The Parent Trap

“Woke up this morning, heard the words to your song/Never meant to hurt you, but know where I went wrong …”

Michael Lohan was singing me a song he wrote for his daughter Lindsay during his most recent stay in prison. It was the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 12, and we were sitting in a black Ford Explorer in the sun-drenched parking lot of Belmont Park in Long Island.

Mr. Lohan’s ballad was titled “A Father’s Love.” He had popped in a CD recording of the song—replete with 80’s keyboard backup—and was singing along softly. He said he had written the song in response to Lindsay’s song, “Confessions of Broken Heart,” which he interprets to have been written to him.

He wore a faded blue T-shirt—sleeves cut off, exposing a tattoo of a celtic cross emblazoned with the names of his children—and jeans. His sparse hair was gelled back. A resemblance to his actress daughter—who recently entered a rehab facility for the third time this year—was apparent in his eyes and freckly complexion.

The song continued: “Raised you to understand all the good in life, somehow I lost my way, should have taken my advice.”

Outside a picnic—hosted by the faith-based sobriety program Teen Challenge—was getting under way. While in prison, along with singing and songwriting, Mr. Lohan took Teen Challenge correspondence courses. Since his release in March, he has been a resident of a Teen Challenge center in West Babylon, L.I., and is in training to become a minister, though to be ordained he’ll have to wait until he’s off parole. Mr. Lohan cocked his head back in anticipation of the song’s chorus and crooned, “I love you so much, just one chance to make it up, cause—a father’s love will never die.”

Earlier that morning we had been in church.

“Freedom does not come easy—amen,” Pastor Jimmy Jack said from the pulpit, wrapping up his service at the Freedom Chapel, a small, nondescript church on the side of a highway in Amityville.

“Freedom does not come easy,” the pastor repeated.

“No, it doesn’t,” intoned Mr.Lohan. For church, he had worn black slacks and a yellow button-down shirt. He was one of 40 or so congregants standing before the stage, his palms raised toward the ceiling. The father of the embattled 21-year-old actress—who the country has watched chase death at the wheel of her Mercedes this summer—nodded knowingly at the man standing next to him, then reached down and took a Kleenex from a handy communal box and damped his eyes.

A synthesizer began to play. The day’s message was projected in white cursive against a purple backdrop on a hanging screen: “Freedom to find yourself in Christ.” The pastor—tall, broad, bronzed and mustachioed, wearing a tan polyester leisure suit—said he hoped to see everyone at the picnic.

Both Teen Challenge’s West Babylon center and the Freedom Chapel were founded by Mr. Jack—“Pastor Jimmy” to those who know him—who has spent the past three months mentoring Mr. Lohan. The two men invited me on an exclusive tour of Mr. Lohan’s current home, before heading over to the family picnic.

“Here’s the dining hall where we have breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Mr. Lohan, gesturing to a dimly lit, cramped room with a long table and chairs stacked atop it, as he made his way through a no-frills boarding house. Upstairs, he noted that his floor is currently under construction, as we passed an area of unfinished plywood frames en route to his room. “This my room,” he said. He was standing between two twin beds in a room that resembled a college dorm. A pastel drawing of what looked like an angel rested on his head board.

“And this is Orlando,” he said, introducing me to his roommate.

The Parent Trap