some were falling to the floor. Others were crying over their “healings.”

A hush fell over the auditorium when Kuhlman spread her angelic arms. “There is someone here that is seriously addicted to heroin.” She paused, and people gasped. “I challenge you to come forward, and let us pray for your deliverance!”

A spotlight passed by, and I froze. Several people were making their way to the front, and I relaxed a little. A girl Kuhlman touched trembled like a leaf. It seemed like this little junkie was having a withdrawal right on the stage. This was too much. Could “God” be telling this big freaky woman about me, too? I really needed a fix …

This unexpected event imprinted on me like no other had in my life. Something supernatural happened at the Shrine, and Jack’s forgiving, patient style in showing God’s love for me tapped the tuning fork in my soul over and over whenever I wasn’t high.

*****

Ray cocked the Dirty-Harry-sized revolver and pressed the cold barrel against my temple as I drove. We were both tumbling off a high, arguing about something stupid, and I recovered a couple milligrams of good sense to back down, just before he pulled the trigger. I slowed the car for Ray to get out at his house, and he left, screaming epithets.

Up the street I pulled over and leaned my head against the steering wheel. How close had I come to dying — again? I seemed to be dodging more and more “bullets” as I lived my unrestrained lifestyle, and I blamed heroin.

Maybe it really was time to kick it.

After a few short “cold-turkey” fiascos, I headed for the drug treatment center, situated right near my office, and the technicians immediately introduced a less addictive drug to replace the heroin that my brain and body craved: methadone.

Their hope was that with a free and never-ending supply of methadone, I would leave my crime-ridden lifestyle of dealing, robbing and shoplifting. But even at 70 milligrams of methadone, I couldn’t break free of the heroin noose. Instead, every day I marched into the clinic for a gulp of methadone, then set up drug deals like there was no tomorrow. Paid in heroin for my services, I shot up, oblivious to the fact that the law was watching.  

1971

I hate who I am. I hug my chest to stop shaking and clench my jaws so my teeth won’t chatter. I’m so cold; no, so hot, and I itch and can’t find a place on the bed where my muscles don’t cramp.

When I’m high, the heroin overpowers all the natural feel-good chemicals in me, replacing them with the alien opiate. It has invaded my brain and set up positions to protect its territory. None of my natural endorphins dare travel affirming pathways anymore, and only the needle can cure my sickness so I can feel normal again.

I’m puking bile and crapping all at once, and my one blanket is soiled, and, God! I need a fix. I stare longingly at a spent syringe, greasy surgical tubing and dirty spoons in a drawer that I yanked out and tossed from a nightstand.

I stumble to the sink and gape at myself in the mirror. I need to clean up before I go begging. I know dealers who might spot me enough heroin for a fix — my credit should be good. Everybody knows me. I’m a catalyst, a mover and shaker at the bars, liquor stores and street corners at 13th and Market Street.

The cops have busted some big dealers somewhere near the Mexican border, and everyone on the streets is freaking. But I’m the one suffering the worst, the middleman, because I need the heroin as much as any junkie buyer. I’ll shake down my connections, and see if they have anything stashed away for a rainy day. Someone does.

I vomit one more time and lurch out the door, wondering what I’ll have to do to get it …

*****

Friends in my heroin circle were dying, and I had just overdosed at a party at Big Bear in a psychedelic VW van. After a half hour of slapping me and punching my chest, my two emaciated hippie friends worried that they were delivering a corpse to the health clinic. I came round in the clinic parking lot before they dumped me out, and they took me back to the campsite. They finished “partying,” while I lay in a stupor for hours.

Black tar heroin is most often smuggled from Mexico and processed with less care than white powder heroin — experienced users know it can be lethal. But it hadn’t stopped me at Big Bear, and it didn’t stop Big Bill, either. Bill was a friend of mine who had a cult-like following of bikers; all us addicts congregated to party at his spacious home in the San Diego hills.

Big Bill was an architect, and I respected him for his skill in balancing a marriage, maintaining a corporate office in San Francisco and using more and varied drugs than any man I knew. When I sold him the Chiva (black tar heroin), I warned him about its potency; at the time, I had no idea that his wife would be picking out his coffin the next week.

