Michael Franzese: I said to myself, If I’m going to believe in the Christian faith, then I have to believe that Jesus really died for the forgiveness of all sins, that includes mine. And so I was able to make that transformation. It took a while, I mean, you don’t just go from mob guy to better guy and think, Hey, that’s it, you get down on your knees, say a prayer, and it’s all forgiven. Wasn’t that easy.
God Is The Healer Of All Wounds: Michael Franzese & Michele Wilbur-Christiansen – Episode #261
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. When we face life experiences that hurt us, that drastically alter the way things go, it can cut deep and cause us significant pain. But as the Bible says in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins on his body on the cross, so that we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Remember that even in the most daunting of circumstances, Jesus took your wounds as His own so that you may know peace and hope in salvation.
Our guests this week have experienced their own personal wounds. Former mafia member Michael Franzese shares about growing up in one of the most notorious crime families, and how he himself descended into the darkness, and ultimately, God healed every element of his past and made him a new person. Michele Wilbur-Christiansen shares the tragic story of her parents’ heartbreaking deaths, and how her and her siblings found peace in knowing that one day, they’ll be reunited with them in heaven.
Let’s get started with Michael’s story.
Growing Up in Crime
I had a different childhood than most people out there. My dad was a very high-profile figure in Cosa Nostra organized crime. He was under constant surveillance by law enforcement. I saw my dad be arrested several times. We had law enforcement around us all the time. I actually grew up hating the police because my dad was my idol. He was my hero, a great father, a good husband to my mother. And, you know, so I had issues in school because of all the media attention my dad had. And I did see some of the dark side, obviously. So I grew up in a totally different environment than most kids do.
You know, like many kids, my dad had a powerful influence on me. To me, he was my hero. I loved him very much. I didn’t necessarily want to be what he was. You know, when I was a kid, I was going to be a doctor. I was an athlete in school. Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees was kind of my hero also, and I was an athlete. If I could have played for the Yankees, that’s what I would have wanted to do.
But my dad taught me very well. He gave me some good advice and good insight. And I think he brought me up well. So in that regard, I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a good father, but I didn’t want to follow him into that life.
Originally, I wasn’t going to be a part of that life. I was going to school, going to be a doctor. But my dad got in some very serious trouble. He was indicted several times in the state of New York, went to trial, and was acquitted in those cases. But then he was indicted in federal court in 1966 for masterminding a nationwide string of bank robberies. After a lengthy trial, he was convicted, sentenced to fifty years in prison. And for me, that was essentially a death sentence.
He was fifty years old when he went into prison in 1970. My life kind of changed. Joe Colombo, the boss of my family, kind of took me under his wing and I started to move in that direction. And in 1971, on a visit with my dad in Leavenworth Penitentiary, he proposed me for membership in the Colombo family.
I became a made member of that family, took an oath in 1975, and was part of that life for a little over twenty years. Became a major target of law enforcement myself, indicted seven times, actually, twice with the federal government, once by Rudy Giuliani. I was acquitted in five out of those cases and eventually took a plea to racketeering. I got a ten-year prison sentence for racketeering.
A Catalyst for Change
I did five years, actually. And then I was out for about thirteen months and then violated my parole and they put me back in prison. The night I went back into prison, they told me I’d never see the street again, I’d never seen my wife and children, they were going to try and indict me on new charges. The government was upset with me because I wouldn’t cooperate. They threw me in the hole.
I was in solitary, and it was probably the worst night of my life. I thought I was going to lose everything that was dear to me, never see my wife and kids again, I was in my mid-thirties, I was still a young guy, so it was a very difficult night. And I was lying on the cot, honestly, I just wanted to close my eyes and not wake up.
“The night I went back into prison, they told me I’d never see the street again . . . I was in solitary, and it was probably the worst night of my life. I thought I was going to lose everything that was dear to me, never see my wife and kids again. I was in my mid-thirties, I was still a young guy, so it was a very difficult night. And I was lying on the cot, honestly, I just wanted to close my eyes and not wake up.” – Michael Franzese
And a prison guard walked by my cell, looked in on me, said, “Franzese, you don’t look good. You okay?”
