By Terrell Clemmons
The capacity crowd assembled in the Suffolk, Virginia, National Guard Armory for the 2012 annual Suffolk Leadership Prayer Breakfast was in for a surprise. Attendees aren’t told in advance who the featured speaker or musician will be, but that year’s guest was the most astonishing in the event’s 28-year history.
Randy Singer, an attorney, author, and law professor at Regent University, introduced the man by saying his testimony would prove “you are one prayer away from God doing something miraculous in your life.” And then he presented David Berkowitz, who spoke by prerecorded video from a prison in New York.
If ever a man might have been written off as beyond hope, this man—at one time deranged both in mind and soul—was a candidate. Prison guards used to refer to him as David “Berserk-owitz.”
Troubled from Youth
Born in Brooklyn on June 1, 1953, David had been adopted at birth by Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz of the Bronx. They were devoted parents, but from childhood David suffered from emotional turmoil, anger, and severe bouts of depression. As a boy, he would hide under his bed for hours, lock himself in a closet, or sit on the window ledge of their sixth floor apartment, legs dangling, flirting with suicide.
When David was 14 his mother died, and things deteriorated. He got into fights or cut school and wandered the streets. He joined the army after graduation, hoping for a fresh start, but there too he had difficulty coping. He returned to the Bronx when his three years were up, hoping—again—for a fresh start.
Then the real trouble started. Alone and dejected, his father having remarried and moved to Florida, David started hanging out with a group who identified themselves as pagans and witches. They would meet in the woods around a fire. There would be some drinking, some singing, some chanting, and they would engage in rituals, meditate, and call on supernatural powers. David began reading The Satanic Bible, the 1969 work of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. Someone had said it would give him power and control over his life. He’d always wanted that.
As David read and took part in the rituals, he began to believe he was some kind of soldier in the satanic army. While Satan’s job was to destroy, the ultimate aim, according to this twisted new outlook, was to bring about God’s kingdom. David was taught that in the end the devil and Jesus will be reunited and become friends. Like they were working on the same team, but with different methods. David had always wanted something to commit his life to, and one day he gave himself over to this power that he thought was going to give him a mission in life.
But that mission quickly turned deadly, terribly consistent with what the Scriptures tell us about Satan, the father of lies who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. In a year-long rampage, from mid-1976 until his arrest in 1977, David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” serial killer, set more than 2,000 fires, shot and killed six people, and terrorized New York City with bizarre, hand-scrawled messages like, “POLICE: LET ME HAUNT YOU WITH THESE WORDS: I’LL BE BACK! I’LL BE BACK! TO BE INTERPRETED AS BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG—UGH!!”
In a strange way, David was thankful when his arrest put a stop to it all, and after his conviction, despondent, he resigned himself to a life in prison. Days turned into months, then years, until one day, 10 years into his prison sentence, another inmate approached him as he walked the prison yard. “You’re David Berkowitz, right? Jesus Christ loves you very much,” the stranger said.
“Listen, God ain’t interested in me. I appreciate it, but God is not for me.” David knew he wasn’t a good person.
“Well, you don’t understand,” the brave interloper said. “God loves you, and if you’d let me, I’d like to be your friend.”
His name was Rick, and the two of them began to walk the yard together. A few weeks later, Rick handed David a pocket Bible and suggested he read Psalms. With nothing to lose David took his suggestion and was soon shocked and amazed to find some of the most beautiful words he’d ever read.
One night, alone in his cell, his eyes fell on Psalm 34:6: “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles” Something broke. David had been troubled and in trouble all his life.
“God,” he prayed, “I can’t take this anymore . . . if you’re out there, if you want anything to do with me . . . I’m sick of having to live with knowing that I’ve hurt innocent people, knowing that I destroyed lives. I’m sick of the devil. I’m sick of being lied to—”
And in the quietness, he poured out his burdens, needs, and tears until he was utterly spent. When he finally got up, a tremendous load had been lifted. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew his life was somehow going to be different from now on. That night, he slept like a baby.
He continued reading the Bible Rick had given him and found hope and encouragement that lifted him out of the despair he could never shake before. Through the prison Bible studies and chapel services—he attended every one he could get to—he met other inmates with dark pasts yet also, like him, newfound faith. For the first time in his life, David began to know hope. He grew in faith, knowledge, and love for God and fellow inmates. He adopted a new name, “Son of Hope.”
A Free Man
David made national news in a different way in 2011 when he announced that he would not seek parole when he became eligible in 2012. Responding to a letter from Fox News reporter Joshua Rhett Miller, he wrote, “I have no interest in parole . . . I am already a free man. I am not saying this jokingly. I really am. . . . while society will never forgive me, God has. I am forever grateful for such forgiveness.”
Clearly, this is a life redeemed by grace. David is an elder and worship leader in the prison church, where, as he puts it, “broken hearts are being mended . . . tormented minds are receiving deliverance . . . [and] damaged and bruised souls are getting healed.” He works in the prison kitchen, serves as a mobility guide for sight-impaired inmates, and is a program aide for inmates with mental health impairments. Some of the younger inmates call him Grandpa Dave.
He writes voluminously on his electric typewriter, mostly letters and journal entries, which are periodically uploaded by friends to his website www.ariseandshine.org. And David shares his story freely, particularly with young people, in hopes that it will steer them clear of lives of crime. His book Son of Hope, a compendium of his prison journals, was published in 2006.
“I came to prison with no hope, no direction, no reason to live,” he told the 2012 Suffolk prayer breakfast audience. “After 10 years in prison, I met Christ, confessed to God. I asked him to please forgive me. I went from being the Son of Sam to the Son of Hope. God has completely and totally healed my mind.” He closed the event by praying that “revival would break out in this nation.”
Sadly, a spate of comments in response to The Virginian-Pilot’s report of the event reveals how desperately our nation needs such a revival: “It’s a shame that a church would allow him to speak,” said one reader. “He has no right to exist much less be honored at a prayer breakfast,” said another. “Is Charles Manson scheduled for next year? Could they not find one decent, non-criminal to speak?” said a third. To be sure, other commenters responded with clear explanations of the gospel, but some would have none of it.
Grace confounds people. David is one example,
proving the ways of God: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” (1 Corinthians 1:19). Regardless, grace saves. A convicted killer, admittedly “least deserving of [God’s] mercy,” has received it and rejoices in it. This Son of Hope lives forgiven, healed, and redeemed.
Terrell Clemmons is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Sharing Stories of Grace
God’s grace has transformed each one of our lives, even if our stories don’t seem that dramatic. Spend some time thinking about the story of your life or a specific time when God’s grace was particularly apparent. Share your story with someone this week.
Is there someone in your life whose story inspires you or whose life seems grace-filled? Spend time this week talking to that person and listening to how God has transformed his or her life.