Like me, he overdosed, but instead of coming round, his pulpy heart just gave out. A biker procession and drug party marked his passing.

I awoke one day, knowing that I had suddenly crossed the line and that either a fatal overdose or jail time lay dead ahead. But nothing could stop me from pushing the limits, right up to the end.

1972

I asked all the right questions to find any cracks in his story, and I studied his face for a tell; four ounces was a lot of heroin, but the man flashed a roll of hundreds, and I relaxed a little. A bartender that I trusted had turned me on to this buyer, and I had called my connection, Bob, to set up a meet.

“So, everything’s legit?” It rankled me that Bob asked. No one was better than me at spotting a setup. My survival depended on paranoia, and in my years as a thief, drug dealer and addict, “felony” had never been inked on a rap sheet downtown. I had examined the track marks on this guy’s arm myself.

It disgusted me on some anemic moral level that my heroin supplier, Bob, was a high school PE teacher. He leaned against a rollup delivery door at the Market Street Liquor Store, watching me walk nonchalantly in his direction. I discreetly handed him the cash, my back to the street.

“You count it?”

“Eight grand,” I said and headed back to the parked Buick, still running, where our buyer waited. I flopped down beside him and closed the car door. After a final glance up and down the street, I handed him his bag of white powder heroin. He licked his little finger and dipped it into the powder for a taste, and I looked away, saliva pooling in my own mouth.

Where he hid his .38 revolver I’ll never know, and my arrest was less of a shock than I expected it to be. Suddenly I had the right to “remain silent …” and it seemed like the right thing to do. The PE teacher was lying face down on the sidewalk, and agents were rifling through his pockets. More drug agents piled out of cars and from inside stores to gather around us, guns drawn.

Sitting in a patrol car, it occurred to me that being shackled to Jack’s gentle Jesus might not have been so bad. At the San Diego County Jail, my PE teacher shot me a look, sharp as needles, as he passed me on the way to the fish tank. He thought that I had snitched, and I thought it might be him. In an interrogation room, they sat me down and cuffed me to a chair, like I had a lot to talk about.

My arresting officer leaned into his words: “You got two ways to go, Mr. Ensch. Work for us, or go to prison. Your choice.”

I opted to take my chances with a judge rather than rat out my friends. It was the only “ethics” I had ever practiced — I would never sell out. My rap sheet now showed that I was arrested on three counts of sales and trafficking of narcotics, which demanded a five-years-to-life prison term. One look at my sunken face and my scored veins, and I was a candidate for a methadone maintenance program right at the jail — but I knew it would barely take the edge off my insatiable heroin craving. It was going to be a rocky few days until I could get back on the street to get a fix.

I called my mother to help me make bail, and I could hear the pain in her voice.

“I’ve got you a good lawyer,” she said, and she did more than that. At my grandmother’s urging, she contacted Teen Challenge, a faith-based organization committed to helping people “find freedom from addictive behavior” and “become socially and emotionally healthy, physically well and spiritually alive” (this was my mother’s new dream for me now).

A Teen Challenge minister visited me before my bail hearing, but I wasn’t buying into any of this Jesus hocus pocus. The man’s name was Jo Jo Martinez, a former drug addict and gangbanger in New York City. He had played a role in the life of gang leader Nicky Cruz, told about in a book called Run, Baby, Run, and here he sat with me in a jail interview room. Jo Jo left me a card with a Teen Challenge number and later came back with an Assemblies of God preacher named Dave Colbert.

Pastor Dave laid it out simple and straight: “Jesus can change your life, son. We serve a powerful God, and he has not given up on you.”

His faith in Jesus infected me from the first time we talked, and even though I expressed my doubts, he sounded convinced that I was a prospect for absolute deliverance.

“You don’t even know me, man. How can you be so sure?”

“I’ve seen it over and over again, Mike. And we have people at Teen Challenge that will help you learn to lead a fulfilling life, away from drugs. We call it ‘discipling.’”