And I said, you know, “Get away from me. I don’t feel good tonight. Leave me alone.” I chased him.
He came back about a minute later and pushed a Bible through the slot on the door.
You know, I was angry with it at first. I picked up the book, I threw it against the wall, but then I grabbed it again. I said, “Hey, it’s only me and God in this cell.” And I started to read the Book of Proverbs. For some reason, the Bible just opened up to that book. My spirits were lifted a little bit by Solomon’s words.
And that night was the night that I challenged God. I said, “You know what, God? I took a blood oath. I love my father. Look where it got me.”
My wife, who is a Christian and my mother-in-law were trying to get me to accept Christ, but I wasn’t really buying into it. I said, “If what they’re telling me is true, if You really are God and Jesus is my savior, then You’ve got to prove it to me.”
And, you know, evidence had been a major part of my life. So I was always looking for evidence. And I started reading my Bible that night.
I spent two and a half years in the hole in solitary, almost three years, actually. And during that time, I read my Bible inside out and upside down. I asked my wife to send me hundreds of books on every faith, and I really did a search. And, you know, the Bible became my Bible. It became true to me. It’s through religion—or faith, I should say, I don’t like to use the word religion. It’s the faith that made the most sense to me and that was back in 1991–1995 I spent that time in there and it’s held ever since. So the Bible had a tremendous impact on me.
“The Bible became my Bible. It became true to me.” – Michael Franzese
Jesus Died for All Sins, Including Yours
I said to myself, Well, if this is true and God knows my heart, if I’m sincerely sorry for what I did and I’m sincere in asking for forgiveness and I do intend to change my life, transform my life, then this is real and this is something that I can do.
And, you know, the heroism of my life kind of transferred from my father to Jesus. I was enamored with the personality of Jesus, the character of Jesus as a man. He was a true man’s man. The sacrifice that He made for all of us really meant a lot to me.
And I said to myself If I’m going to believe in the Christian faith and I have to believe that Jesus really died for the forgiveness of all sins, that includes mine. And so I was able to make that transformation. It took a while, I mean, you don’t just go from mob guy to better guy and think, Hey, that’s it, you get down on your knees, say a prayer, and it’s all forgiven. Wasn’t that easy.
“The heroism of my life kind of transferred from my father to Jesus. I was enamored with the personality of Jesus, the character of Jesus as a man. He was a true man’s man.” – Michael Franzese
But the more I got into my faith, the more I understood the meaning of forgiveness in our faith, the easier it became. And like I say this, you know, God knows our hearts.
I’m often asked do I have any regrets or do things from my former life get to me every once in a while, and the answer is yes. Look, I spent over twenty years in that life and I saw a lot of things go down. And my wife will say to me all the time, “Who are you fighting within your sleep?” I think maybe that’s when things come out subconsciously for me. So, I mean, I have some regrets, obviously. I know I can’t change them. As I said, we can’t change the past. We can only move forward and do better.
I believe immensely in the power of prayer. I believe my mother-in-law, who is the most prayerful woman I’ve ever met in my life, the most godly woman I ever met, I think she prayed me to where I am today. My wife is also a prayer warrior. When times are at their worst for us is when Jesus is the most powerful in our lives. So I turn to Him constantly. There’s nowhere else really to turn, you know. We ask God’s help and He’ll come to bat for us one way or the other. And, you know, that’s a principle with which I lived through and got through the dark times of my life.
“When times are at their worst for us is when Jesus is the most powerful in our lives.” – Michael Franzese
Narrator: To learn more about Michael Franzese and his books, please visit www.michaelfranzese.com.
Stay tuned to Michele Wilbur-Christiansen’s story after a brief message.
Jesus Listens – the new 365 day devotional from Sarah Young!
Many of us want to develop a deeper prayer life. In this new 365 day devotional, Jesus Listens, Sarah Young offers daily prayers based on Scripture that will help you experience how intentional prayer can connect you to God and change your heart. Learn more about Jesus Listens and download a free sample at jesuscalling.com/jesuslistens.
