Lester Fontanette is not a man who is easily forgotten. Bedecked with rings on his fingers and a charismatic smile, he stands at well over 6 feet tall; his muscular build is probably the only thing about him that would belie his recent release from custody. Last February, Lester emerged after serving 6 years in a federal prison, triumphant and eager to embrace the new life that he’d found while behind those walls.
It’s been quite a journey to get to where he is today, Lester told me last month, and he meant that both figuratively and literally. Where he literally was? Fight Club, because Lester is a Vietnam veteran. Where he is, in every other sense of the word? In the Lord’s service, because he is also a TUMI graduate with the equivalent of a Master’s degree in theology.
In Lester, we see a remarkable synthesis of the work that we do at Serving California – he is emblematic of the people we serve, in both his background and needs. So often, seemingly disparate worlds collide or blur together, and it’s this narrative that often goes untold in society at large – a veteran and a felon, a Christian and a former inmate, he is not easily boxed into a single category.
Lester was raised in church, but his mother was an alcoholic and his parents were “never together.” He lived with his father, a strong Christian man whom Lester credits with building the spiritual foundation of his life. At 17, Lester joined the military after “getting into some trouble” as a teen – as he saw it, his options were either to join the military or go to jail, and he chose the military.
There, at Fort Knox, is where his real exposure to criminal behavior began. Lester began packaging marijuana for his Sergeant, who introduced him to the drug trade. This began a slow slide into misbehavior and run-ins with discipline. Eventually, Lester left the military and went right to dealing drugs. It had started with marijuana, but now he was involved with harder substances and more of the wrong kind of people, and he was in and out of the system. During one instance, when he was out, Fontanette went to work for a man named Ted, “deprogramming” kids who had run away from their families. In this process, of getting a kid back to his parents, Fontanette was instead charged with his kidnapping, and for this he was given 6 years in prison.
It’s during this time in custody that Lester cultivated a relationship with God, attending the prison chapel and seeking what he knew, thanks to the foundation his father had given him so many years before, to be true. It was the periods of release, though, that were difficult, financially and socially. Lester had divorced his wife and ended up, upon his release, going back to the lifestyle that he knew so well to be lucrative for him, dealing drugs. This time, however, he was given 8 years for selling. “At this time,” Lester says with gravity, “I knew I had to get right with God. I wanted to go back to CRC and do a drug program, and by God’s grace I ended up sentenced there.”
At CRC, Lester joined a church and became introduced to The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI). “TUMI gave me a desire to not only strengthen [myself], but also to submit and surrender.” Lester even had the opportunity to introduce his family to TUMI – now they are able to share that foundation with one another, in spirit and in truth.
After his release, Lester was offered a chance to attend Fight Club, where he was able to experience another branch of the programs we offer at Serving California. It was interesting for him, he says, to come to a spiritual retreat along with other veterans, especially now that he is in possession of such an immense spiritual education. With a chuckle, he admits that it can be hard to resist the urge to blurt out everything he knows from TUMI when he gets together with guys from Fight Club, but he also realizes that at Fight Club he is receiving another, different spiritual education from the academic, cerebral coursework that comprised TUMI courses.
Lester was transformed in prison, and even met the woman he is about to marry through another Christian non-profit doing work there. He was released after serving six years in February, and since then he has been working alongside his fiancée, giving “all my free time to the church,” he tells me, grinning. Now, he tells me, as a TUMI graduate, about to graduate from Fight Club the day we spoke, “I have felt so much love here. It took me a while to put myself in the position I was in [before, incarcerated], and I know that it will take a while to fully get out of it, but I just feel so much peace.”
And on this note, Lester marches off to join the rest of the veterans, looking forward to the graduation ceremony of the evening, and for everything after.