Years ago, dear friends of mine took a vacation to the Pacific coastal town of Zihuatanejo. Now, if Zihuatanejo rings a bell, it should. It was the Shangri-La described in “The Shawshank Redemption,” the ultimate destination for the film’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne, when he escaped prison.
“It’s in Mexico,” Andy said. “A little place on the Pacific Ocean. Mexicans say the Pacific has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.”
Eventually, Andy made it there, and the cultural reference opened Zihuatanejo up to unprecedented tourism — including my friends.
On that vacation they stumbled one Sunday into a English-speaking church service where an American expatriate was preaching: Pastor John Sullivan. They all became fast friends, and Pastor John found a new circle of enthusiastic supporters here in the United States.
When I met John for the first time, not long ago, it was over a Philly cheesesteak — a culinary wonder his wife Beti (whom he met and married in Mexico nearly two decades ago) had never experienced — a “sorpresa” (surpise) for sure.
I asked John, “How did you end up with Andy Dufresne in Zihuatanejo?” He answered without hesitation: “I started going there in the 1980s, when I was a cocaine smuggler.”
That was not exactly what I expected to hear, but John went on to describe his amazing journey, from a bantamweight prize fighter boxing all over the country, to a successful business owner, to fronting drug shipments for the Mexican cartels, to a years-long prison sentence in a federal penitentiary.
But while running on the prison exercise track one morning, he says God spoke to him. “You’re going to give me your life,” the voice seemed to say. It was shattering. So, John stopped, fell to his knees on the asphalt, and in surrender, “turned his will and life over to the care of God.”
When he finished his prison sentence, like Andy Dufresne set free, he made for Zihuatanejo — not as a smuggler — but as a preacher. He was ultimately ordained by the Foursquare Christian Church, started a mission to minister to prisoners, has founded a school, takes in kids from the street, sponsors multiple soccer teams, provides wheelchairs for the disabled, has helped start multiple churches, and works directly with the poorest of the poor who live in his city’s landfill.
Into his seventh decade now, but with the boundless energy of a man half his age and the precociousness of a child, he can’t stop sharing, living, and proclaiming, “Good News to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed,” for he has experienced these graces himself.
An admitted “ex-fighter, ex-con, but striving to never be an ex-Christian,” Pastor John Sullivan simply wants people to be free — physically, spiritually — completely. His is a story of true redemption, and while the Pacific may have no memory, his life will not be quickly forgotten.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at ronniemcbrayer.org.