After bail, I stayed at Mom and Dad’s house, isolated and sick at heart. My only outing: the clinic for my methadone treatment each day — I struggled not to hit the streets for a fix. Pastor Dave dropped by and discussed a long-term plan for my “deliverance,” and a faint ray of hope sometimes broke through to my mind as he talked. Was this “Holy Spirit” trying to get my attention? Could this Jesus that Dave served really take away my addiction?

“I have a proposition, Mike. I’m willing to go with you to court, if your attorney approves. I’ll help him present the Teen Challenge rehabilitation program as an alternative to your prison time.”

I balked inside: Prison — or Jesus stuff for one whole year at Teen Challenge. Which is worse?

My attorney seemed unimpressed at first, but agreed to give it a try. “The good news is that you don’t have any other felonies on your record. Maybe it’ll fly.”

I had my day in court and pled guilty to all counts, standing before the judge after he heard our proposal.

He looked thoughtful as he studied the Teen Challenge data. “I don’t know anything about this program, but I’m sure that if I sentence you to our California Rehabilitation Center at Norco, you’ll come out worse than you went in.

“There is one obstacle in your path, Mr. Ensch: The law states that you must serve time for your admitted crime. However …” The judge pursed his lips. “There is also a loophole. We can place your case on a contingency to be reviewed in one year. This means that you may be admitted to the Teen Challenge program for 12 months and be evaluated by their staff regularly. If you fail to cooperate, or if you leave the program, you’ll be standing right here before me again — and that will be that. You will serve out your time at Norco.”

My face must have looked hopeful. He frowned as he continued.

“Further, even if you complete this program successfully, there is no guarantee that you will not serve your sentence. I will take your evaluations into account, but the court may ultimately decide to send you to prison.”

After hearing horror stories about Norco, deferring my incarceration even for one minute was a relief, and I had no idea that I had begun God’s odyssey for my deliverance.

It would be six long weeks until a bed opened up at the Cucamonga Teen Challenge Center, and I was ordered to stay at home, away from my old haunts, except to get my oral fix each day at the methadone clinic. Pastor Dave gave me a copy of Run, Baby, Run to read and pass the time.

*****

I lay on my bed just before leaving for the clinic for treatment.

God, that’s me, I thought as I turned page after page in the book about Nicky Cruz and guys like Jo Jo Martinez. I knew what it meant to be brimming with rage and to possess a heart of stone. Knowing Jo Jo and seeing his name in print personalized the victory these men professed, and I sensed the Holy Spirit, as they called him, tapping my tuning fork over and over as I left to get my oral fix.

Inside the methadone clinic, I stopped dead before reaching the check-in window, and I noticed for the first time the assortment of empty-eyed junkies standing in lines and milling around.

And I was just like them.

What am I doing here? And how did I get here? The questions ignited in my soul, and somehow I knew that God’s Spirit was changing my mind right there in the clinic — I walked out on a drug fix (of any sort) for the first time in my life.

“Mom, I’m coming home, and I need you to give me some space. I’ve got to get off drugs for good this time.”

After my phone call, I found extra blankets, towels, pitchers of juice and a gallon of water waiting for me in my bedroom. I called Pastor Dave to let him know that I would be facing withdrawal for about a week or more and that it would get ugly.

“Trust God, and he’ll give you the strength, Mike,” he said.

I entered my bedroom, hoping to slam the door on my addiction forever.

*****

Either this Nicky Cruz is the biggest conman I’ve ever known, or he is telling the truth, and God can help me, too …

Being closed in a room with God is a powerful experience. Jesus didn’t manifest himself in a visible form. He didn’t give me a vision or speak to me in an audible voice. I didn’t even have a Bible — but I knew the God of the universe was touching me as I read Run, Baby, Run. 

I wept like a baby as I identified with the hopeless lives of gang members in New York, and I marveled at their deliverance when they committed their lives to Jesus Christ. Withdrawal—day two— came and went, and I knew from experience that the heroin freight train with my name on it was coming around the bend. I expected vomiting, chills and diarrhea to crush me any moment.

Day four: not one symptom of disgusting withdrawal.

Day five: NOTHING.

I had been using 70 milligrams of methadone per day legally, and I should have been curled in the fetal position, crying for a syringe or pill.

