By Violette Berger
Although not destined for celebrity in the world of entertainment, John Denson is a celebrity within the Federal prison system. Previously known as a three-time loser, John has been transformed by God into a winner of souls. John was born in Detroit, Michigan. His life s odyssey started in the Motown era, in the projects, known for producing some of the most famous Motown recording artists. As a matter of fact, he lived close to Diana Ross of The Supremes fame. John himself sang in a group but barely missed celebrity: It seems that God had other plans for John.
He had a reputation as a wild child. So his mother, employed as a domestic in the Jewish community, would take him to work with her to keep him out of trouble, assigning him duties to help her around the homes where she worked. His experience with Jewish people was positive. One Jewish man in particular, a veterinarian, spent a lot of time encouraging John mainly to stay in school but to no avail. John eventually dropped out in the ninth grade, became a drug addict and dealer, a thief, a gang leader, and a professional con man. Unfortunately, what thrilled and impacted John the most about the Jewish people were Jewish gangsters! “I really admired them and wanted to be like them,” he recalls. “So I got involved with what was called the Jewish mafia. I had always seen the solidarity of the Jewish people, but was particularly impressed by the gangsters especially their sheer brazenness in doing crime. They liked me and always said that I had a lot of chutzpah (guts) in the way that I did things.”
Eventually, however, John’s lifestyle caught up with him, and he landed in prison a habitual offender. He had heard the Gospel from his mother, aunts, and uncles but John thought they were rather foolish and childish that the God they spoke of was a white-folks God. As far as he was concerned, having been involved in the Jewish community, he believed that their God was God. “When I would go with my mother to those Jewish homes, they would tell me Bible stories which amazed me, but I thought it was an alien God not one for us. I was exposed to the observance of Passover and the Jewish holy days, but we never talked about religion. I couldn t figure out how to put the two together Jesus the Messiah and the Jewish people. Insofar as they were concerned, Jesus wasn t God.”
The Bible didn’t make an impact on John until he attended a workshop that made the Gospel message plain and understandable. By the time John was 25 years old, he was married, had two children, and had been in prison twice. “The third time on my way back to prison,” he says, “I had three contracts out on my life. I was hopelessly hooked on heroin. Family and friends had given up on me. I had nothing but a deep sense of worthlessness, disillusionment, and despair.” During one stint in prison, John began reading the Scriptures for himself, on the advice of a police officer who used to chase him through the alleys. But the Bible still wasn’t making an impact until he attended a workshop taught by Chuck Colson, who made the Gospel message plain and understandable. He recalls, “Following the teaching, I was the only inmate who stood up, wanting to know more, and Chuck began to cry and gave me a verse to read, 1 John 1:9, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That’s what I wanted to be clean I didn’t care about being saved. That didn’t make any sense to me. I read that Scripture over and over for about three or four months. It literally became life within me.”
John had no peace. The words ”confess and cleanse” reverberated constantly in his mind and seemed to take root in his heart. “Finally,” John says, ”One night I got up from my bunk and fell to my knees, with my face down on the floor of my cell, and invited Jesus Christ to come into my life. Instantly, I knew the cleansing power of the Blood of the Lamb, and, although I was still behind bars, I was a free man. That was an incredible experience.” Following that life-changing experience in September, 1977, the first thing God did was to bring an Associate Warden who was a Jewish believer to the prison. John had to report to him for job assignments, and once he told him that he, too, was now born-again, the Associate Warden offered to disciple John. He taught him many things concerning Passover, and also tutored John so that he could earn his GED. Shortly after that, John got involved with Chuck Colson’s ministry, Prison Fellowship.
Then God opened the door that would allow John to receive a formal education. Filled with awe even to this day, John relates, “I was furloughed out of prison to go to school. In retrospect, looking back at my life, God has always used the Jewish people one way or another in my life. So, as a believer, a lot of great things began to happen. I was able to go to Wheaton College, sponsored by Colson’s ministry. Remember now, I was still an inmate, but I was going to school. On top of that, I was a three-time loser but they still let me out on furlough.” This was particularly remarkable since John had escape written on his record. He had attempted to escape during his second prison term. When this appears on an inmate’s record, they don’t give him what John received, community custody, and allow a prisoner to leave to attend school. John knew that only God could have worked this out.
While at Wheaton College, John met Jay Kessler, who was then president of Youth for Christ. He encouraged John and invited him to become involved with Youth for Christ upon his release. John’s wife, Donna, went to see a pastor, trying to help John get paroled. The pastor told her, “That’s not what he needs, and that’s not what you need.” Instead, he led her to the Lord. Donna was subsequently able to join John at Wheaton College for three weeks. During this time, God used another Jewish believer, George Lanford Pleasant, to share with John and Donna and explain to them the principles of marriage and parenting. Once John was released from prison and went home, he was prompted by God to ask his wife for forgiveness for not being a man of God. He understood how much he had hurt her. Then John went to each of his children, his in-laws, and other family members and asked for forgiveness. According to John, God took the worst one in the family me and turned me around. It was so easy to share with aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Their usual response was, If you could change, there must be a God. Tell us about Him! As a result, today all of John’s family is saved, his children, grandchildren, and his wife’s family.
