Prisoner released from double life sentence to start churches in prisons throughout the U.S.

by Tobin Perry, |
Saddleback pastors commission former California inmate Danny Duchene (kneeling) as its newest pastor. He'll focus on planting new churches in U.S. prisons. His wife, Susan, stands beside him. | Saddleback Church

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (Christian Examiner)—At worship services last weekend Saddleback Church commissioned Danny Duchene —who had spent 33 years in a California prison—as a pastor. Duchene will lead the church's efforts to put a church in every prison in the United States.

"As I stand here today, I'm aware I'm only here by God's mercy," Duchene told the assembled crowd during one of Saddleback's worship services. "I am very grateful to the pastors, friends and family that God has shown his mercy through. The Bible says in James 2:13 that 'mercy triumphs over judgment.' My life is an example of that truth."

Duchene's testimony came as part of Rick Warren's sermon called "God Can Use Anybody," during a message series on "The Miracle of Mercy."

"I now know that God has brought me from the inside out to proclaim that God's mercy is the key to inner freedom—whether your prison is physical, emotional, spiritual or relational."

A California court sentenced Duchene to a double life sentence for his part in a robbery that left two men dead in 1982. He says he never imagined that he'd ever be let out of prison. Yet more than three decades later he calls his arrest and imprisonment, his "rescue" from a life of drug and alcohol addiction.

"Sitting in a county jail before my trial, it took about three weeks to withdraw from the drugs and alcohol," Duchene said. "But once I became sober, the full weight of my crimes and what I had done came crashing down on my conscience. I was overwhelmed with depression and remorse as I realized how many people I had hurt. I believed I was lost and going to Hell, and I was truly, truly afraid."

The California native came to faith in Christ shortly after his arrest and before his 1983 sentencing. He appeared on Saddleback's radar in 2003 when a small group of 20 at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, Calif., he was a part of wrote to the church because they wanted to participate in 40 Days of Purpose, a spiritual growth campaign built around Warren's bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life. Duchene and the others hoped to involve 50 of their fellow inmates in the study. More than 200 would eventually sign up. According to Duchene, violence often controlled the prison before the campaign, but during 40 Days of Purpose, there were no riots nor fights in the prison.

Later that year Warren came to the prison to preach and to help launch a 'purpose-driven church' within Sierra Conservation Center.

"That night more than 100 men gathered on the prison yard to claim the Sierra Prison as God's holy ground," Duchene said. "As an act of humble reverence, this group of men stood in a circle in the prison yard, and we all removed our shoes as we prayed for the men in each of the cell block buildings."

In keeping with the principles of Warren's bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Church, the new congregation named "directors" for each of the five biblical purposes—worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. They began going through Saddleback's Celebrate Recovery program, which is designed to help people overcome hurts, habits and hang-ups that hold people back spiritually. In 2004, Saddleback awarded the church, with Duchene as its leader, the Healthy Church Award.

The prison provided an entire 200-capacity building to house any prisoner who was willing to be a part of Celebrate Recovery, commit to being in a small group, have an accountability sponsor and complete a Rick Warren study on biblical fellowship. The success of the program—and the church—made national news as the New York Times and others highlighted it.

Duchene says Warren first mentioned that he'd like to hire him as a pastor at Saddleback back in 2003. Flattered, Duchene figured there was no chance with a double life sentence hanging over his head.

"But, as Pastor Rick preached last week in his Easter message, God specializes in making the impossible possible," Duchene said.

In 2014 Warren wrote an impassioned letter to the parole board and the California governor asking for Duchene's parole. On Christmas Even 2014, the state released him. He spent the next year fulfilling parole requirements in San Francisco and serving as a drug and alcohol counselor. He was also married a year after his release.

"I now know that God has brought me from the inside out to proclaim that God's mercy is the key to inner freedom—whether your prison is physical, emotional, spiritual or relational. By God's mercy and grace, I will serve you for Jesus' sake as best as I am able," Duchene told the congregation.