Originally published on the Prison Fellowship blog.
He remembers it like it was yesterday.
The day Zeeke Griffin’s dad was arrested was the day of 7th-grade basketball try-outs—the day his dad had been planning and preparing him for all year.
“I figured he’d just be home in the afternoon,” Zeeke recalls. “If I make the team, I’ll be able to come home from school and tell him.”
He remembers rushing home to tell his father that he had, in fact, made the team, but Zeeke’s dad wasn’t home that day after school. Or for the next two years.
Middle school was a lonely time for the 12-year-old from Garland, Texas. He excelled at basketball, but with his father gone there were few people left to share in his excitement (his mother and sisters “weren’t into sports”). He did well at school, but he still felt like something was missing.
But throughout those confusing years, there was a recurring bright spot that offered Zeeke hope.
The first Christmas that Zeeke’s father was gone, he signed his children up to receive gifts through Angel Tree. A few days before Christmas, a few volunteers showed up at the Griffins’ door. One was even dressed up like Santa Claus. They presented gifts on behalf of the children’s dad and then said that Zeeke and his sisters would also be receiving the opportunity to attend Sky Ranch’s TRU Camp, a special summer camp that partners with Angel Tree to provide a special week for children with incarcerated parents.
Since Zeeke had never been to camp before, he admits he was a little nervous; he didn’t know what to expect. But he soon lost himself in the fun of sailing on a sailboat, trying out the zip line, and spending one on one time with a counselor who took him particularly under his wing.
He also found it liberating to discover that he and his sisters weren’t the only ones to experience the pain of a parent going to prison.
“It was eye-opening to know I wasn’t alone in it.”
It was also here at camp that Zeeke began to understand the Gospel for the first time. Despite having grown up in the church, it wasn’t until camp that he began to understand that God wanted a personal relationship with him through Jesus Christ.
Later that year, Zeeke and his family got plugged into a new church with a “phenomenal” youth ministry, and that’s when Zeeke made a firm decision to “accept [Jesus] into my life.”
Zeeke returned to Sky Ranch the following two years as a camper, and every year the same counselor was there for him, to help him lose himself in imaginative fun and point him again to Jesus.
Ups and Downs
The next few years had their rocky moments. Zeeke’s father returned home just in time to watch him play his final football game of 9th grade. And while he was there for the beginning of basketball season, he soon returned to his old habits and was barely around during Zeeke’s high school years.
Still, Zeeke continued to compete in sports, do well in school, and return to Sky Ranch every summer, as a counselor starting his sophomore year.
He didn’t want to end up a statistic. He didn’t want to end up following his father’s footsteps.
“My counselor told me he came back every year to see me,” Zeeke says. “I wanted to do that for someone else.”
After graduating from high school (his dad was there to celebrate with him), Zeeke headed off to college. But his passion for Christ and resolve to stay on a good course began to slip and Zeeke found himself studying little and partying much. All the while, he continued to show up at Sky Ranch every summer to be a consistent presence in the life of the young men he had developed relationships with over the years.
“God still found a way to speak truth through me to these kids,” he explains.
Called to Serve
After his second year of college, he was suspended, returned home to Garland, and moved back in with his mom. He decided it was time to “man up” and figure out what God was calling him to do with his life.
For the next few years, he traveled the world, working for a variety of Christian ministries, “always coming back for TRU camp, no matter what.”
Eventually, Zeeke found his way to Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, where he began pursuing a degree in youth ministry. He also realized a lifelong goal of playing college basketball.
And even though he still entertained dreams of one day playing for the NBA, Zeeke set his face toward his true passion: youth ministry.
This past year, Zeeke was hired to serve as a youth pastor at Austin New Church, a church plant in the heart of Austin, Texas. And he credits his 14 years of experience at Angel Tree camp for getting him there.
“TRU Camp was the reason I went into youth ministry,” he explains. “Sky Ranch has forever changed my life. It’s my home away from home.”