On August 25, Jon Ponder was brought to tears when he received a full presidential pardon for his past criminal convictions. Ponder’s life took a 180-degree turn over 15 years ago after a series of events, including the morning he woke up to Billy Graham’s voice on the radio.
He shared his story with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:
Jon Ponder was in solitary confinement at a prison in Las Vegas when a chaplain came by and tried talking to him through the flap in his door.
“I called this man every name in the book except the name his mother gave him,” Jon said.
The chaplain slipped a Bible through the flap and said, “Jesus loves you.”
Jon left the Bible on the floor.
A Life of Crime
Growing up in New York with no father in his life and five siblings, Jon turned to the streets “to validate masculinity.” He found his identity in gangs, drug addiction and crime.
“I got my first set of handcuffs at 12 years old,” he said.
His run-ins with police gradually became more serious, and at 16, he got his first felony conviction.
“My life just spiraled out of control.”
By his early 20s, he followed his mom and siblings to Las Vegas, looking for a change.
“I was hoping grass got a little bit greener on the other side,” he explained.
But it didn’t.
At 37, he robbed a bank and found himself surrounded by police officers. It was at that moment he said he heard God speaking to his heart, telling him everything would be OK.
But this was a hardened criminal, a guy who took matters into his own hands. In prison, Jon fought other inmates and his corrections officers. He was angry and stopped eating.
“I’m facing spending the next 23 years of my life in prison.”
That’s when the chaplain came by.
Together in Solitary Confinement
A week after the Bible drop-off in solitary confinement, the chaplain came again—and again, Jon cussed him out.
This time, the chaplain slid in a copy of Pursuit of His Presence, a daily devotional by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland.
Out of sheer boredom one day, Jon picked it up.
“I didn’t even know what a daily devotion was,” he said.
In fact, he didn’t know what day it was, so he opened the book to a random page.
At the top of that page was a Bible verse. Jon flipped through the Bible he’d left on the floor days earlier and found the same passage.
“Something just grabbed ahold of me, and I started reading my Bible and I could not put it down.”
As a kid, Jon spent many summers with his grandparents in Mississippi. His grandfather was a pastor, and his grandmother, Madea—“the original Madea,” Jon said—would take him to church. Afterwards, she’d break out the hymnals back home and play the songs on the piano.
Years later, stuck in that prison cell alone, “All those seeds Madea had sown started cracking open. … God captured my heart.”
“You’re supposed to be in solitary confinement by yourself, but it was me and Jesus.”
Billy Graham on a Broken Radio
The chaplain Jon kept cussing out didn’t give up and kept dropping books through the small flap in Jon’s solitary cell. One of them was Billy Graham’s autobiography, Just As I Am. It was the first book Jon ever read cover to cover.
And that wasn’t the only way Mr. Graham found his way into this Vegas cell.
When a fellow inmate was released, the inmate left his transistor radio to Jon.
“It was broken, it was mangled, tape all over it. And it had one earbud,” Jon remembered.
He struggled to find something to listen to on the beat-up radio.
“Lo and behold, the only radio station was this Christian radio station.”
Jon used to fall asleep to the sound of it, and one day, “I woke up to the voice of Billy Graham.”
Mr. Graham was preaching on the Prodigal Son, which Jon incidentally just read about in his Bible.
“He was saying about this God who just loves you so much,” Jon said, recalling Mr. Graham’s message. “At the end of it, Billy Graham said if you have not made Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, He wants to come into your life.”
Sharing this story with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) over Zoom, tears came to Jon’s eyes.
“I stood up in that prison cell and surrendered my life to Jesus,” he said, pausing to collect himself. “From then on, I’ve never looked back.”
After a while, U.S. marshals came to transport Jon from solitary confinement in Las Vegas to a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Jon put the book Just As I Am in a manila envelope and gave it to the marshals in hopes of getting it back once they arrived.
During the Zoom call with BGEA earlier this month, Jon reached to one side and grabbed the book, holding up that same copy he got in his tiny cell years ago.
Jon leaned forward as he recalled sentencing day. He knew the judge could give him up to 23 years in prison for bank robbery.
Shackled in a tiny, stainless steel holding cell, waiting to be called before the judge, Jon started talking to God.
“I know that I know that I know that you’re real,” he told God.