When Mom checked on me, I kept telling her that the worst days were about to hit soon …

Day six and — this is crazy.

I called Pastor Dave. “Brother, this sounds to me like divine healing,” was all he could say.

“What’s that?”

“I can’t really explain it. It’s supernatural. God’s healing your body and purging out your system.”

Now he had my attention. I finished reading the final chapters of Run, Baby, Run, and I felt like a gnat in a windstorm as I pondered this Jesus freak show going on inside me. Six weeks flew by (I never visited the methadone clinic again), and Mom and I drove to Cucamonga, to the Teen Challenge intake facility as per my agreement with the court.

*****

Where are the “teens”? And these guys can’t ALL be delivered.

I wanted to grab them and roll up their sleeves to see if they really had track marks — but these dudes were really scary: hard-timers, some shiv-scarred with prison pallor, Chicanos from East LA and serious dope fiends. Yet their eyes weren’t dead like the cons I knew on the streets. These men carried Bibles and hummed “Jesus Loves Me.”

I was confused that first day, suspicious — then unhinged when I was assigned KP, washing toilets and vacuuming. All had responsibilities, and they took their jobs very seriously. Bud Drake, their baby-faced chaplain, said it was a requirement that I attend chapel every evening, and I seriously considered just walking out the door. It would have been the biggest blunder of my sorry life, if I had.

So I attended my first chapel, under duress, slouching down in the back row and, at first, smirking at the off-tune whiskey voices singing:

I traveled down a lonely road

And no one seemed to care;
The burden on my weary back

Had bowed me to despair …

As I listened to the song by Ira Forest Stanphill, suddenly I could barely breathe, and I knew exactly where this strange sensation came from. God was tapping my shoulder— again. I slid out of my seat and onto the floor in gut-level surrender, and I couldn’t hold back the crying. Waves of tearful sorrow swept through me, and those big hulking cons understood what was going on. They were all around me, praying, and I asked God to forgive me for all my years of selfish living. I gave my past, present and future to Jesus.

For the next three months at the center, I devoured the Bible, and the words from Jesus streamed into my consciousness, filling up the old ruts left by heroin. My commitment to God marked the end of my old life and the beginning of a year I can never forget.

God would soon send me a guide, a champion, a friend.

*****

I never dreamed that I would live in a castle.

I had completed the first phase of my rehab at Cucamonga, and Teen Challenge moved me to Riverside for my final nine months, to a facility known as the Benedict Castle. Purchased by TC in 1971, the grounds were dedicated to God as a training center for men. Through intense spiritual and vocational classes and internships, the leaders and teachers at the castle helped prepare emotionally bankrupt men for going home to families and living and working in their communities.

The word of God fascinated me, but general education did not. So when the director ordered me to enroll in an English class, I chafed at the waste of my time. I spoke to the teacher on my first day.

“Look, I learned English in high school. I have better things to do …”

But Ms. Danette seemed unmoved by my argument. “They’re not going to let you off, Mr. Ensch. You’d better just knuckle down, and get it over with. And I’ll help you.”

When I surrendered my life to Christ at the chapel in Cucamonga, God left my manly faculties completely intact, and I had been doing great at keeping thoughts about the opposite sex at bay. But I couldn’t help but notice that Ms. Danette was quite shapely, and I unexpectedly found myself agreeing that I needed some coaching in writing skills and grammar …

With every tutoring session, we grew friendlier. She had been hired as a teacher at the castle for just a couple months when we met, and by her third month, we struggled to keep our feelings under wraps. During one chapel, as we sat across the room from one another, our eyes locked, and both of us knew we were falling for each other — hard.  

Thank God for good Christian counsel. Bud Drake had been assigned to the castle as chaplain, and we brought our thorny issue to him for advice. It was impossible to hide our growing interest in one another, and people were talking.

“Mike, be careful. You have EVERYTHING on the line here. Remember?”

I knew the rule: No fraternizing with the staff, so I asked the reasonable question: “Exactly what does ‘careful’ look like, Bud?”

He smiled. “I need to talk to the staff about this.”

Director John Braddock was a red-haired giant with hands the size of basketballs, a former drug addict who had been saved through Teen Challenge. A wonderful woman had married John, though several friends had warned her against marrying a former junkie. We could never have picked better advocates than God did.

