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Ex-racist found God in Mississippi jail cell
Slim, soft-spoken and with the hesitant, cerebral air of a professor, 53-year-old Tom Tarrants is the last fellow you'd pick as a former Ku Klux Klan wizard, a fellow "whose idea of a good time was to put on combat fatigues and go into the woods and practice maneuvers."
Nor would you guess this serious, bespectacled fellow in a correct dark suit pulled a 30-year prison sentence for an attempted bomb plot against a Jewish businessman.
Some Episcopalian, this Tom Tarrants.
Yet it's because of the Episcopal General Convention, which runs until Friday, that the unconventional Tarrants came to Denver last week.
You might say his presence was a reminder that, conventions aside, church is more than a place to pursue agendas; it's a place to find God.
Tarrants is part of an ongoing series, "God Changes Lives for Good," sponsored by the American Anglican Council, a national conservative coalition in the 2.5 million member Episcopal church.
The series, open to the public, features men and women whose lives have been transformed by God's grace. It runs daily through Thursday at 4 p.m. on the third floor of the Denver Athletic Club.
For Tarrants, an angry, introverted middle-class kid from the South, the desegregation of public schools in the 1960s fueled his hatred for blacks and Jews. By age 23 he had earned himself a 6-by-9-foot prison cell in Mississippi, so unrepentant he had tacked a jailbreak to his rap sheet.
For a withdrawn introvert, the truly hellish part of prison life was contemplating three decades of listening to pounding rock music and a steady stream of crudities echoing down the cement halls, day after day after day.
One of those days, perhaps from boredom, he took down the Bible his grandmother had given him. He had filed it away on the upper steel bunk that served as his bookcase. He sensed no bolt from heaven; he needed something to read.
Many days later, he was struck by the passage: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?"
Tarrants says he couldn't get that question out of his head. As he mulled it over, he came to see his racism "as ultimately about me and my ego. At the root it was a self-centered life. That's when the house of cards began to fall apart."
One night, "I got on my knees and asked Jesus Christ to forgive me of my sin and take over my life and do whatever He wanted to do with it."
The next day, "I felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. There was a realness to God I had not known before."
It was still several years before Tarrants' sentence was commuted because of prison overcrowding. The warden who recommended his release said he put no stock in this "getting religion" thing. But he could see for himself that Tarrants had genuinely changed.
Once free, the former neo-Nazi plunged into study of the classics, learning Greek and Hebrew so he could better study the Bible. He joined a local Episcopal church where he met his wife, Charlotte.
Today, surprises still mark Tarrants' resume. He's president of the C.S. Lewis Institute in suburban Washington, D.C., which is dedicated to furthering the work of the famed Anglican author, scholar and, in dozens of books and broadcasts, witness to Christianity.
Like Tarrants, Lewis spent his youth as an egoist with no use for God.
Like Lewis, Tarrants has dedicated the rest of his life to telling others that God alone "satisfies the deepest longing of a person's heart, as nothing else can."
Religion writer Jean Torkelson visits churches, synagogues, temples and mosques throughout the metro area to write about them each Monday. Contact her at torkelsonj@RockyMountainNews.com or (303) 892-5055.
July 10, 2000
Reprinted with permission of the Denver Rocky Mountain News.