Narrator: Our next guest is Michele Wilbur-Christiansen. Michele is the oldest of three children, who grew up as the daughter of a pastor in Ohio. After retiring and heading out west on the trip of a lifetime, Michele’s parents were tragically hit by a car and killed instantly, altering Michele and her siblings’ lives forever. There were many questions after losing her parents like “Why them? Why now?” that was difficult to be asked and to be answered. But as time passed after the accident, Michele saw the value of her parents’ legacy of support and love they gave to her while they were alive, and she began to see healing in her heart from the devastation she had been feeling so deeply.
Michele Wilbur-Christiansen: My name is Michelle Wilbur-Christiansen. I’m a wife for four years to John, I’m a stepmom to his two adult children. I’m a social worker and therapist, and I have been in the field for about thirty years. And most importantly, I’m a child of God and the daughter of the King.
Early Family Life
I grew up in a middle working-class family in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest of three kids. I was your stereotypical oldest child, an overachiever. And in high school, I was in the National Honor Society, sat the first chair in a band playing the flute, worked a part-time job, and had two volunteer jobs. I would often have the responsibility of babysitting since both of my parents worked full-time jobs.
A sense of family was instilled early on in us. We often did activities together. We would go to the park and play a game of baseball or go on a nature hike. My parents were thrifty and so we did not have cable. We would travel, but we stayed in our camper. I don’t think I stayed in a hotel actually until I was in my late teens.
My parents rarely went without us on vacations or anything, including dragging us along with them as they enjoyed antiquing. As kids, our parents encouraged our individual interests, which included sports, music, and other hobbies. We would attend one another’s activities as a family, whether we liked it or not. So, you know, baseball, band concerts, and horseback riding events were often part of our weekend and we would show our support for one another that way.
Growing Up in the Church
Growing up, the church was a very important part of our lives. My parents were youth pastors at the church we attended, and being a teen in your parents’ youth group is no joke and brings its own set of challenges. My father also filled in for the pastor when needed. So the funny or embarrassing incident that happened to you that week could easily end up in his sermon on Sunday. We attended church three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and then Friday nights for youth group. We volunteered at church, watched our parents tithe, and prayed before meals which were together around the table.
I didn’t go far, I went to college at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. But I did, as kind of a PK [preacher’s kid], I was like, “Woohoo, I don’t have to attend church three times a week.” I did stray away from God, but never really from family. And then over time, I saw how God was working for me in my life, I became a born-again Christian. So I was able to see how God was working for me, even if I kept Him behind the scenes. And then eventually I came to know Him as more than just a religion, but more as my personal friend and Savior.
“I did stray away from God, but never really from family. And then over time, I saw how God was working for me in my life, I became a born-again Christian. So I was able to see how God was working for me, even if I kept Him behind the scenes. And then eventually I came to know Him as more than just a religion, but more as my personal friend and Savior.” – Michele Wilbur-Christiansen
A Family Tragedy
My parents retired and then they bought a home in Florida and became snowbirds. They had dreamed of doing this for quite some time. They were going to go to several of the national parks as part of their trip.
So at 2:30 a.m. on Friday, August 23rd, 2019, my husband and I received a knock on our door from the police. My parents were on day four of a three-week trip of a lifetime out west to celebrate their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. They were walking hand in hand across the street, back to their hotel from eating dinner, when they were hit by a vehicle and died instantly. The driver did stop and call for help and was not found to be at fault. It was just a tragic accident.
We gathered together that morning around the kitchen table, my husband and brother and sister, and then my nieces and nephew. Our family first had come to know about Jesus Calling as it was given to my sister as a gift about four or five years ago, and then over time, everyone in our family had a copy of it, and it was our central devotional. There’s always one sitting at the kitchen table.
And so as our family gathered together at the kitchen table in the early hours that morning, we read that day’s entry and it was really a reminder of God’s promises. And knowing our parents were in His presence gave us comfort through our pain. And a reminder that He always has our best interests in mind, even in the worst moments of our lives.
“Knowing our parents were in His presence gave us comfort through our pain. And a reminder that He always has our best interests in mind, even in the worst moments of our lives.” – Michele Wilbur-Christiansen
This is the passage from the Jesus Calling, August 23rd entry, which was the day we were told about my parent’s accident.