“Baby steps, Mike. Got it?” I understood what John meant very well: GO SLOW. I prayed that Danette and I were traveling in the right direction.

As the weeks passed, I kept asking Danette a question: “Have you written your family about us?”

And I got the same answer: “Not yet.”

I left it up to her on how to break the news to her father, a Pentecostal pastor of a Maryland church. I imagined her father’s face if she ever sent the letter:

Dear Dad, I am falling in love with a recovering heroin addict. He’s enrolled in rehab right now and facing possible incarceration in a California prison. Hope you and Mom are fine …

But Danette wasn’t just stalling. She was praying and watching — me. She observed that my growing capacity to “commit” was chipping away at the old effects of waffling and indecision. True devotion slowly set up like mortar as I built upon my Cornerstone (Jesus). Her decision to blend her life with mine hadn’t yet been confirmed to her, but when the Spirit spoke, the whole world would know.

About a month before my court date, a broken man healed by Jesus proposed, and a woman of extraordinary faith accepted the challenge of a lifetime. Danette wrote her father. And the letter she received from him is one more miracle in my life that I treasure:

I have spent considerable time praying and crying out to the Lord. I haven’t met Mike, but God has made it perfectly clear to me that I am to trust him. God has a plan …

The wedding in the Benedict Castle courtyard would be elegant, and as Danette prepared bouquets and wedding decorations, I readied to stand before judges in black robes. Her folks were flying in from Maryland, and I nervously looked forward to meeting these wonderful people, whose daughter I cherished. Danette’s parents arrived at the castle two days before our ceremony.

An inexplicable, beautiful tenderness passes between a godly daughter and a dad in the midst of family upheaval, and I marveled at this phenomenon when Danette recounted to her father what she hadn’t written in her letter home: I still had to be sentenced, and instead of a tuxedo and corsage, I might be wearing a prison jumpsuit and be shackled to the wrists of other felons. As Danette’s “chosen,” I might spend years in prison.

After the initial shock, Danette’s father responded in faith rather than emotion as he told her gently, “It’ll be all right. Trust God.”

We needed one more miracle.

*****

After a full day of scrutiny, testimony and evaluation by psychologists and the court, I stood before the man known by some as a “hanging” judge.

Two questions had to be answered fully to his satisfaction: Was I still addicted to heroin, and was I in “imminent danger of addiction?”

It’s not really a good time to get married …

Remembering Director Braddock’s words stung me a little as I waited for this Superior Court judge to look up from his sheaf of reports and evaluations. I detected the wisp of a smile before he bore into me with eyes of experienced appraisal.

“Mr. Ensch. What exactly are your plans if you reenter society?”

Suddenly I really understood “contingency” in a new light. Jesus was shaping the judgments of the court for his own purposes; I stood before God with a promise to serve him, more binding than any promise I could ever make to the justice system. And it wasn’t the judge who held my future in his hands — it was God.

“Your Honor, I am to be married …” A fleeting vision of Danette dressed in a white satin gown sitting alone among courtyard roses made me pause.

“I’ve been accepted to Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, and I have a job with a printing company waiting for me. We have an apartment and money for the first semester of college. We have a car …”

He already knew most of what I rattled off, and at the end of my clarifying statements, he spoke with a frank satisfaction in his tone.

“Mr. Ensch, I sentence you to three years probation. I’ll assign you to a Santa Cruz probation office, so that you may be close to your chosen college — please see your probation officer regularly. And report to our San Diego probation office to sign the appropriate papers.” He tapped his gavel. “That’s all.”

That’s all?

Only a man on the edge of absolute ruin can comprehend the true meaning of the word rescued. Waves of relief crashed against my emotions as I left the courthouse and into the waiting arms of my Danette. We were married in the castle courtyard amid family and true friends, and no experience in my life has ever equaled the same fulfillment that I felt.

*****

This “happy ending” to my story is really only the beginning.

For nearly 40 years, I have been drug free, with no relapses. God has been the center of my life, guiding me and opening doors of ministry.

