Brad Wilcox describes them as his "captive audience" in the acknowledgements of his new book, "The Continuous Conversion."
Their names include Brad Platt, Alan Thomas, Reese Merrill, Ralph Holt, Jerry Tuttle and George "Buddy" Curtis. Each man read the book's manuscript thoroughly before responding with insight and feedback. Some of their personal experiences were so powerful that Wilcox included them in the book.
Each man is serving time in an Arizona prison.
Wilcox began corresponding with one inmate after the man read one of his previous books, "The Continuous Atonement." In time he gained permission to visit the correctional facility and speak to the prisoners. Friendships were forged, Wilcox said.
"I was impressed. These men have made mistakes and have been very engaged in the process of conversion at different levels. They are working so hard in an environment that is very negative and they are not giving up. I spoke to them and had a wonderful experience," Wilcox said. "As I realized how much they were learning and how much they have to teach, I asked if they would be willing to help with this book."
The book discusses the Atonement of Jesus Christ, not only as a miracle of cleansing and consoling, but also as a process of transformation, Wilcox said. As he finished each chapter, the author mailed copies to his six friends behind bars. The men, some former active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in turn studied the material and made comments in the margins, such as "this part made me cry," "this is something I wish I had known growing up" or "this isn't the way it happened with me."
"They were so great. I sprinkled their voices throughout the book," Wilcox said. "If we're writing about conversion, let's don't just write about the perfect investigator who greets missionaries at the door, gets baptized three weeks later and stays active the rest of his life. That isn't always the case. These men helped me keep a real perspective, not sounding too fluffy or censored, so when people read this they can see themselves in here."
One of the six prisoners who helped Wilcox, a sex offender, said the LDS Church has both saved and changed his life. His story (he is identified in the book as Todd, a changed name) is included in the book.
"It may be a long time before I am allowed to officially join and be baptized," the man told Wilcox, "but in the meantime I know it is true and will forever say thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Another man (also one of the six but not identified in the book) tells how shocked everyone was when he received a 10-year prison sentence for sex crimes. He had been active in the LDS Church, holding a calling and home teaching assignment, along with being involved in early-morning seminary.
"All the public behaviors were in place. What was missing were the private behaviors," the man told Wilcox. "I didn't end up in prison because I missed my meetings. I ended up in prison because I missed what the meetings were about — drawing closer to God. Appearances became more important than reality. In public I was active. In private I was apathetic."
While these men have lived to some extremes most people will never experience, Wilcox hopes what they share will offer new insight and perspective into understanding the Atonement.
"They are experiencing a change, not through the prison system, but they are connecting with God through the church and the Savior; that’s why their stories are especially powerful," Wilcox said. "They are experiencing this conversion change, not just with their lips to get parole, but with their hearts."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: tbtoone
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company