Entrust your loved ones to Me; release them into My protective care. They are much safer with Me than in your clinging hands. If you let a loved one become an idol in your heart, you endanger that one—as well as yourself. Joseph and his father, Jacob, suffered terribly because Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons and treated him with special favor. So Joseph’s brothers hated him and plotted against him. Ultimately, I used that situation for good, but both father and son had to endure years of suffering and separation from one another. I detest idolatry, even in the form of parental love, so beware of making a beloved child your idol. When you release loved ones to Me, you are free to cling to My hand. As you entrust others into My care, I am free to shower blessings on them. My Presence will go with them wherever they go, and I will give them rest. This same Presence stays with you as you relax and place your trust in Me. Watch to see what I will do.
You know, sometimes you don’t have the words to bring to God, He just is able to sit there in that with you, even if you just bring Him your tears.
I guess we were all in shock and we were, you know, trying to get answers. I think because it was in a different state, we had to try to reach their police department. And, of course, there was an investigation. So we talked to them and then we were also contacting family and friends. And my parents, you know, they made an impact on everybody they met, and even when I called and was canceling medical appointments for them and that kind of thing, I think it was their eye doctor they had gone to for years, and the person who answered the phone, she teared up and cried. But that’s how my parents were. So in the beginning, we were comforting each other, but we were also comforting the people that we were calling.
We did just have a funeral service at the church they were part of. And I mean, the people from all the different parts of their lives—they had attended Bible college, and so a lot of people they were still friends with. They were in a small group at their church, so those people attended. Some even spoke at their service. And then a lot of the people who had been part of their youth group in the past also attended. I got messages from some people who may be found out later how [my parents] had helped really bring them to church, a lot of those people are now youth leaders and pastors themselves.
This tragedy has caused me to question God at times. I’ve asked, “Why them, God? Why now? They were just beginning their dream trip. They were enjoying their retirement and spending time with their great-grandchildren.” But what He kind of continues to remind me is that it’s all in His timing and that, you know, they served God together in their fifty-four years of marriage and they met at Bible college. God rewarded them with not having to live life without the other. I mean, we are all really still trying to deal with the loss, so we each continue to kind of recover in our own ways through counseling, prayer, support groups.
“This tragedy has caused me to question God at times. I’ve asked, “Why them, God? Why now?” – Michele Wilbur-Christiansen on her parents’ tragic deaths
I would say God continually reminds me that we are to trust Him with all of our heart, not just some or not just the parts that we decide to give Him. Our parents were the heart of our family, but they were given to us for just a season. And so we can’t lean on our own understanding of what happened. And He promises the best for us, even in the worst of times.
“God continually reminds me that we are to trust Him with all of our heart, not just some or not just the parts that we decide to give Him.” – Michele Wilbur-Christiantiansen
I would tell someone who may be facing similar circumstances to really just take your anger, your sadness, and all your emotions and all your questions to God, that He can handle it and still lovingly accepts you with open arms. He will meet you in your mess. I mean, He knows we’re all a mess. And I would also say that time itself won’t heal your grief, but you do get through it one day at a time, left foot, right foot, with God’s help.
“Take your anger, your sadness, and all your emotions and all your questions to God, that He can handle it and still lovingly accepts you with open arms. He will meet you in your mess.” – Michele Wilbur-Christiansen
Narrator: Thank you to Michele and Michael for sharing their stories today. If you were touched by these kinds of stories where people talk about how God has restored their lives, please check out our interview with positive music artist Lecrae Moore.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we speak with the founder of Convoy of Hope Hal Donaldson, who shares the importance of compassion, particularly in today’s world, as it reflects the love of Jesus to those who otherwise might not encounter Him.
Hal Donaldson: It’s leading a selfless life. It’s saying, “God use me as you will. I’m not satisfied with the way things are in my life or in my world. I want things to change.” And so, “God, you show me how.” Revolutionaries are selfless people, they’re not selfish. I think a lot of times, though, that the spiritual journeys become very selfish. And Jesus never taught that. That’s not what He intended. It’s certainly not what He modeled. And I think we need to come to the realization that the key to life, the key to fulfillment and purpose, doesn’t come from exceeding others. It comes from elevating others.