He asked the Lord to go before him in the courtroom.
“Whatever time that I get, let it come from you. Be my judge,” he prayed. “Whatever time it is, whether it’s six years or 50 years, … my promise is that I’m going to spend the rest of my life serving you, in or out of prison.”
Finally, his name was called and Jon entered the courtroom.
“I walked into the presence of God.”
Face Down on the Floor
The judge asked Jon if he had anything to say. Jon responded with a bunch of words he couldn’t recall.
When he finished, the judge leaned back in his chair and removed his glasses. He said he’d never heard anything like that. The judge told him if Jon would do half the things he’d just said, he would walk out of prison a transformed man.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to give you what you deserve,’” Jon said, choking up. “And in that moment, I’m standing there, and I know that God just showed up.”
Instead of 23 years behind bars, Jon got five.
Jon later looked at the court transcript to see what he said. He’d told the judge he was going to use every chance he had to change his life and be who God made him to be.
He had been running from God’s plan his whole life, but now it was time to surrender to it.
“I get back to my cell and I fall down on my face on that cold floor and I start weeping and thanking God,” he said.
That judge is now one of Jon’s best friends.
Going Back to School
Jon flew to a high security prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, in the early morning hours. Instead of reading “Allenwood United States Penitentiary” on the sign, in his mind he changed the words to “Allenwood United States Bible College.”
“I went in there and went to school.”
In his five years there, Jon fought the temptation to get pulled back into his old life. He also met men with no hope of getting out who were at total peace.
Jon said God put them there to help keep him on the right path.
Jon read his Bible regularly and had one-on-one time with Jesus.
“The more and more I began to understand God, the more and more I began to understand me,” he explained. “I’m not the name that the streets gave me. … I am who my God says that I am.”
The FBI Agent Who Prayed
Thinking back to when he was arrested for bank robbery, Jon said he was drunk and putting up a fight. He was taken into custody, and FBI agent Richard Beasley was put on his case.
Jon remembers the first time Richard walked in the room, wearing glasses and a fresh suit.
“It was like this incredible peace that walked in the door,” Jon said. “I did not know it at the time, but Richard Beasley has a relationship with Jesus.”
Jon cites Colossians 1:13 in the Bible:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.
Jon said God used Richard to help snatch him out of darkness.
The three-time convicted felon came home on May 9, 2009. Richard had no idea about Jon’s road to Damascus experience when he welcomed him home, but did let Jon know one thing:
The whole time Jon was incarcerated, Richard and his wife had been praying for him.
After five years in prison, Jon was ready to reintegrate back into society, a challenge millions of inmates face upon release.
Jon decided to make that transition smoother for those who came after him.
Today, he’s founder of Hope for Prisoners, a Las Vegas nonprofit working in seven institutions across Nevada. The organization provides support to the formerly incarcerated, offering training in budgeting, job searching, home buying, leadership and information technology.
It also partners with churches, offers Bible studies and has a church plant in one detention center.
Jon’s hope is that others who have been through prison see what God can do with their lives.
His favorite Bible verse comes from Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
“All things,” Jon stressed. “It doesn’t say some things.”
Regardless of a person’s past, he said, God can take it and shape it into something beautiful. Then we, he added, can help others through the same thing.
The judge who gave Jon a much lesser sentence than he deserved later recounted that day in the courtroom. Years after he handed down Jon’s sentence, the judge shared that when he leaned back in his chair and took off his glasses, “I was waiting to hear from heaven.”
Jon’s story of transformation, the judge told him, helped restore his faith in the judicial process.
To Jon, it’s the perfect picture of what Jesus Christ does when He steps in to take all our sin and shame upon Himself, gives us a clean slate and restores our relationship with God.
“God sent His Son that we might not get what we deserve,” Jon said.
On August 25, President Donald Trump granted Jon a full pardon—to Jon’s complete surprise.
“I cannot find the words. I’m still overwhelmed about that. The magnitude hasn’t set in,” Jon said a month later, recalling that day in the White House. “It took everything in me not to break down.”
Standing with his wife and now-friend Richard Beasley, Jon tearfully took it all in that day—and had another conversation with God.
“God said to me, ‘This is great,’ but He says, ‘Remember, I pardoned you in that prison cell all those years ago.”