Nate Johnson, Storyteller
Nathan Johnson finds meaning in his life by starting churches and serving others, but he’s not exactly a preacher. Nathan demonstrates his faith best by living it.
The Bible says to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and redeem the captive, so that’s what Nathan strives to do. His twin nonprofits in Muskegon, Fresh Coast Alliance and Kingdom Life Church, provide transitional housing to people coming home from prison or jail, help them find good jobs and provide meals and fellowship. Most of all, Nathan says, he hopes he can give people who have been incarcerated some of the rarest gifts of all: encouragement, acceptance and hope.
Nathan does this because he knows the value of faith and what it can do for someone who is turning away from past mistakes. After all, it’s what he credits for his own redemption when he picked up a Bible in a prison cell.
“I didn’t grow up in the church,” he said. “I picked up a Bible in prison and I’m reading about the person of Jesus and it hit me that this dude was a friend of sinners. He picked a bunch of criminals to write the Bible — a lot of it was written in a prison cell in Rome.”
And if Jesus could accept and uplift them — well, he figured, there was hope for anyone.
It was an inspiring message for a young man who grew up in a Muskegon family where drug addiction, jail and prison sentences were commonplace.
“My parents were there but not there,” Nathan explained. “Dad paid the bills, but he didn’t supervise the children. I was looking for that sense of belonging and to feel I was part of a family, and when I didn’t find that at home, I began to look outside the home.”
He found it among the gangs running the streets of Muskegon. By the age of 12, he was running petty crimes like stealing bikes and getting involved in the juvenile justice system.
Getting caught was scary. It also brought a measure of street cred and belonging that he desperately desired. Meanwhile, his parents — who had been incarcerated on and off themselves — told hm unconvincingly that he didn’t want the life he was headed toward. Nathan would cycle in and out of the juvenile system until he aged into the adult justice system, where the stakes were much higher.
By the time he was 19, he was arrested again, this time for selling crack. This time, he received a far harsher sentence than he ever had before — up to 50 years. He entered prison with a sense that his future was going to resemble his past. “Here we go again,” he told himself.
However, a state appellate attorney thought that he might be able to get out after 12.5 years on a technicality. That provided the glimmer of hope he needed to reassess everything. When some other guys in prison approached him about Christian services inside the prison, he gave some thought — but he didn’t give in yet. Instead, he began reading the Bible a few pages at a time on his own.
Nathan was surprised how easily he could relate to the people he encountered in the pages of the Bible. Instead of perfect people setting impossible standards of virtue, he came across flawed individuals struggling to overcome past mistakes. Moses had been a murderer in Egypt before he was chosen to be God’s prophet, Nathan explained. The apostle Matthew had been a tax collector, which had been considered shameful. Most apostles met with violent ends, and many of them were executed by Rome or other ancient empires.
“Jesus chose criminals, people who could easily be discredited, to write the Bible and spread his message,” Nathan said. “It just showed me where Jesus’ heart really is, and how much he loves people. I was starving for that so much. It was really attractive to me.”
The change in Nathan’s life didn’t come overnight, but once it took hold it didn’t let go. After a life of being tough, he started to care about people around him. Where he used to recruit people for gangs and to sell drugs, now he began to see he could still recruit people — but for something greater.
“I was seeing my heart changing over time,” he said. “I saw I could still hustle and recruit, but for a different purpose.” He began to dream about starting a nonprofit when he eventually went home and serving his community.
With the help of his attorney, Nathan was able to go home after 12.5 years, but he wasn’t going back to the life he used to know. He wasn’t interested in taking up with the old friends and lifestyle he used to know. He wanted to connect with a church and meet people who could encourage him to continue moving forward rather than going back to bad habits.
As fate would have it, he met Sarah, the woman who would become his wife, at church before he’d been home two weeks. The couple had a son a year ago, and he joined their 3-year-old son. Nathan also has a 20-year-old daughter and two grandchildren.
Nathan was focused on growing his own faith and using it as a basis to help others who were returning home from prison. Within three years, he started Fresh Coast Alliance — originally known as 70X7 Muskegon — to meet the needs of people like him. Its partner, Kingdom Life Church, meets the spiritual needs of people, both those who seek help Fresh Coast Alliance and in the wider community. However, people receiving help from Fresh Coast Alliance never have to participate in the faith-based programs.
“I don’t believe in that at all,” Nathan said. “It’s there if you need it. It’s there if you want it. But we’re not going to push that on you.”
For Nathan, success after prison isn’t just about starting a family, creating a good job or establishing a respectable place for himself in his community — although he has done all that. It isn’t even about seeing his nonprofits thrive — though they are doing that as well. For him, true success comes every time he sees another person come home from prison or jail and turn away from drugs, start a new career with a newly acquired skill, or enter stable housing for perhaps the first time in their life.
It’s about creating that sense of love and acceptance that had been so lacking in his early years.
He wants others to know that people who have been incarcerated shouldn’t be shunned and excluded. A third of adults in the U.S. have a criminal record, and a great number of them, like himself, simply want to make life better for themselves and those around them.
“I want people to know that you can move forward,” Nathan said. “Just because you’ve been incarcerated doesn’t mean you can’t get out and live a productive life. Just because someone goes to jail or prison, there is still hope for them that they can change their lives.”