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Once Behind Bars, a Pastor Advocates for Giving Released Prisoners a Clean Slate

Pastor Aaron Chancy, 40, in Bronx, New York, on March 2, 2023. Chancy spent a total of two years in prison on felonies, and other periods in and out of jail on misdemeanors. In 2008, Chancy decided to change, devoting his life to religion and helping others “to realize their potential,” he says. Photo by Eleonora Francica

ALBANY, N.Y. (RNS) — “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a pastor,” says Pastor Aaron Chancy, 40, who leads Mount Carmel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Syracuse, New York.

Let the record show that Chancy’s life history backs him up. He fathered eight children from five different women. He spent time in and out of jail on minor charges, and a total of two years in prison on felonies. During that period, he had a red-eyed demon’s face tattooed on his right cheek.

“The tattoo symbolized my internal face,” he told Religion News Service. “On the exterior of my face, I was always smiling. But that’s not how I felt inside. Inside, I was angry. I was mad. I was hateful.”

In 2008, Chancy had the tattoo removed with a laser. It didn’t represent him anymore, he said, and was attracting too much negative attention. He graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Oakwood University, in Huntsville, Alabama, and in 2018 earned a master’s degree in divinity at Andrews University, in Michigan. He is now a Ph.D. student and a faith leader for his community.

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He is also fighting for legislation that would give formerly incarcerated people like him a new chance in life.

Born in Berrien Springs, Michigan, Chancy moved frequently as a child due to his parents’ service in the military. Of the several states where the family was stationed, Texas is the one he calls home.

Texas was also where he first went to juvenile correctional facility, at age 16. “While moving, I was losing pieces of me throughout life. And I never got those back. I was lost, and because I was lost, the streets found me.”

During those years, Chancy never wanted anything different. “That was all I wanted to do in life,” he said. “I knew with the streets comes either incarceration or death. So, when I got locked up the first time, I thought that was just part of life.”

The only change prison brought was in the type of crimes he committed. From robbery, he shifted to selling drugs. While incarcerated, he learned how to hide narcotics and move them from state to state. After leaving prison in Texas, Chancy transferred his parole to North Carolina and started transporting marijuana between the two states via UPS.