By Flori Meeks
Published 02:29 p.m., Tuesday, July 10, 2012
After his younger sister, Marilyn Sage Meagher, was slain in 1993, Sage, 64, spent years in a very dark place.
“I was a prisoner of my own rage and grief,” the Uptown-area resident said.
It was only after he was ready to forgive his sister’s attackers that he was able to heal.
Now his focus is on helping others with that journey, both the victims of violent crimes and criminal offenders who are in prison.
His nonprofit ministry, Bridges to Life, brings crime victims into prisons to work with offenders in a class setting.
The goal is to reduce prison recidivism rates, reduce the number of crime victims and enhance public safety.
And throughout the program’s lessons, assignments and discussions is a message of love and forgiveness found through God.
Sage, who was born in Houston, grew up in the River Oaks area and attended St. Thomas High School.
He earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in business administration from Louisiana State University, where he was an all-American tackle, and then returned to Houston to launch a real estate business with his father.
Living near family was a priority.
“We have a very close family, very big and very close,” said Sage, the fourth of eight siblings.
It was Meagher, 19 months younger, with whom he spent most of his years as a boy and young man.
They went to the same elementary school and college, and she attended St. Agnes High School, St. Thomas’ sister school. They shared common friends and interests, and were there for each other, Sage said.
He remembers when his sister encouraged him to date two gorgeous girls she knew, a blonde and a brunette.
He dated the blonde about six times, he recalls, and he’s still with the brunette – his wife Frances Sage – more than 40 years later.
“So, she even picked out my wife for me,” John Sage said.
The siblings remained close during their adult years.
The last time Sage saw Meagher, he was feeling a bit down. She, as usual, reached out to him with love.
“The last thing she said to me was, ‘Johnny, you’re the greatest.’ Looking back, that was a gift.”
Marilyn was 43 when she was stabbed and clubbed to death in her apartment on June 30, 1993.
James Dickerson and Erica Sheppard, both 19 at the time, were convicted of capital murder for the crime. They admitted they killed her for her car. Dickerson died in prison in the late 1990s. Sheppard is on death row in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
For Sage, coming to grips with his sister’s violent death was a struggle.
“I couldn’t sleep. I lost 25 pounds in 60 days. It hit me real hard. It took me several years to get back to 100 percent functioning,” he said. “”Looking back, it was a spiritual journey for me that was good, but I didn’t want to get there that way.”
After extensive soul searching, reading, writing and prayer, Sage knew he was ready for a change.
He decided his choices were to forgive or to exist in a state of bitterness. He chose to forgive.
Seeds of hope
In January 1998 Sage heard about the Sycamore Tree Project, an evangelistic ministry that brings together victims of violence and imprisoned offenders.
Sage got involved as a volunteer supporting a 12-week course in Texas.
“I watched men change,” he recalled. “I saw it in the way they talked, their body language, their eyes.”
Not only was he impressed with the impact on offenders, Sage saw the program’s potential to heal victims and their loved ones. The more they got to know offenders, the easier it became for them to forgive.
“They started to see them as people, not animals.”
When Sage experienced Sycamore Tree, it was limited to one prison.
He started to envision his own program that could be brought to four or five prisons, then more.
After a summer of thought and prayer, he launched Bridges to Life.
A new journey
Sage wrote a curriculum for his new ministry and set it on its path.
“In ministry, some people till, some plant seeds, some harvest them. I think we’re rock-breakers before the soil is ever tilled.”
Bridges to Life asks participating offenders to address personal responsibility, he said. It encourages them to accept God’s forgiveness and to forgive themselves for their crimes. Then, Sage said, they’re ready for life-changing spiritual decisions.
In addition to helping offenders and victims experience healing, the program can improve the atmosphere within prisons as offenders change their outlook and behavior, Sage said.
And the program makes communities safer, he said, because offenders are less likely to commit crimes when they are released.
The program Sage launched in 1998 now operates in prisons throughout Texas, in 10 other states and in Australia, South Africa and Mexico.
The ministry has more than 900 volunteers. More than 20,000 prisoners have participated in the Bridges to Life course, and about 15,000 have graduated.
Sage plans to serve 2,700 to 2,800 prisoners this year.
He also has released the program’s current book and curriculum in Spanish.
From the beginning, Sage has shown tremendous devotion to this ministry, longtime friend and program volunteer Bob Christy said.
“It’s his life. He does have a personal life, a family, but he’s 110 percent devoted to Bridges to Life,” Christy said. “It was a calling I suppose.
“He would tell you, he didn’t do it all by himself. It required volunteers, financial supporters. But he clearly was the driving and motivating force.”
Sage’s passion for the ministry is extremely evident, said Mike Lojo, a friend of Sage’s since 1961.
“He’s relentless, but also with a steady keel,” the Sugar Land resident said. “John’s just as he was when I met him as a freshman in high school, steady as he could be.”
Seeing Bridges to Life’s growth, and its impact on lives, has been a moving experience, Sage said.
“It’s gratifying and humbling to know you started on a wing and a prayer,” he said. “That kind of growth, no one can do that without God’s grace and help.”
Bridges to Life always needs additional volunteer support. For more information, visit http://www.bridgestolife.org/
Flori Meeks is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.