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From Life Sentence to Life-Calling

March 27, 2024
Photo Caption 	Chris Bernaiche will graduate with a bachelor’s degree on May 10, 2024, inside Handlon Correctional Facility.
Chris Bernaiche will graduate with a bachelor’s degree on May 10, 2024, inside Handlon Correctional Facility.

In 2014, Chris Bernaiche was in solitary confinement in the Baraga, Mich., maximum-security prison, located near the northernmost point of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And his life had seemingly hit rock bottom.

“I felt like the walls were closing in. I had nothing to do 24/7 for months. It was there that I reflected on every moment in my life,” said Bernaiche.

Bernaiche had grown up on the east side of Michigan. He had started working at age 13 and had developed a good work ethic. He worked at Link Engineering and later at General Motors as an engine dynamometer technician. He worked hard, putting in 60-80 hours per week. But he also played hard.

“The weekend was party time, and it usually involved alcohol,” said Bernaiche.

While he was successful professionally, Bernaiche admitted to being underdeveloped emotionally and struggling with anger issues. On Dec. 27, 2002, he was robbed of some money. Later that evening, he went to a bar, drank a lot of alcohol, and got into an argument after feeling cheated out of money while playing pool. Later that night he returned with a handgun and shot several people at the bar. Two of them died.

“At first it didn’t seem real because of the substances I was on,” said Bernaiche. “It seemed like a bad dream.”

Bernaiche was sentenced to life in prison for double homicide.

“For a long time I didn’t feel forgiven. I couldn’t forgive myself,” said Bernaiche. “The shame built heavy. I had let my family, the community, everyone down. That weighs heavy on you.”

And behind bars it can get dark. “Prison has a number of toxic cultures,” said Bernaiche. “Within it, it’s easy for someone to drown in those toxic pools. I gave up on life and faith, and so I was reckless in prison. I made and drank alcohol and got into fights.”

That led Bernaiche in 2009 to be transferred from Kinross Correctional Facility near St. Ignace, Michigan, to Baraga’s maximum-security prison.

“At that point I wanted to die,” said Bernaiche. “I remember praying the first sincere prayer ever, asking God to come into my life.”

After spending a total of three years at Baraga, two of which were in solitary confinement, Bernaiche’s life started to change, and he was transferred back to Kinross.

When he returned, his newfound faith made a positive impact. Then, five years after returning to Kinross, in spring 2019, he was baptized in the prison yard.

The baptism was scheduled for 2 p.m. that day, but a thick fog kept the prison yard closed until 1:45 p.m.

Then “the fog lifted and was gone, and the sun came out and shone down brightly,” said Bernaiche.

Bernaiche and a fellow Christ-follower, Jacob Hathaway, fully immersed one another that day. And then, said Bernaiche, “I prayed a prayer of forgiveness.”

Immediately afterward, a heavy rain blanketed the area as the sun shone down. “It was a weather phenomenon,” recalled Bernaiche.

Three days later, said Bernaiche, one of his fellow inmates at Kinross received a letter from his victim’s mother. It was a note offering him forgiveness for killing her son.

“When you feel the Spirit moving, it’s hard to deny the presence,” said Bernaiche. “We still talk about that day.”

Soon after the baptism, Bernaiche said, he saw a sign-up sheet for the Calvin Prison Initiative on the wall. “I felt the Spirit calling me; I knew it was for me. Lifers were welcomed in, where most MDOC programming is looking for people with the earliest release date.”

The Calvin Prison Initiative is a partnership between Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections. It specifically prioritizes enrolling inmates who are serving life sentences so that they will use their Christ-centered education to be agents of change right where they are—to reform prison culture from the inside.

A few weeks after applying in June 2019, Bernaiche got a letter in the mail.

“I was eating an apple, and I dropped it. I couldn’t believe it. The first word I saw was “Congratulations!”

Given Bernaiche’s history of misconduct within MDOC over the previous years, officials were hesitant to allow him this opportunity. 

“I told them, ‘I’ve screwed up everything good in my life—I won’t let you down.’”

The officials obliged, and Bernaiche was soon headed a couple of hundred miles south to Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich., where the Calvin Prison Initiative operates. Bernaiche came in academically minded, hoping to get a 4.0 – “and I quickly got humbled,” he said.

“Something happened that I had never thought would happen. I thought I’d do well in school and write a book when I was done,” said Bernaiche. “I never knew the Spirit was going to call me.”

In May 2022, Chris Bernaiche received his associate's degree in a grand celebration inside the Handlon Correctional Facility.

Bernaiche, who describes his former identity as the cool, tough, popular guy who was never vulnerable, said he sensed a calling to music. He had no prior experience in the area and said he thought music wasn’t “what cool guys did.”

But he responded to that calling and joined the choir that sang at chapel services connected with the Calvin Prison Initiative. “I let my voice get lost among all the voices, and it helped me realize the gifts I didn’t know I had,” said Bernaiche.

Bernaiche said he was discovering through music and through the community he was now a part of that the world is bigger than he is.

“I feel the Spirit moving through my life when we perform music together, and there’s no greater feeling in life than feeling connected with the congregation through the Spirit.”

Bernaiche said he was beginning to understand what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, to see oneself as part of a larger body, and to use one’s gifts not for oneself but for the good of others and the glory of God.

“My education has taught me to find ways to help others, to give back to the community – and that life is much bigger than me,” said Bernaiche. “CPI transformed my life. I now view the world through a Christ-centered lens rather than a self-centered lens. Life is about how to help others improve their lives. We make our lives more meaningful when we help bring meaning to others’ lives.”

Now Bernaiche has been singing in the choir and playing guitar during chapel a couple of times a week, and he is teaching and mentoring men who will someday leave prison how to be automotive technicians. He said he has also encouraged men in the auto program to attend chapel services, and that when he sees them in the audience, it’s rewarding.

“I feel horrible about what I did; it’s ruined lives,” said Bernaiche of his crime. “I wish I could go back in time and right my wrongs, but I can’t. This education gives me hope that I can give back. I can’t give back two lives, but I can give back by helping people leaving prison find meaning in their lives.”

Bernaiche will likely never leave prison. His sentence is life without parole, but he said he’s committed to be Christ’s agent of renewal where he is.

“Even though I’m sentenced to life, I can still make connections with people in here and make a difference,” said Bernaiche. “Through my time in the CPI program, I’ve realized what’s possible through Christ, that through sacrifice and making meaningful connections with others you really learn what love is.

“I’ve taken a lot from society, and all I want to do is give back the love of Christ.”

Bernaiche will graduate with a bachelor’s degree on May 10, 2024, inside Handlon Correctional Facility.