Life on the outside for John took shape in the form of ministry. He and Donna were living by faith, working with Youth for Christ and Chuck Colson’s ministry, Prison Fellowship. Returning to prison to minister so soon after his release was quite unusual. As a rule, a former prisoner had to be out for a certain length of time, with an established track record. However, God opened the door which allowed John and Donna to share with inmates what He had done for them. Chuck Colson established a curriculum and soon John was traveling and visiting prisons throughout the country. Eventually, Donna was able to join him, and arrangements were made for her to minister to the wives. Some of the inmates were even furloughed out to attend the Denson’s Bible studies, seminars, and workshops. God also brought some well-known Christians into their lives. Through Youth for Christ, they met Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Manford Gussey, and Norman Geisler. John said, It was like a Who’ s Who of Christendom, but, at the time, we didn’t know who they were.
Because the ministry demanded so much of their time, the Densons were away from home a lot, and their children became resentful, feeling that their parents ministry was a bigger priority than they were. The Densons resigned to spend more time with their children. It was then that they met Jewish believers Loren and Martha Jacobs. As they learned more about the Jacobs ministry, God led the Densons to support them and other Jewish Ministries, as well. John said, God had put a passion in my heart for the Jewish people my wife and I both love the Jewish people, but we did not understand what God wanted us to do. John heard about CJFM from the radio, listening to Dr. Charles Halff. When they started supporting CJFM, and received the newsletter, the Densons began filling their library with tapes by Dr. Halff and Gary Hedrick and with literature emphasizing the Jewish perspective of the Scriptures. The Densons also began to assess the needs of their community. They had been working with both youth and adults, and also ministering locally in prisons through their own organization, New Life Ministries. People were coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus, but they lacked practical skills in terms of money management, parenting, and social interaction. God brought Loren and Martha back into their lives and began bonding them together through prayer and fellowship. It became apparent that John and Loren had a compatible vision. Loren’s desire was to get the Black community involved in Jewish evangelism, and John wanted the Black community exposed to the economic solidarity and literacy evidenced in the Jewish people. John and Loren thought that there could be some exchange of services in these areas.
John was now with Shalom ministries. He and Loren conducted Passover and Pentecost services together, involving four other churches. Loren explained God’s Word from a Jewish perspective. John and Loren were encouraged by the fellowship between the groups and the positive impact it was having on their perceptions of each other. Since then, God has opened more doors. Loren conducts financial seminars for the Black community, and, in return, about twelve pastors are interested in Jewish ministries. There is sometimes fear and distrust between Blacks and Jews. While John was in prison, he saw that most young Blacks are exposed to Islam not true Islam, but national Islam which is hostile to Judaism. John began seeking opportunities to reach these young men to teach them why it is important to support Israel, primarily through a Bible study he developed called “Why We Owe Israel a Debt.”
Loren advised John about the necessity of additional training, specifically about the Jewish roots of Christianity and Jewish evangelism. In order to prepare him, God then opened another door for John the opportunity to attend the Jewish Evangelism Training (JET) Program in Phoenix. John was given a JET brochure, an obvious answer to prayer so John called Barry Berger (CJF Director of Missions) who coordinates the JET Program. In John s own words, God used two Jewish brothers in the Lord to get me there! John and Donna have been living in a Jewish community for seven years. He feels that the teaching at JET has equipped him to handle Jewish objections to the Gospel more effectively how to respond what not to say. After attending JET, John expressed that he learned a great deal. ”I’ve been to Wheaton College, Michigan Theological Seminary, Bill Gothard’s seminars, but I’ve never heard people like this, people who have such a passion for Jewish evangelism.”
Their son David spent two weeks in Israel with the Christian All American Basketball Team, and returned on fire with passion for Israel. He, too, wants to attend the JET Program. Also, his youngest son Michael also traveled to Israel with the CJF College Student Tour, attended the second half of the JET training upon his return and is also now involved in Jewish Evangelism. It thrills John that his family shares his burden. John and Donna Denson want to sensitize the Black Community, to get them involved in Jewish evangelism. In retrospect, considering how God has used Jewish people in their lives, John and Donna are trying to determine how they can give back to the Jewish community. We understand the debt we owe, in terms of the prophets, the apostles, our Messiah. But how to convey that to the Black community is very difficult. There s been a lack of communication. Our task is to sensitize the Black community to get them involved in Jewish evangelism, praying for the salvation of the Jewish people, and to give them a heart for what God wants the Black community to do. John is a pioneer in the effort to bring these two communities together. He states, ”One of the things that the Lord has shown us clearly is that one of the reasons the Black community is going through the struggles it has is because they have never really looked for opportunities to bless the Jewish people. I would like to duplicate what I learned at JET to hold seminars and similar workshops led by CJF staff now that I understand the urgency of bringing the Gospel to the Jew first.”
Through Chuck Colson’s efforts, the Denson’s have been recognized by former US Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. John and Donna received plaques in recognition of their work in the community. They have implemented numerous volunteer Ministry projects to help Christians minister more effectively. They also have conducted youth workshops, as well as marriage and Christian growth seminars. John has served on the Community Advisory Board of Corrections, Chaplain for several correctional facilities, and as a missionary with The Christian Jew Foundation. John Denson is a miracle. A testimony of God’s power to transform a life. Living proof of how the Holy Spirit changed a “wild child” into “God’s child.”
John is currently serving as Director of Shalom Ministry the only ministry in the country led by African Americans to the Jewish people. John served as congregational leader of Sar Shalom, a doctrinally sound Messianic congregation serving the urban community.
To schedule John to speak at your church or group, please contact (248 545 8800) ext.28 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org