Thursday, February 5, 2009

Book Excerpt: Lessons from San Quentin by Bill Dallas with George Barna

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card authors are:

and the book:

Lessons from San Quentin

Tyndale House Publishers (January 9, 2009)


Bill Dallas is the CEO of the Church Communication Network (CCN), a satellite and Internet communications company serving thousands of churches across North America. He hosts Solutions, a weekly satellite program with Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. A former Young Life leader and Bible study teacher, Bill is a graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is the proud father of Dallas and Amanda. Bill and his wife, Bettina, life in northern California.

Visit the author's website.

George Barnais the founder and directing leader of The Barna Group, Ltd., a California-based company that offers primary research and strategic assistance related to cultural assessment and transformation, faith dynamics and leadership development.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $22.99
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers (January 9, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414326564
ISBN-13: 978-1414326566


Life in the Median Strip

When I entered San Quentin for the first time, I was only thirty-one years old. Still reeling from the chain of events that had landed me there, I couldn’t believe this was now my life. Numb with disbelief, I tried not to think about where I was and who I would be living with. These people were lowlifes—hard-core criminals. They were beneath me, and I couldn’t believe that I would now be considered one of them.

How was this possible? How did I go from being the golden boy of the Bay Area to fresh meat in a state prison?

My life had been going great—better than great, in fact. After graduating with honors from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, I had made my way west and learned the real estate business. By the mideighties I had joined with a business partner, Tony, and we were determined to take the San Francisco Bay area by storm.

We got off to a flying start. We put together huge deals, raising capital from investors who liked our creativity and chutzpah. Tony and I became known as the boy wonders of the Bay Area, and we reveled in the name. We also believed that this was only the beginning of the riches and fame that were surely in store for us.

While some people are known for being type A personalities, I was easily a type triple A. I wasn’t just living in the fast lane; I was going so fast I was burning down the median strip! Life seemed to be beckoning me for greatness, and nothing was going to stop me from living what I deemed to be the good life.

While I learned to play the real estate game in the Bay Area, I also worked as a male model. The money was good, but it was the clothing and attention that really appealed to me. Once I hit it big in real estate, I wore the finest threads available. I believed that image was everything, and I was selling it big-time. Because I needed to raise megabucks for the downtown developments I was always pushing, I knew it was critical that I looked the part of the well-to-do, successful magnate. No suit was too expensive or too finely tailored for me—Hugo Boss and Armani were my favorites. Throw in some exquisite Italian loafers and a brilliant designer tie, and with my hair gelled back, I was ready for action.

In fact, action seemed to be my middle name. I was constantly entertaining women at home, in clubs, even on the job. Cocaine was my drug of choice, and I always had a designer vodka cocktail in my hand. I loved cutting through traffic in my sleek black BMW sedan on the way to business meetings or driving my gleaming black Porsche around town on weekends.

Late at night, you could find me and my high-flying entourage cruising the city, looking for the best scene. My party mates and I regularly rented stretch limos to weave through the streets in search of the hottest clubs. Sometimes we even intentionally circled a specific club, waiting for a sufficiently long line of partyers to form behind the velvet rope outside. We wanted to pull up to the carpeted entryway and make a grand entrance.

Orchestrating favorable press coverage and wrangling introductions to the most important power players in the area became our standard operating procedure.

I quickly gained insight into how the political system worked, and I began to throw fund-raisers for key city and state officials—not just one candidate per race, but multiple candidates—being sure to grease their palms so they would approve our real estate projects. Often, I handed out more money than could be legally donated, but I always figured out ways to either hide the gifts or to skirt the laws. Such rules were merely a minor nuisance in my climb to the top of the world.

And when it was time to work the system, we worked it mercilessly. When we desperately needed to secure city funding for a $100 million development we were working on, I even dated a government official who would be influential in the decision-making process. The campaign coffers of several of the councilmen were filled, thanks to my generosity. In addition, Tony and I hired people to pack a critical city council meeting and say great things about our proposed project. The line of “local residents” extended outside the council chambers and down the block. The chairman eventually cut the meeting short, noting that the public’s overwhelming sentiment for the project could not be more obvious. The city council voted in our favor.

I was Bill Dallas, boy wonder. I had it all figured out.


As it turned out, there were a few things I hadn’t figured out. For instance, one of the details I failed to anticipate was the real estate crash of the early nineties. When it hit, it smacked me like a two-by-four across the head. Many people were taken by surprise by this swift and deep change in the economy, but I was taken hostage.

