By: Tom Westerholm
If you are reading this, I presume you know the story of Good Friday and Easter already. I assume you know the story of Christ’s suffering, of his death, and ultimately of our redemption. So here’s a different redemption story.
The first half of Brian Brocklehurst’s life is etched across his body in faded black ink. Praying hands sit directly below his throat, covering what was once a swastika. Two tear drops next to his eyes make him appear perpetually sad. Full sleeves cover his arms, mostly with fire and skulls. And in spindly, crooked lines, the letters GFBD run across his neck.
It is this last tattoo that will likely prevent him from ever having steady employment and ensures his continued presence on gang watch lists. The letters are highly visible, and the acronym is ominous: God Forgives, Brotherhood Don’t.
“Brotherhood” refers to the Aryan Brotherhood, one of the most notorious white supremacist prison gangs in America. Brocklehurst was, at one time, a high ranking officer in the AB.
As we began to talk, Brocklehurst leaned back, his eyes on his decorated knuckles.
“It’s gonna be hard for me, talking about this,” he said, his voice soft. “I’m not what I want to be, I’m not what I’m going to be, but I thank God that I’m not what I used to be.”
Brocklehurst began his story in an odd place chronologically, but an important one thematically. “I got two kids I haven’t been around. I was in prison for 12 years. My daughter will be 14 this month, you do the math,” he said with a wry smile. “My son will be 16 in July.”
Brocklehurst grew up in a broken home. At age 14, he pulled a gun on his mother’s boyfriend and was sent to live with his father in the city. “My dad doesn’t get in trouble,” Brocklehurst said. “But he let me do whatever I wanted. I was drinking, drugging and stealing cars.”
When Brocklehurst turned 17, he met his future wife. “She slowed me down a little. Not too much, but a little bit,” Brocklehurst said, chuckling. “She got pregnant a little while after we met.”
Brocklehurst began selling drugs to support his family. But with the sales, his use of drugs also skyrocketed. “Everything except for heroin,” he said, shaking his head. “Everything else.” This proved too much for his wife. She moved out, and Brocklehurst moved back in with his dad.
“That’s where my life really went downhill,” Brocklehurst said, without a trace of irony.
A skinhead friend of Brocklehurst’s had just gotten out of prison, and he was introduced to the Aryan Brotherhood. “I wasn’t into hate,” Brocklehurst said. “I was into separatism. Blacks stay with blacks, whites with whites, Mexicans with Mexicans.”
Here he paused, looking disgusted.
“Gang stuff is a ploy of Satan,” he said, quietly. “God gives us a sense of wanting to be accepted, to have a purpose, to lead us to Him. Satan comes with gangs to try to fill that need that God put within us. But they will never fill that need. That’s how I got turned onto that Aryan ideology.”
Brocklehurst began going in and out of prison at the age of 20 for various misdemeanors. As he served his time, he became more involved with gangs. But when he was sent to a state jail with mostly younger inmates, Brocklehurst gained notoriety.
“When I got there, I had already been gang affiliated, so now I’m somebody,” he said. “I’ve been out in the world. I know people.” Brocklehurst was a lieutenant, the second in command. He served this position until the gang’s captain left. Then Brocklehurst took over. “I got aggressive. The guards didn’t care about anything. If we had someone we was going to hit, we’d tell the guards we were going to hit them and they’d let us. Mass chaos.”
Brocklehurst began enjoying his notoriety, and got his neck tattoo thinking that gang life would always be a part of his identity. When he got out of prison, his son was three and his daughter was two. He never visited them. “I just kept doing gang stuff,” he said. “I started robbing dope houses.”
One robbery went especially wrong. After forcing his way into a house with a gun and leaving hurriedly, Brocklehurst was identified to the police. He was given nine years in prison for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.
Brocklehurst was sent first to a county jail for processing, where he went to church to do his gang work. “In prison, people go to church to meet up,” he said. “We’d meet up and pass whatever we had to pass. It was open for everybody.”
Often, the Brotherhood would exchange drugs and messages at church services. But one day, Brocklehurst received something more. “This preacher was preaching about the end times. The sky melting and all that stuff. The Spirit started speaking to me. He said, ‘You need this.’ I didn’t know how to be a Christian, but my heart was converted at that time.”
When Brocklehurst was transferred, he was identified as a gang member and put in “Seg,” or a segregation cell. These are one man units in which the inmate is locked up for 23 hours of the day. But Brocklehurst called this a blessing. He took the opportunity to begin reading and studying his Bible enthusiastically.
“[My conversion] all happened in Seg, the best years of my life,” he said. “I had no trials, no temptations back there. Nothing like what we face out here.”
When Brocklehurst was moved back into a normal cell block, he began to experience a spiritual depression. As one of the younger inmates, he wasn’t able to witness to the older ones. Without an opportunity to witness and without the solitude that had allowed him to come to a spiritual peace, he went into a valley.
“The Lord was full of grace,” he said. “He allowed me to lean on his word. I’m an emotional person. That don’t just mean getting your feelings hurt, but getting angry as well. I thought the Lord had abandoned me, but He showed me how to stand on the word. In Peter it says God has given us His precious promises and through those promises we can partake of His divine nature. That’s a powerful verse. We can partake of the nature of God by standing on the promises He gives us in the Bible.”
Upon his release, Brocklehurst became a student at Calvary Commission, on the outskirts of Lindale, Texas. Stretching over 180 acres of lush, green forests and grassy hills, Calvary is a large ranch and a school where ex-convicts who have been saved in prison can go to continue their walk with God, where the temptations are few. Though Calvary is optional and Brocklehurst can leave at any time, students study the Bible intensely and aren’t provided with opportunities to fall back into their old ways. “I don’t know if I’ll stay here after I finish the program,” Brocklehurst said. “I like it, but I really want to see my kids.”
The past can’t be erased, and appropriately, tattoos can’t be erased either. Brocklehurst’s past is constantly on display. “I still look the same,” he said. “I still got all these ugly tattoos, but I’m a different person inside.”
He does indeed look the same. His tattoos are a constant reminder that he is the same man. A man who brutally beat people, who fathered two children that barely know him. He is the same, yet different. And because of that difference, perhaps the tattoo across his neck can take on a less ominous, more hopeful tone.
God forgives. Brotherhood don’t.