From Prison to Praise

The spiritual journey of Gary J. Koly

by George A. Mason

The ingredients for success and happiness were all there: at least that is what the parents thought. On the surface they seemed to represent the typical American family pursuing the typical American dream; a home in the suburbs, the father providing for his family, and a bright child who was expected to continue the tradition of hard work and achievement. How could something that seemed so right go so wrong?

Before an audience of 50 men gathered for the monthly prayer breakfast at The Gospel House in Walton Hills, the Reverend Gary Koly answered that question and went to describe the radical transformation he experienced when he gave his life to Jesus Christ.

"Time is what you have in prison", Koly said, "a lot of time. I had time to think about my life and the crazy twist and turns I took. Looking back I could see how the early choices I made led me to the cell that was to be my ‘home’ for over five years".

Koly described his childhood and how his parents worked to raise him with a sense of values and morals even though they themselves were not involved in a church. The memories of his childhood still bear the scars of his schoolmates’ ridicule and torment over his size. As he puts it, "I was a fat kid when I was young. I was pushed around and joked about." What worked against him as a child, however, would later be his ally, as he grew older.

At six foot tall and two hundred plus pounds, it didn’t take long for his high school coaches to notice his size and strength. Since he had long since turned the tables on those who had taunted him as a child and dished out some very physical ‘pay back’, his violent spirit was now being directed against his opponents on the field. The years of rejection by his childhood peers were now replaced by adulation and acceptance by his coaches and teammates. I wanted to be accepted’, Koly said, "I did whatever people pumped me up for."

As do many teenagers, Gary chose the path of rebellion from family and authority and now, with his new sense of power and importance, he began to lash out and live the life he saw fit. This life included playing guitar in a band and hanging out with a rougher crowd. "At first I was scared", he said, "but like all sin, I hardened myself to it and soon, it didn’t bother me at all." The progression of vices, the progression of sin began to take him deeper and deeper into a life of alcohol, glue sniffing, drugs, and crime. Soon, crimes of vandalism escalated into crimes of stealing and along with that lifestyle came all the accessories: police problems, arrests, courts, and convictions.

One night, in a rage that consumed him and everyone around him, Gary Koly ended a man’s life in a bar fight. At age 18 he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Later, in a plea bargain with the courts, that charge was dropped to first degree manslaughter but was compounded with additional time for an earlier armed robbery conviction. Broken, busted, yet still rebellious, there, at age 18, stood a young man facing 2 to 45 years in the Ohio State Reformatory.

With all the authority of one who has been there and done that, Koly described his prison life as a continuance of his earlier life on the streets, nothing changed: bad crowd, drugs, and violence. One would think that 5 years behind bars would begin to bring about a change, a correction in a person’s life, but according to Gary, "I got worse".

Upon his release from prison 5 years later Koly hooked up with his old "friends" on the outside and took up right where they had left off. The only change now was that they were all packing pistols. Enmeshed in a wild lifestyle, he ran and hung with wild people, ‘crazy people’ as Gary puts it. It was in that early 1970’s that he met his wife, Nina. As their drug-inspired lives continued to spiral downward Gary was again arrested and did time for assault and battery. This time, however, his source of drugs from the outside was his wife, Nina. When he got out this time some things were different, one of his old friends had been shot dead. This, along with increasing pressure from his wife’s family, who blamed him for the corruption of their daughter, led to the only thing that made sense at the time – RUN!

For those who have ever taken a "geographic cure", the sad reality is clear: it is not the place that must change, it is the person. Two years later, both returned from Florida and as Gary puts it, "they were busted, disgusted, and couldn’t be trusted." It has been said that insanity is to continue to act the same way expecting different results. It was only a matter of time therefore until his reckless insanity again landed him in prison, this time; however, the Lord had different plans for inmate Koly.

Entering No. 2 dorm at Marion Correctional Institution, even he was struck by pervasive gloom and sense of doom. As he headed towards his bunk he noticed a man standing there, a strange man, strange because he was smiling and seemed to have a sense of peace about him. This peace, as "the smiling guy" said time, and time, and time again was a gift from God ever since he had given his life to the Lord Jesus Christ. Morning, noon, and night the smiling guy would witness about forgiveness, heaven, and Jesus. Surely the guy had to be crazy, flipped out for sure. As soon as possible Koly arranged a transfer to a "biker" dorm where he could again find comfort using and abusing the drugs that had become his god. At last he had rid himself of that crazy "Jesus guy" and could now settle back, do his time, do his drugs, and wait for release. Piece of cake…nothing to it…except, of course, for that dirty needle infected with hepatitis.

Being sick is bad. Being sick in prison where no one cares whether you live or die is considerably worse. As he watched his skin turn as orange as his morning juice, inmate Koly was scared, scared enough to read a Bible someone had left in the room. "I really began to read it. I found out that it was an easy story about a man who was healing people physically and spiritually. He was offering eternal life!" It was there in that prison infirmary room that Gary Koly had been caught again, this time by the ‘Fisher of Men’.

As he puts it, "I didn’t know any fancy prayers: I just said, "Lord, I’m tired of sittin’ in these penitentiaries. I’m tired of breakin’ my parents’ hearts. I want a new life!" A simple prayer from a sincere heart and in that one instant, the fate and future of Gary Koly was forever changed. "I’ve never been the same since", Koly attests. "I stayed up for 3 days and 3 nights confessing my sins and talking to the Lord. I seemed to get lighter, my hepatitis was cured. I had been smoking 2 to 3 packs of camels a day, had a shelf full of porn, and had stashed away enough drugs to keep me going. After Jesus changed my heart, I didn’t want those things anymore."

As anyone who has walked with the Savior can attest to, life isn’t always rosy just because we have chosen to follow Jesus. Well after his conversion, this new man in Christ went before the parole board only to be handed two additional years to serve. To their astonishment this "freed"-by-the-Lord, jailed-by-the-State man shook the parole board members’ hands and returned to his cell knowing that the Lord was in control and directing his life.

Gary used that time to pray and fast and to read the Bible and grow in the Lord. To his own amazement Gary had become a "smiling guy" who witnessed as the Spirit led him; as he says, "If you know the gospel, you’ve got to share the gospel". One of those he witnessed to was his wife, Nina, who not only heard a different man but saw one as well. That day, on her way home from the prison, God touched her and held wide his arms as He welcomed her into the family of life and the body of Christ.

There are messages we hear from people who guess at what things must have been like and there are messages we hear from people who have been there. As he spoke to the men that morning it was clear he spoke with the authority of one who had experienced prison, parole, and now, pardon by the Master Himself. Toward the end of his testimony he reached for his 12-string guitar and sang about change, the change that only Jesus could accomplish in a human heart. The change the psalmist sang of so long ago when he wrote in Psalm 40, verses 1 through 3, "I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a new place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord."

Today finds Gary Koly still behind bars but now he is there as the director of the Gospel House Prison Ministry team coming and going with a freedom he never thought possible. And what about the other areas of his life? When you ask him about the changes in his life his eyes light up and his smile tracks from ear to ear as he recounts what the Lord had done in his life and the life of his wife, Nina, and their children Josiah Ivan and Katrina Joy.

Just as God had a plan for Gary, He has a plan for you and I, and as the Lord has proven in the life of the former convict, real change, life saving change is possible. In Gary’s own words, "Jesus changed my life. He can do the same for YOU! He can do an ‘inside job’. It takes a real man to serve Jesus Christ. One day, every one of us is going to stand in front of God. He is only going to ask me one question, "What did you do with My Son, Jesus Christ, whom I allowed to die on the cross for you?"