By the spring of 1991, we had used all of the money invested in our projects to fuel our combustible lifestyle and promote other, newer projects we were setting up. The combination of out-of-control spending, not enough financial planning, and the demise of the real estate market caused us to run out of money, plain and simple. Our financial backers, some of whom were falling on tough times as well—thanks in part to my lofty promises about the returns they would be receiving—began asking about their investments, wondering why work on their projects had been halted and how they were going to fare during the real estate downturn. That’s when everything started to blow up in my face.

Our business strategy had been based on impressing people with sizzle rather than substance. We had cut corners and manipulated every angle in an attempt to provide investors with a world-class return on their investments, which incidentally would also have meant that we would be rolling in cash as well.

But that dream was not to be. My business collapsed, and the life I had built around it began to crash. Big-time. Our luxurious office with its panoramic view was shut down. The phones were turned off. I was kicked out of my penthouse, and my prized toys—my homes and cars—were repossessed. My friends found new parties to enjoy and more successful partyers to accompany. The man of the year quickly became a social leper.

As if things weren’t bad enough, the legal hammer began to fall. Due to a lethal combination of ignorance and ambition, I had been handling investors’ money in a way that was apparently illegal—something called commingling of funds. We had used money from one project to float another without the investors’ knowledge. Although my partner and I always intended to pay back each investor after we completed our development activity, our naive and reckless approach was still against the law. Both the state and federal governments wound up filing charges against me, and a drawn-out, expensive courtroom drama began to unfold.

In the meantime, I sought any job I could get and wound up as a salesman at Nordstrom. I think I got the job because I had such fabulous clothing, but I wasn’t much of a salesman on the retail floor. My heart just wasn’t in it. In fact, my heart was nowhere to be found.

I was completely empty, almost numb, and had little energy for life. In the past, I had always been able to push away such feelings of emptiness with new toys, loud parties, and a lot of women. But now, without any of those things to distract me, I was faced with the fact that I didn’t really like my life—or myself—at all.

Flipping through the cable channels one evening, I stopped to listen to a TV preacher talk about salvation and getting right with God. Up to that point in my life, I hadn’t had much to do with religion. While I was growing up, my family had been tangentially involved in Christianity. Although my father never attended any church activities, my mother sometimes attended a local Protestant church, and I went to the Sunday school on those occasions. Those classes exposed me to some of the stories and values that form the basis of Christianity. But I never really understood the big deal about Jesus Christ. Mom and I found the church people to be nice, and she especially enjoyed the potluck meals and the special events, but we were never active in the church or in the pursuit of genuine faith.

That spiritual apathy was the norm for me until age fourteen, when the brother of one of my best friends led an impromptu Bible study. He talked about our sin problem and how Christ had died on the cross to save us from the punishment we deserved. I was aghast. As he painted the picture—God’s sacrificial love delivered through the murder of Jesus, necessitated by my wayward behavior and corrupted mind—it was clear that I needed to do something about it.

After that meeting, I began to pray constantly for forgiveness. When I say constantly, I mean just that: I literally prayed two to three hundred times each day, asking God to forgive everything I was doing and everything I had previously done. I was a wreck over the fact that I was a habitual, lifelong sinner! I did not have a relationship with Christ, only a foreboding fear of wrongdoing and the inevitable eternal punishment if I didn’t get it right.

The church my friend attended was highly legalistic, and every time we went, we were bombarded with an overwhelming parcel of rules and regulations we needed to satisfy. It was truly unbearable, but having been scared out of my wits by this church’s convincing doctrines about the wrath of God and the wickedness of man, I felt there was no escape. I had no choice but to keep trying to do better and to continually beg for forgiveness.

Religion became the heaviest burden I had yet encountered.

The appeal of that religious group was that it provided clear-cut parameters and some semblance of stability for a young boy raised in a very dysfunctional family. But when my father later died, I became the man of the house by default. It was no easy responsibility to bear, and the combined expectations of God and family soon became too much for me to handle. I was on the verge of cracking up. Religion was only adding to my guilt and shame. No matter how hard I tried, I always felt that it wasn’t enough and that I was losing ground on God’s scale of perfection.

