March 26, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

In 2014, Chris Bernaiche was in solitary confinement in Baraga’s maximum-security prison. While the facility was near the northernmost point of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Bernaiche’s life had seemingly hit rock bottom.

“I felt like the walls were closing in. I had nothing to do 24/7 for months. It was there I reflected on every moment in my life,” said Bernaiche.

Work Hard, Play Hard

Bernaiche grew up on the east side of Michigan. He started working at the age of 13 and developed a good work ethic. He worked at Link Engineering and later GM as an engine dynamometer technician. He worked hard, putting in 60-80 hours per week. But he also played hard.

“The weekend was party time and it usually involved alcohol,” said Bernaiche.

While Bernaiche was successful professionally, he admitted to being underdeveloped emotionally, and to struggling with terrible anger issues. On December 27, 2002, Bernaiche was robbed of money. Later that evening, he went to a bar, had a lot of alcohol, and ended up getting into an argument after feeling cheated out of money. What happened later that night forever altered the lives of many people.

“At first it didn’t seem real because of the substances I was on,” said Bernaiche. “It seemed like a bad dream.”

Hitting Rock Bottom

Bernaiche was sentenced to life in prison for double homicide.

“For a long time, I didn’t feel forgiven. I couldn’t forgive myself,” said Bernaiche. “The shame built heavy. I had let my family, the community, everyone down. That weighs heavy on you.”

And behind bars it can get dark. “Prison has a number of toxic cultures,” said Bernaiche. “Within it, it’s easy for someone to drown in those toxic pools.” And Bernaiche did. “I gave up on life and faith and so I was reckless in prison. I made and drank alcohol and got into fights.”

That led Bernaiche in 2009 to be transferred from Kinross Correctional Facility near St. Ignace, Michigan, to Baraga’s maximum-security prison. It’s there where he had hit rock bottom.

“At that point I wanted to die,” said Bernaiche. “I remember praying the first sincere prayer ever, asking God to come into my life.”

A familiar setting, a new creation

After spending a total of three years at Baraga, two of which were in solitary confinement, Bernaiche’s life started to change and he was transferred back to Kinross, the place where his reckless behavior had hit its peak.

While Bernaiche was physically the same man who had left Kinross, when he returned his newfound faith made a positive impact. And five years after he had returned to Kinross, in the Spring of 2019, he was baptized in the prison yard.

The baptism was scheduled for 2 p.m., but a thick fog kept the prison yard closed for most of the day. Until 1:45 p.m.

“The fog lifted and was gone, and the sun came out and shone down brightly,” said Bernaiche.

An unforgettable moment

Bernaiche and a fellow Christ follower Jacob Hathaway fully immersed one another that day. And then, “I prayed a prayer of forgiveness,” said Bernaiche.

Immediately after the last immersion, a heavy rain blanketed the area as the sun shone down. “It was a weather phenomenon,” recalls Bernaiche.

Three days later one of Bernaiche’s fellow inmates at Kinross received a letter from his victim’s mother. It was a letter offering him forgiveness for killing her son.

“When you feel the Spirit moving, it’s hard to deny the presence,” said Bernaiche. “We still talk about that day.”

An unexpected door opens

Right after the baptism, Bernaiche saw a sign-up sheet for the Calvin Prison Initiative on the wall. “I felt the Spirit calling me, I knew it was for me. Lifers were welcomed in, where most MDOC programming is looking for people with the earliest release date.”

The Calvin Prison Initiative, a partnership between Calvin University, Calvin Theological Seminary, and the Michigan Department of Corrections specifically prioritizes enrolling inmates serving life sentences, so that they will use their Christ-centered education to be agents of change right where they are—to reform prison culture from the inside.

A few weeks after applying in June of 2019, Bernaiche got a letter in the mail.

“I was eating an apple and I dropped it. I couldn’t believe it. The first word I saw was “Congratulations!”

Given Bernaiche’s history of misconduct within MDOC over the previous years, they were hesitant to allow him this opportunity. “I told them I’ve screwed up everything good in my life—I won’t let you down.”

So, they obliged, and Bernaiche was headed a couple of hundred miles south to Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. Bernaiche came in academically minded, hoping to get a 4.0. “And I quickly got humbled,” he said.

An undeniable calling

“Something happened I never thought would happen. I thought I’d do well in school and write a book when I was done,” said Bernaiche. “I never knew the Spirit was going to call me.”

In May 2022, Chris Bernaiche received his associate's degree in a grand celebration inside Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.
In May 2022, Chris Bernaiche received his associate's degree in a grand celebration inside Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Bernaiche, who describes his former identity as the cool, tough, popular guy, who was never vulnerable, started to feel called to music. He had no prior experience in the area and said he thought music wasn’t “what cool guys did.”

But he felt a strong calling to it and so he joined the choir “and I let my voice get lost among all the voices and it helped me realize the gifts I didn’t know I had,” said Bernaiche.

From self-centered to others-focused

Bernaiche was discovering through music and through the community he was now part of in the Calvin Prison Initiative that the world was bigger than him.

“I feel the Spirit moving through my life when we perform music together and there’s no greater feeling in life than feeling connected with the congregation through the Spirit.”

Bernaiche was understanding what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, to see one’s self as part of a larger body and to use one’s gifts not for one’s self, but for the good of others and to the glory of God.

“My education has taught me to find ways to help others, to give back to the community, and that life is much bigger than me,” said Bernaiche. “CPI transformed my life. I now view the world through a Christ-centered lens rather than a self-centered lens. Life is about how to help others improve their lives. We make our lives more meaningful when we help bring meaning to others’ lives.”

An agent of renewal on the inside

So now that’s what Bernaiche is doing. He’s been singing in the choir and playing guitar during chapel a couple of times a week and teaching and mentoring men who will someday leave prison how to be automotive technicians. He’s also encouraged men in the auto program to attend chapel services and when Bernaiche sees them in the audience, he says it’s rewarding.

“I feel horrible about what I did, it’s ruined lives,” said Bernaiche of his crime. “I wish I could go back in time and right my wrongs, but I can’t. This education gives me hope that I can give back. I can’t give back two lives, but I can give back by helping people leaving prison find meaning in their lives.”

Bernaiche will likely never leave prison. His sentence is life without parole, but he’s committed to be Christ’s agent of renewal where he’s at.

“Even though I’m sentenced to life, I can still make connections with people in here and make a difference,” said Bernaiche. “Through my time in the CPI program, I’ve realized what’s possible through Christ, that through sacrifice and making meaningful connections with others you really learn what love is.

“I’ve taken a lot from society, and all I want to do is give back the love of Christ.”

Note: Bernaiche is a member of the Class of 2024 and will graduate with his bachelor's degree on May 10, 2024, inside Handlon Correctional Facility.

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