Sitting behind the metal bars of his Florida jail cell, Shawn O’Neill could not fully imagine the extraordinary plans that God had in store for his future.
Growing up in an abusive home in Detroit, Mich., O’Neill was raised by his stepfather and mother, both alcoholics. The oldest of five boys, he recalls exhibiting serious signs of rage, drug and alcohol use, and erratic behavior by his teenage years. O’Neill says he had “a lot of religion” in his younger years, attending Catholic and Lutheran schools, but he never personally experienced a relationship with God. As years dragged on, he became involved in heavier drugs and continued his downward spiral, including run-ins with the police and expulsion from high school.
After several years in the Army, O’Neill returned to his hometown after learning his stepfather had incurable cancer. Then came a life-altering event. During a night of heavy drinking, O’Neill drove his stepfather to a bar to pick up his mother. Both extremely intoxicated, O’Neill’s stepfather encouraged him to “slam on the gas” and get a feel for the new Nissan. Extreme speeds and slick roads resulted in disaster; At a turn ahead, the car veered out of control, slammed into a large tree, and split in half. O’Neill was injured and his stepfather was dead.
O’Neill got five years probation.
A few years later, in 1998, O’Neill moved to Florida with his girlfriend, to reinvent himself and get his life on track. He graduated from culinary school and landed a director’s position at a huge Miami catering company. His career was falling into place, but he’d never evolved beyond some of his past ways. He became heavily involved with the underground drug and party scene in Miami, selling Ecstasy for extra money. Shortly before Christmas 2000, O’Neill received a reality check. Spaced out from a cocaine binge, he walked into a police sting in Hollywood and tried to sell Ecstasy to an undercover police officer. His luck dodging jail was about to run out.
For the next three months, O’Neill sat in a jail cell before posting bond. Back home, he married his girlfriend, and they conceived their first child. While waiting to be sentenced for his Hollywood drug crime, O’Neill was arrested for being in an altercation in a bar. His jail bond was revoked. Facing ten years in prison, he recalls finally realizing what a disaster his life had become: “On the outside, everything looked fine. I had a great job, had gotten married, was about to have a child and just bought a home. On the inside, I felt like I was dying.”
At 29, O’Neill was sentenced to five years in jail. His wife decided to break ties with him. “I finally cried out to God, and just said over and over again, ‘Lord, please help me.’ I finally saw myself for the first time. The Lord showed me that even in my complete rebellion and sinfulness, He had given me so much in my life, saved me so many times, and I had used it all selfishly for myself, thinking about no one else.”
Bridges of America
With no mother or wife to enable him any longer, O’Neill turned his life over to the Lord. “The Spirit of God came to me in jail and it was one of the most amazing things that I had ever experienced. I was worried, scared and hopeless in the cell, but God put His hand on my heart, and I had peace for the first time in my entire life. Though my actual situation didn’t change, I finally had peace and joy and a permanent smile on my face. I knew I was born again and became a new creation in Christ.”
Later transferred to a work-release center, Bridges of America, O’Neill got a job that placed him only 15 minutes from his son. “I would attend class everyday, where we would learn about criminal thinking and addiction issues,” explains O’Neill. He also credits many of his life changes to Ginery Twichell, the chaplain for Bridges.
“The experience at Bridges of America was incredible. God was with me the whole time. I almost felt like I was at a Bible college. I read the Word of God everyday, fasted and prayed continually with other guys at the facility. One of the best things that I learned to do was keep a daily prayer journal, dictating what I felt from God as I would pray to Him on a daily basis. Prison can be a deadly place, but God watched over me the entire time I was there, and now I have a relationship with Him that sustains me on a daily basis,” he adds.
O’Neill met his current wife a year before his release, after which they attended Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale for worship.
O’Neill soon met Raeanne Hance, executive director of Prison Fellowship Ministries in Georgia and Florida. She became O’Neill’s mentor, invited him to his first prison fellowship meeting, and helped him become a certified volunteer through the Department of Corrections. O’Neill began to pray with another couple who attended the meetings; through prayer and meditation on Psalm 40:1-3, the three came up with Out of the Miry Clay ministries.
Out of the Miry Clay
O’Neill describes the Life as “A place where essentially, we support ex-offenders in living a different lifestyle than they previously lived. You don’t have to be a Christian to attend, but our suggestions are going to be based on the Word of God. We are here to be a lighthouse to those people who are seeking refuge. To the ex-offenders who want to do things differently, are sick and tired and are ready to live a new way of life, and may still have a lot of burnt bridges due to their actions, we are here for them. Transitioning from prison to the real world can be a struggle, but God has placed it in our hearts to make a difference in the lives of these people and to help them.”
O’Neill is the prison Life coordinator at One Hope. He has his current supervisors, David and Robert Hoskins, to thank for bringing Out of the Miry Clay to fruition; they have given him a free space at The Forum in North Broward to hold the monthly support-group meetings.
“God is rising up an army of leaders from behind prison walls, and to be used by the Lord is an amazing thing. I want to tell other offenders my life story and let them know that I have so much purpose in my life today. There is no better reward or blessing than obedience to God. I am now a husband and father, but most importantly a servant for God. It’s not about me anymore, Glory be to God. He did this for me, and I know that He could do this [for] others also,” adds O’Neill.
Support group meetings for ex-offenders are held the last Tuesday of every month, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at The Forum, located at 600 Southwest 3rd street, Pompano Beach, FL, 33060. For more information about Out of the Miry Clay, please visit, www.OutoftheMiryClay.org.