Later, I was introduced to Young Life, a national parachurch ministry that works with teenagers. This group had a more balanced theology and was the first to teach me about God’s grace in response to my sinful ways. As reassuring as that approach was, it led to major confusion in my mind. Was He a God of perfection, holiness, and grand expectations, or was He a God of love, forgiveness, and grace? I wanted to believe the latter, but I was fearful that it might be the former.

By the time I was in my junior year of high school, I hit the wall. Having reached my breaking point and seeing no way to reconcile the competing points of view and excessive demands associated with faith in God, I felt I had to flee the whole thing. I knelt down and prayed to God, asking Him to forgive me (of course!) for having to leave religion altogether. I confessed that if I did not give it up I would surely lose my mind. I was absolutely stressed over the confusion and weight that religion had laid on me, so I followed my instinct, which was to apologize and run.

For the next thirteen years, God was not part of the equation. I sealed off that part of my life and focused on doing the best I could with whatever morals, values, and character attributes I had gleaned by that time.

Now listening to the television preacher on that lonely night in July of 1991, I vaguely recalled hearing an intriguing comment attributed to Blaise Pascal, something about how each of us had a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only He could fill. That made sense to me. I had tried everything—money, drugs, sex, alcohol, travel, clothing, political influence, cars, houses—and I was still empty inside. The void that characterized my life could only be filled by something huge—something superhuman, something supernatural, something beyond the limitations of everything I had tried.

So with nothing to lose and everything to gain, on July 11, 1991, I fell to my hands and knees and asked Jesus into my heart. Little did I know that an attorney would one day defend me in court by quoting Jesus: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

With little else to live for at that point—retail sales failed to get my juices flowing—I got pretty pumped about the Christian faith and began reading the Bible and memorizing Scripture verses like crazy. I’ve always had a great memory, and since Christians seemed to treasure Scripture memorization, this was an easy way for me to get in the game. Eventually I decided to commit much of the New Testament to memory. That was me, all right: driven and over the top.

In retrospect, it would have been more helpful if I had devoted my time to simply understanding what a relationship with Christ meant and how to nurture it. But somehow I completely missed the fact that Christianity is not something you do, it is about a relationship with God and who you become through that divine connection. I had no idea at the time that my biggest issue in life was the superficiality of my character—or that the only antidote for that disease was a full-on commitment to allowing God to transform that character. Instead, I did what I had always done best: analyze, understand, and act. Deciding to become a Christian was simply a calculated, intellectual choice, and my bull-in-a-china-shop approach to Christianity was characteristic of me: understanding something without emotionally investing in it.

A short while after becoming a Christian, I found that I had some time on my hands while the lawyers battled over my fate. I thought it would be fun to work with young people who were seeking to develop their faith in Christ, so I started volunteering with the local Young Life program. I met some outstanding people who were committed to serving the teenagers in the program, but despite the upswing in my spiritual life, there was no getting away from the increasingly claustrophobic legal realities that confronted me. After a year and a half of expensive, embarrassing, and contentious legal defense, I could no longer ignore reality. I was convicted of felony grand theft embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison.

I was in a state of disbelief. Up to this point, I had never even given much thought to the charges that had been brought against me. I figured my lawyers would work things out and come up with a way for me to get out of the situation. Even though I had become a Christian, I still had such a disconnect with reality that it had been easy to live in a state of denial, focusing only on the here and now.

For the first time in my life, I was forced to face the consequences of my actions. My crime was considered among the more serious offenses a person can commit, short of murder or rape. Besides a stiff prison term, I lost some of my rights as an American citizen. I would no longer be allowed to vote unless I received a full pardon from the governor. I would not be able to serve on a jury or purchase firearms.

I would also be faced with additional restrictions after I was paroled. For the three years of my parole, I would not be allowed to drink alcoholic beverages. I would be required to submit to antinarcotic testing at the will of my parole officer. I would not be allowed to work in real estate or in professions closely associated with my offense, such as financial services. There could be no outside contact with Tony, my former business partner who was convicted of the same crime. Every time I applied for a job, I would have to inform the potential employer of my transgression. And I would not be allowed to start my own business.

On top of that, I was liable for multiple fines, taxes, and other payments—one of the fines alone was $750,000. I also would need to have regular check-ins with my parole and probation officers, could not live more than fifty miles from their location, and could not leave the area without their approval.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Before I could enjoy the relative freedom of parole, I had to complete my prison term. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my life was about to change. Dramatically.

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