Overwhelming poverty, a single mother trying to raise Thom Miller and his brother, violence and crime is how Miller described his childhood and teen life.
With no father figure, Miller said he began running with the wrong crowd, got into drugs – first using them then selling and distributing them and collecting money for people in organized crime.
Those actions put him in prison with charges of felonious assault. He had stabbed a biker through the heart.
"Now, I bring bikers into prison," Miller said Saturday as he motioned at the 30-35 bikers who had joined him inside the walls at the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion for a bike rally as a prison ministry he had founded called Special Visit Ministry and which he does in 11 states and Peru. Miller, himself, was a prisoner at NCCI and released nine years ago.
Bikers joining Miller Saturday came from seven different Christian biker groups and from such places as Bucyrus, Mansfield, Galion, Toledo, Bradner, Ashland and two flew in from Arizona. Their purpose for such visits Miller said is to provide hope and friendship. Each of them bring Bibles and faith-based books for the prisoners.
"We show them our scars," Miller said. "We all have scars – physical and emotional. When we come in and the inmates come to us, we are permitted to pray with them, talk with them and just act like Christian men and women. We've all done something wrong, but we don't all go to prison
While in prison, Miller received word that his mother was dying and he could not go to her bedside to say his goodbyes.
"She made it and didn't die while I was in prison," Miller said, adding that was when he began to search for God while within prison walls. On Dec. 4, 1991, Miller said he asked Jesus into his heart and for forgiveness for his wrongdoings.
"I gave God a chance and Jesus is allowing me to be different," Miller said. "My life took a big turn for the better. I started going to services at the chapel and began watching the 700 Club and convinced other inmates to watch it with me."
Miller kept going before the parole board, he said, and each time they would remind him of his horrid life of crime.
"I told them I couldn't defend my past life," he said. "I always told them I 've changed and I'm different now. I've made a decision that will last the rest of my life and that is knowing Jesus." He said he was released by the parole board after his sixth appearance.
Knowing how desolate and depressing being imprisoned could be, Miller said once he was released, he began doing services at the county jail, but said he had a burden to get back into the prisons to do ministry.
He had a roadblock in the way. That was a piece of paper in writing that said he could never go back into NCCI because of his felony record.
"The Lord just opened the door for me to get back into NCCI," Miller said, adding he has invited others who have had similar experiences to join him as well as those who just have a burden to present the Gospel to those incarcerated. They make the trip at least twice a year.
And one of those who looks forward to not only Miller but all services of inspiration at NCCI, is inmate Kenneth Brown.
"I think this is beneficial to inmates," he said. "These people give them (inmates) a lot of hope. They appreciate it. A lot of inmates need someone to talk to they and they look forward to things like this motorcycle rally."
Brown said he was a practicing Christian and professional musician when he had his first ever run-in with the law.
"My life completely changed in three seconds," he said. "I was being attacked and I thought I was defending myself, but the judge ruled it murder." He was sentenced 15 years to life and has served 13 1/2 years to date. He has been at NCCI since 2000.
Brown said through Miller and other visiting clergy, he has renewed his faith and attends all worship and praise services.
"I've noticed inmates look forward to it and I've seen changes in their lives," Brown said. "It's something (attend a faith-based services) they can do nearly every day."
Brown, who has a masters degree in music from Juliard School of Music in New York City, played bass guitar with Gladys Knight and the Pips 10 years before being incarcerated. At NCCI, he's in charge of the music program, he said, and twice a week teaches inmates to read, write and to play instruments.
Thursday, he organized a 9-11 observance with eight bands performing a concert in the prison courtyard. He noted that on Sept. 11, 2001, he had just set up for a series of bands when he was approached and told to close it down right after the first plane hit the twin towers in NYC, then 20 minutes later told to set up.
"I think they (prison officials) wanted the inmates out here instead of glued to the television and becoming more depressed," he said. "We played until 8 that night and have done it every year since.
Many of those that participate in bike rallies with Miller are also former inmates.
John "Preacher Man" Harris, Lexington, was an inmate 1983-2008 for several charges including burglary, forgery, auto theft and breaking and entering. He said he accepted the Lord in prison.
"That made it more bearable as I served my time," he said. "The Lord forgave me of my wrongdoings. The Lord has a mission for me and has led me to this ministry to share with inmates."
Harris said someone gave him Miller's phone number. He called Miller and asked him to be a guest for Black Leather Sunday at his church Lexington Covenant. Harris is now an ordained minister of City Church in Bellville.
"Today there has been a lot of men re-dedicate their life to the Lord from us being here to share with them," Harris said. "A lot of them grew up in church, then went astray. We just show up, share the Word that Jesus loves them and we do too."
Harris said he often share the Scripture from Matthew 25:36 …….I was in prison and ye came unto me. "That brings them a ray of hope."
Two of Saturday's visitors flew in from Arizona to share the Word and provide inspiration to the inmates.
Ted Burke, originally from Detroit and now from Glendale, Ariz. said he was inspired by Miller two years ago and now has a similar ministry in Arizona. He, too, has a criminal past. He said he was a three-time felony offender and under the habitual offender act was granted probation versus prison. He is now a currency broker.
"We're getting letters on almost a daily basis from prisoners," Burke said. "The Bishop has found homes for inmates when they're released. Our church goes above and beyond to help them find homes. Our thinking is if we can make a difference with inmates while they're in, and let them learn about Christ, they can lead straight lives after they're released."
Isaac Rios, Arrowhead, Ariz., is also an ex-felon. This was his first time in Ohio.
"One of my desires when I got out was to go back and put something back in," Rios said. "As I came today, I see myself. I know what they're feeling. A righteous man can fall seven times, then he needs to get back up. That's what we preach. With God's help they can."