“When in doubt, love people,” says Erin Wagner (left), an ex-offender whose ministry passion is sharing Christ with prisoners. Here, she stands with Kimberly Campbell, chaplain at the prison where Wagner was once incarcerated and now volunteers.
Growing up, Erin Wagner never felt good enough. The only child of an absent alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother who was more of a peer than a parent, the Columbia, S.C., woman spent her youth navigating a broken home and layers of guilt and abuse.
"It was like Flowers in the Attic," Wagner said, referring to V.C. Andrews' novel about a manipulative mother. "No matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. If I got straight As, it had to be better. She would slap me, say the meanest things. ‘You're just like your father. You'll never do anything.'"
Depressed and alone, Wagner numbed the pain with prescription drugs. But the fog took over; she was arrested five times, from age 14 until she went to prison at 25.
It was in prison that she found her ultimate path to salvation. And today, thanks to a relationship with Christ courtesy of the people Wagner said God put in her path, she has turned her life around. Married with two sons and a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Blythewood, S.C., she directs marketing and development for Alston Wilkes Society, helping former offenders and others rebuild their lives. Just as important is her leadership with Kairos Prison Ministry, which shares God's love with prisoners.
Now, Wagner has a passion to carry out her God-given mission.
"I know my purpose: to be an example of what, through others, Christ did for me," Wagner said from her desk at Alston Wilkes, surrounded by pictures of those who have helped her. "To whom much is given, much is expected, and if I ever forget that, I'm in trouble. He wouldn't have blessed me if he didn't expect me to be that for somebody else."
One abuser to another
It took a long time, and much pain, to get where she is now. As a teen, Wagner was so overwhelmed by abuse and despair that she wanted to die.
"I remember thinking as I lay in bed, ‘I'll just kill myself and be done with it.'"
Wagner, who had skipped two grades, graduated at 16 and left home. At first, life was normal. She had a boyfriend and a job. She attended the University of South Carolina, hoping to be a guidance counselor.
But she was 16, reeling from years of dysfunction and did not know how to make positive life choices. Her boyfriend used drugs and became abusive.
When Wagner got pregnant with her son, Tyler, she quit school. After Tyler's birth, life took a dramatic turn. She had given birth early by C-section and had postpartum depression. Doctors prescribed medication – her introduction to pain pills.
Her boyfriend's abuse escalated from shoving to hitting to threatening to kill their newborn. He also began stealing money from her, causing her to bounce a dozen checks and spend a night in jail.
Desperate and terrified, she fled to the one place she had vowed never to return.
"My mother had to be better than this; at least she wouldn't try to kill Tyler," she recalls thinking.
But her mother began using Tyler to manipulate her, leading Wagner to seek refuge in prescription pain pills. A few pills turned into more. As her judgment worsened, she was arrested on minor charges.
"You don't realize when you're past the point of no return," she said.
Finally, she was arrested on fraud charges for ordering pain medications from a clinic where she worked.
This was her fifth arrest, and she found herself in the courtroom of then-Circuit Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, whom Wagner calls her "saving grace."
"Judge Childs said, ‘You're not a bad girl. You're a broken girl.' From that bench, she gave me more wisdom and compassion than my mother ever did. She said, ‘I'm doing this because you need to get better. I'm giving you the next three-and-a-half years' vacation to focus on you, to focus on programs and opportunities. Don't waste one minute of it.'
"And I didn't."
For the first time, she felt someone believed in her.
In prison, Wagner took every opportunity: Bible studies, counseling, Kairos, co-dependency groups,Celebrate Recovery. She learned she had worth.
She seldom saw Tyler. "But when I did, I learned how to spend quality time and be a real mom." They played Monopoly, and Wagner just sat and listened.
In Kairos, she started noticing that instead of spouting Scripture, people would simply sit and talk with her, as she was doing with Tyler.
"They didn't put me down. They lifted me up, tried to hug me. It blew my mind. Why in the world would they come see people who are unworthy? My own mother wouldn't see me."
She let her guard down, began to feel loved.
"Then I started noticing my counselor would slip in little things about faith during conversations," Wagner said. "She'd say, ‘You're here because you matter to somebody. You might think you're unworthy, but you didn't die. You're here for something. What could that be?'"
Wagner looked back at her life and realized someone had always been by her side: Christ.
He was there keeping her safe when her world was crumbling, there in those who helped her: judges, chaplains, Kairos volunteers, fellow offenders, prison officers.
She realized God had put people in her life at the perfect times, right when she had needed them.
After Wagner was released in 2008, she taught youth offenders and continued with Celebrate Recovery at local churches. Tyler went with her. Soon, they found their way to Trinity. On their first visit, she recognized the former prison chaplain, and a man wearing a Kairos shirt stood up to speak. She knew she had found the right church home.
Today, she is active at Trinity and reaches out to former offenders new to church. She is married to Max, and besides Tyler, now 16, they have another son, Bryce, 4.
Her relationship with Kairos deepened. With fellow volunteers, she now spends several weekends a year in prisons, sharing Christ's love with inmates. She also chairs the Camille Graham Chapel Foundation, formed to build a chapel at her former prison. There, she leads planning for the warden, associate warden, chaplain and volunteers – people who once directed her.
In 2010, she received another opportunity: a position created for her at Alston Wilkes to tell her story and the stories of other former offenders and at-risk people. Her task is sharing the group's mission to spread awareness and raise funds.
"I couldn't do this job if I hadn't been through what I had," she said. "It's important for me to be the hands and feet of Christ because, in my mind, showing people what I was shown is my ministry."
Her husband and children embrace her story, telling it often.
"My son Tyler is always telling his football team, ‘Well, my mom was in prison,'" she said, laughing. "We're proud of it. It's made us who we are. There was a time when I didn't know me, and now I have complete confidence that God's always got me, and no matter where he sends me, I'll be all right."
She and Tyler have a strong relationship, and she knows she has broken the cycle – thanks to God and all the people God put in her path.