Will and I know Tom Tarrants through the C.S. Lewis Institute where he served as president from 1998 to 2010. As of last May, Tom handed the leadership reins over to our dear friend, Kerry Knott, and is now more focused on teaching and discipleship through the Institute. Tom has given me permission to share his testimony here on the blog. To prepare I have listened to a CD of his testimony given in 2008 and also read his amazing book, The Conversion of a Klansman: The Story of a Former Ku Klux Klan Terrorist. Although the book is now out of print, you may be able to find a used copy online (as Will did for me last Christmas) and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. This short post cannot possibly do justice to the full power of Tom’s story and the change that Jesus made in his life.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Tom Tarrants in May of 2005. I did not know a single thing about him, and he was introducing Ravi Zacharias at a conference I was attending. I could tell then that Tom had a gentle spirit about him, and this was confirmed when I met him a few weeks later as I interviewed for the Institute’s Fellows Program. Again, he came across as kind, straight-laced and grace-filled. So you can understand how very surprised I was to learn his story. Now, more than five years later, I am struck by what an impact this man and his ministry has had on my family. Will and I are so proud to count him as a friend, and so grateful to have learned so much through Tom and the C.S. Lewis Institute.
Tom was raised in Mobile, Alabama. He was taken to church as a boy and made a confession of faith at 13 and was baptized. But Tom says that only one thing in his life changed after this “conversion”: he no longer feared going to hell. During the rise of the civil rights movement, Tom was in high school. He was opposed to integration efforts and fueled his initial anger by reading racist and anti-Semitic literature. By the time he was twenty-one years old, he was involved in a terrorist organization called the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and his heart was full of hatred.
On June 29, 1968 Tom and an associate from the White Knights terrorist cell were planting a bomb at the home of a successful Jewish businessman in Meridian, Mississippi. But things did not go as planned. A police SWAT team, working with the FBI, was waiting. The gun battle and chase that ensued killed his associate and left a police officer hit with three rounds, one to the heart. Tom was near death, with four gunshot wounds, two of which were at point-blank range. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors said it would be a miracle if he lived forty-five minutes.
But Tom did live, making an inexplicable recovery. He was then convicted and sentenced to thirty years in prison. But this did not change him. It took about six months for Tom to plan and execute a successful escape plan with a few other prisoners. At their hideout, they took turns keeping watch. A few days after their escape, one of the guys relieved Tom about a half hour early from his shift as the look-out. Five minutes later gunfire broke out. The FBI had found them, this man was killed, and Tom knew that it should’ve been him.
Upon recapture, Tom spent the next three years of his life in a 6 x 9 cell. To keep his mind engaged, Tom turned to books. He started with the likes of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and then moved on to classical philosophy. Eventually he felt drawn to read the Gospels. Tom had read the Bible before, but this time he understood what he was reading. After a few weeks of reading, Tom got down on his knees in that 6×9 cell and gave his life to Jesus Christ.
Obviously, Tom had more time than most to read, and so he immersed himself in God’s Word for hours each day. He prayed and wanted to serve God, and he felt God working to change his heart. In the prologue to his book he wrote:
I was overcome with a sense of my sinfulness — not just for prejudice, hatred, and political violence, but for my whole life-style. All my life I had been living for myself–what pleased me, made me feel good, made me look good to others. The feelings, needs, desires of other people were always secondary to what I wanted. Indeed, the whole world revolved around me and this showed itself in the outward sins of my life.
As I came to see myself as I really was–as God saw me — I was crushed, and I wept bitterly. How hideous and wretched I was. Then, seeing my need so clearly and knowing there was only One who could meet it, I surrendered myself to the Lord Jesus Christ as fully as I knew how. A tremendous weight was lifted from me, and I began to feel at peace at last.
You may have never been a terrorist or known the loneliness of a prison cell. You may not have served eight years in prison like Tom Tarrants did, but do you know you’re a sinner just the same? And do you know the peace Tom describes? Because Jesus has His arms wide open for you. He wants to take all your burdens. He wants to lift the weight you are carrying around, whatever it is. Maybe it’s bitterness or an inability to forgive. Maybe it’s the ball and chain of meaninglessness. Maybe it’s the crushing weight of living life without the security of love. Maybe it’s debilitating fear. Whatever it is, Jesus wants to take it, and in return, give you peace.
More than any other person I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, Tom is living proof that Jesus Christ changes lives. I’m praying that Tom’s incredible story is an inspiration to many and that even this week more lives are changed because of this wonderful man of God.
Again, I highly recommend tracking down his book because it tells so well the transformation of this man’s heart and how many people were praying for him and investing in him. The relationships that Tom experienced in the years that followed are inspiring examples of reconciliation and redemption. I’m also hoping that Tom will write a follow up book and share what God has done in him and through him in the thirty-four years since his release from prison.
With everything going on in the world today, Tom’s testimony is an apt and vivid reminder that nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 18: 27).