After my marriage to Danette, I graduated from Bethany Bible College four years later with honors and the added blessing of twin daughters. God miraculously gifted us with financial help at crucial times and later dropped a full-ride tuition fellowship for Fuller Theological Seminary into my lap. My son was born during my seminary training at Fuller.

My 30-plus years of full-time prison ministry have been filled with great joy as I served inmates within the California Youth Authority at Chino, San Quentin State Prison and the Alaska prison system.

You may wonder why prison officials allow me, a former heroin addict and felon, to mingle with incarcerated men and women whenever I choose.

Another miracle.

Just like Christ declared me “not guilty” because of his sacrifice, the California court system entered a plea of “not guilty” where I had pled “guilty” and expunged my record. I became a new creation in the eyes of Christ and man.

*****

The Birth of the Transformational Living Community (TLC):

180-Degree Change

My heart aches for incarcerated men and women in prisons throughout America.

They live within and outside prison walls. During my years in corrections, much of my energy has been invested in wading through mired bureaucracies and, in particular, flawed programs to find a better way of empowering prisoners through a deep personal encounter with God, a Master in transforming lives. No more jailhouse religion, superficial commitments and programs that do not work.

After I worked many years in the trenches, God began sculpting ideas about a new approach to affect deep change in offenders before their release. My frustration had grown over our parolees who fell headlong into the arms of corruption soon after their release. Often they returned to the cold comfort of steel and concrete. People in corrections call this the “revolving door.”

What if we created a Christian community inside prison walls — where inmates committed themselves to living 12 to 18 months of their prison term discovering Biblical principles as Christ’s disciples? What if each man or woman could be monitored and evaluated by other “mentor” inmates and supported by visiting Christian volunteers to prepare offenders for reentry into society? And what if we could provide hard evidence that our faith-based system substantially reduced recidivism (relapse into crime)?

But then, especially in politics and business, we live in an imperfect world. It would only be through God’s intervention in prison politics that men of faith could retrofit “shame-based” or “blame-it-on-parents” therapies with God’s healing word. And my PhD friends would be livid if Jesus dared to set up shop in their sacred groves.

But that’s just what Jesus did.

After an ambitious, but stressful, pilot program at Florence Correctional Center, Arizona, our spiritual change factory invaded the first Alaska prison at Palmer Correctional Center. Then we opened a program at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center for Women.

The name we prayerfully chose for the program brims with meaning: Transformational Living Community — TLC.

During my two decades of building and revamping Alaska’s chaplaincy and residential programs, I discovered wonderful friends in the state offices who agreed with my conviction that the hearts of offenders must change before behaviors will. And my focus on constructing a faith-based machine on a secular chassis caught the imaginations of community leaders and pastors. Our chapel services exploded with dynamic seminars, open forums and Bible training courses in a residential setting — just a rock’s toss from our curious prison populations.

Today our Christ-centered “hybrid” TLC combines faith-based therapies and courses with personal mentoring and practical Christian service opportunities for our residents. In housing units separated from the general prison population, up to 70 offenders live and learn vocational skills while working closely with one another. And our purpose is to instill high levels of accountability, personal responsibility and Biblical repentance into the lives of the residents before they reenter society.

Success?

Graduates from our Transformational Living Communities are only 33 percent likely to reoffend within three years of release, while the national rates hover at 66 percent.

The payoff shouts loudly from the stories you will read in Warriors of Transformation:

Danielle, beaten by a boyfriend and hooked on cocaine; Roy, who sexually abused his daughter; Timothy, an Alaskan Native craftsman, drunk on the streets of Anchorage.

These and other ex-offenders have been captured in the pages of brutal reality and now lead clean and fruitful lives away from prison.

2011

Today as I work on my computer at my office in Anchorage, I glance out my window and catch sight of an Alaskan bald eagle plucking a silver salmon from Ship Creek. I’m just so amazed as I scroll through my life. I’ve been here for 22 years as Administrator of Chaplaincy Services for the Alaska Department of Corrections, and I still thrill when I hear God striking that tuning fork in the souls of incarcerated men and women. None are beyond the reach of God’s love and deliverance. None are too hardened or too consumed with addictions to be saved.

I know.

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