Finding God's Grace Behind Bars

Bo Mitchell sitting on sofa, playing a guitar and singing to his wife, Gari
Julia Vandenoever

Even though Bo and Gari Mitchell had lived through some difficult times, they knew God was in control — they just didn't know how He was going to help them through this situation. Bo and Gari's first glimpse of their troubled future came in the local newspaper.

They saw Bo's name in The Denver Post. It seemed the federal government was looking into two loan transactions Bo had been involved in seven years earlier. He'd borrowed money on behalf of some friends in real estate, wanting to aid them because they'd recently helped him with a church-planting project. He had no reason to believe there was anything wrong with the loans.

His decision to help his friends, however, would soon unravel his life — and transform his marriage in unexpected ways.

Bo had worked his way to success in the real estate business and as a ministry starter in Denver. But as the 1990s dawned, Bo's pace was taking its toll. Bo was consumed by his work, which frequently limited his time with his family. One night Gari tried to explain how his behavior was affecting her.

"I was telling Bo, 'OK, here's this beautiful barrel of apples,' " she says. " 'I used to be the one on the top. I was your treasure. And now I'm kind of moving down, and I've got some bruises and feel like about sixth or seventh on your list. And I think you're feeling down on my list, too.' "

As things were becoming more difficult in Bo and Gari's marriage, Bo's legal problems were already brewing.

Bo found himself accused of breaking a little-known law against "straw borrowing." Because the loans had been repaid, no one actually suffered financial loss. The deputy U.S. attorney indicated that Bo could expect probation if he would sign a plea bargain agreement. Bo and Gari couldn't see a different resolution in the near future, so Bo finally signed, even though he felt he was innocent. Unfortunately, the judge wanted to make an example of Bo and sentenced him to 11 months in federal prison.

On Jan. 6, 1992, Bo walked through the gates of the Englewood Federal Detention Center, not far from the Mitchells' home in Denver.

Rebuilding a marriage while living apart

Bo and Gari decided to let God teach them whatever He wanted them to learn through the prison experience. It wasn't easy. Bo says, "I had to be on my toes constantly — both with the other inmates and with the guards. Just around the next corner, there could be trouble." Depressed and fearful, feeling he had let everyone down, he cried almost every day.

At home, Gari prayed constantly for Bo's safety. Her emotional and financial stress was off the charts. Many people came to visit Bo — especially Gari and the kids, who saw him nearly every time visiting was allowed.

Bo says, "Despite my being away from home, it sometimes felt as if there were fewer communication barriers now than there had been before. When Gari visited, we had hours face to face to discuss any and all topics. When we wrote letters, we could say things — positive and negative — that seemed harder to say in person."

One of Gari's letters reminded Bo of what they needed to work on:

I hope we can stop criticizing each other and ourselves and recognize that we are all human and make mistakes. ... Instead, let's build each other in love and concentrate and comment on and believe in our God-given strengths. The parts of us that God has allowed us to have that are the very best.

"We needed each other so much and could only find true solace in our love," Gari says. "We tackled the tough issues in our marriage during that time, the ones we'd let stack up. The pressure cooker of prison gave us the courage to truly look at our lives and improve."

Bo and Gari both grew up in homes where alcohol was a problem, but their difficult childhoods affected them in different ways. Gari looked for safety and control through perfectionism and people-pleasing, while Bo became the guy who tried to fix everything and solve everyone's problems — often at his expense or the expense of his marriage.

As they both worked through their own issues, Bo and Gari discovered that their marriage was changing. Their relationship was deepening, becoming the kind of marriage they'd always wanted.

Gari says, "God was helping me feel the unconditional love Bo truly had for me. I was becoming far more balanced and secure in every aspect of my life."

Living the lessons learned

On Sept. 14, 1992, Bo finally came home. There were more fears and tears as the Mitchells' finances and some friendships were in shambles. It took until the following year for Bo to find enough work to fully support his family — in fundraising, real estate and charity work. He also served as chaplain for the Denver Nuggets and took every opportunity to tell others what he'd learned during his time behind bars.

In 1994, the Mitchells were interviewed about their experience on the Focus on the Family daily broadcast. They were glad it got a good response from listeners, but by that time, Bo was tired of retelling and reliving his prison story. Most of all, he was tired of crying. He'd wept practically every day for nearly three years, broken-hearted from the pain of incarceration and the underlying feeling of sadness that he'd let everyone down.

On Aug. 1, 1994, the tears finally stopped. It happened when Bo vowed to say "never better" whenever people asked how he was doing. His overall perspective changed immediately, perhaps because it reflected God's view of him and his future. There was a new joy in the Mitchells' lives and in their marriage.

Bo and Gari still tell their story, emphasizing how God used prison to refine them and their marriage. They encourage couples to let God do the same with their own trials and to see their own ordeals as a "God deal."

"When Bo went to prison, it was actually a dramatic shift in our relationship," Gari says now. "I became No. 1 because he needed me so much. And that has continued since prison."

How is their relationship today, after 45 years together? It's not perfect. But it's never been better.

John Duckworth is a writer, editor and the author of a dozen books.

If your marriage is in trouble, there is hope. The Focus on the Family Marriage Institute is here to help — call one of our counselors at 866-875-2915 or visit HopeRestored.FocusOnTheFamily.com.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2017 by John Duckworth. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Big Wins In Spite Of Bad Calls

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