LAKE FOREST – Danny Duchene dropped to his knees as pastor Rick Warren led a prayer over him, the recently named pastor for Saddleback Church’s prison ministry.
“The greatest feeling in life is being used by God for something larger than yourself,” Warren said after announcing Duchene’s new job. “God can use anybody because of his mercy. Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.”
Duchene, 53, is a twice-convicted murderer.
He was serving double 25-year-to-life sentences at Sierra Conservation Center in Northern California for killing two men when, with the help of a letter Warren penned to the parole board guaranteeing him a job at Saddleback, he was released Dec. 24, 2014.
‘Purpose Driven’ prison
Nearly 20 years into his sentence, Duchene became familiar with Warren through his book “The Purpose Driven Life.” It inspired him to start a Purpose-Driven Church at the prison, to encourage inmates that their lives had a purpose.
Duchene finished reading Warren’s book in 2003 at the same time Saddleback Church was launching a National Day of Purpose campaign. Duchene wanted to be part of that, so he contacted Saddleback leaders and told them 20 inmates wanted to participate. Saddleback staff sent videos and workbooks to the prison.
“We had the support of the corrections director of substance abuse. He let us know if there were enough men, we could expand,” Duchene said. “We thought maybe 50 men would participate in the small groups, but as we went door to door asking if men in the prison were interested, more than 200 guys signed up. People joined up to be part of something that broke up their routine.”
At the end of 40 Days of Purpose, Saddleback Pastor Steve Rutenbar visited the prison. And Warren came to the prison and led a service in the yard, yellow caution tape separating him from the prisoners.
“When Rick spoke, more men came out of their cellblocks,” Duchene said. “When he gave an invitation to men to come across the yard and give their lives to God, as one came, more began coming and a very rowdy prison yard became still. Even men who didn’t come forward still respected the moment.”
A few months later, Saddleback Pastor John Baker returned to the prison and trained Duchene and others to lead Celebrate Recovery programs, aimed at helping them get their lives in order.
“There was something about Danny that was truly authentic,” said Baker, who oversees Duchene outside the prison walls. “You could see the pastor’s heart in him. He was doing everything he could to be a man of God. Rick turned to me and said, ‘We’ve got to hire Danny.’”
Within a year, prison officials dedicated an entire 200-man cellblock to prisoners participating in Celebrate Recovery.
“I think the normal prison environment teaches men to be isolated,”Duchene said. “They’re separated from their families. They have guilt and shame of their crimes. By hoping for a changed life and not coming back, they find support of other men who want the same thing compared to the normal environment of prison peer pressure to do the wrong thing – to become part of a gang, or take a racist or an anti-authority perspective.”
After his 2014 Christmas Eve release, Duchene worked as a drug and alcohol counselor at a San Francisco methadone clinic and got married before heading to Orange County. He and his wife, Susan, lead a small group in their Mission Viejo home.