#168 Walk by Faith

 Photo by Nicole Tarpoff

I was one of seven children. I had the best mom ever; I have never seen a stronger woman. She went without so we could eat. My dad was in and out of jail and did over 20 years in state prison and federal prisons. My dad was my role model. He taught me how to con and hustle. I thought he was a gangster and that’s what being a real man was.

My grandma lived next door. We were very close, and I stayed at her house many nights. She had so much determination and was a hard worker. She loved the Lord, went to church every Sunday, and talked to me about Jesus. In 2005, she died in my arms. That was a turning point. I was 16 and had been getting in trouble before that, but I wasn’t doing drugs. I had friends that were doing drugs, and the drugs were easy to get. Some people have a slow downhill spiral, but for me it was immediately falling apart. I started with one pill and then went to IV drugs. I got suspended from school, kicked off the ball teams, and went to juvenile detention.

At 18 I was released and went right back to doing dope. I got into more trouble and was a three-time convicted felon and spent eight years in jails and prisons and detox centers. During this time, I felt I was destined to be in jail. I didn’t trust people and was ashamed. But on the outside, I wanted everyone to think I was a tough guy. In 2010, my little sister who was 18 years old overdosed and died. She had called me a few hours before she overdosed and had a bunch of pills. I was so consumed in my own addiction I did nothing to help her. I was so lost I used her funeral to make people feel sorry for me to get dope. Not long after that, the girl I was with got pregnant. After our daughter was born, my aunt and uncle took her into their home. I’m thankful to God that they took her. They provided a good, safe home for her. We named our daughter after my little sister who had just passed away. 

In 2014, I went through a substance abuse program in jail and stayed clean 19 months. I was sober but I wasn’t in recovery. I hadn’t changed anything about myself. I just wasn’t using. I started dating a girl I had known since I was a kid. We got a place and she got pregnant. I was still clean from drugs but didn’t have a job. I wasn’t free and was ashamed and miserable. I was running around with my old buddies, hustling people for money. I was not being a man to provide for my family. We were living off my girlfriend’s child support for her two children that were living with us.

Eventually I broke and started doing dope again and relapsed bad. I robbed my family’s food stamps and sold their toys and diapers. My girlfriend wasn’t into drugs. She was a good girl. It was the relationship I had always wanted, and I was throwing it away. Our son was born November 2, 2015. On Christmas Eve of 2015, I came in and threw down a rug I had stolen, and my girlfriend thought it was her Christmas present. She hit me hard and evil took over me. I was a monster. I beat her. The next morning her father was at our door with a shotgun and the law was on the way. I went to jail, and when I got out she wanted nothing to do with me. I couldn’t see any of my kids. They told me I had to get help if I wanted to see my kids. I went to my sister’s grave and asked God why He took her and not me.

In February 2016, I checked myself into a detox hospital. I waited for about 10 hours and wanted to leave, but something kept telling me to stay. I thought, “If you leave, you are going to die.” A month later, I checked into a residential drug treatment center. I hated everybody and hated myself. I couldn’t stand to look at myself and had no hope whatsoever but knew if I didn’t do something different I was going to die. For eleven days, I wanted to leave. I couldn’t get focused. One day I was using my phone and as I was typing “Walk by Faith Not by Sight,” I got caught with it, and you can get kicked out for that. However, the pastoral counselor at the home talked to me and said, “What if you could take all this bad and turn it into doing something good? What if you can take all that hustling and conning that you learned from your dad and use it to help people and show people hope? What was meant for evil God uses for good. You have a chance to change your family tree.” This conversation changed me. The Assistant Director spoke with me about accountability and it opened my eyes and planted a seed that changed the way I saw things and I began holding myself accountable for everything I had ever done in my life.  The Director of the program also talked to me that day and gave me hope. He said he had been through eight rehabs and now he was the Director. I said, “I wish I could be where you are.” He told me to reach higher than that. After that I got focused. I worked on the old baggage inside of me—the anger, the shame. I wanted to be free from that. I was still struggling with spirituality because of my sins. I hadn’t submitted fully to Christ yet, but God was working in my life and shaping me. I was learning patience and humility. When I graduated from the recovery program, it was the only thing I had accomplished in my life. I framed the graduation certificate, and it is now hanging in the center of the wall at my office where I work.

I had already worked on moving beyond my past, but I hadn’t really found Jesus. I was still stuck on following laws. The last night I was in the recovery program, we went to church and I heard a sermon about how believing in Jesus saves us and about Jesus’ relentless love and forgiveness. I finally got it. I got saved that night and felt so free. The next day, I went home. I had come to terms that my girlfriend was not coming back, but I still wanted to be a good father to my children. I was living my life by faith. I told God, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to trust in You and have faith and stay the path.” I was trusting in something totally different than I ever had.

I started going to church, and it was around Mother’s Day. I knew all the sorrys couldn’t change what I had done, but I sent my girlfriend a Mother’s Day card and wrote Proverbs 3:5-6 in it.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

I started taking my children to church and then asked if she would go to church with me. She started going to church with me and ended up getting saved too. We got married in June, just two months after I graduated the recovery program. My family was restored with custody of all children except my first daughter who is still living with my uncle and aunt. I want to do what is best for her. I want it to be God’s will and God’s timing when we get reunited. I have prayed that God would let me know the right thing to do at the right time.

After we got married, I was honest about who I was and couldn’t find a job anywhere. I went back to school to get a college degree. We moved in with my mom, but it was a hard situation. We had to take showers with a water hose outside. The only thing I owned was a car and that blew up. I had to walk everywhere I needed to go. My wife and I didn’t pray for money or things, we just prayed for our relationship with God to get stronger. But God always provided. The pastor of our church and his wife offered us a house to stay in rent-free, and the church bought us a 2009 minivan. I got certified as a peer support specialist and was hired on as a residential staff at the recovery program I went through. I was promoted to pastoral counselor in October 2017. We just had another baby April 13, a boy named Gage, which means “a deposit of good faith.”

Six days after the baby was born, my dad got hit by a car as he was leaving jail and was killed. I hadn’t talked to him in a year. I had tried to help him but he didn’t want it. I felt so bad. When I looked at him in the casket, I thought, “What if he had taken the opportunity to follow Christ? If he had known the love of Christ everything would have been different.” And I thought, that could have been me. I have so much regret about the things I have done, but God is using those experiences to allow me to help others. Today I find my joy in helping people find hope and helping them get their families back. Today I realize life is not about material things it’s about people; it’s about family! I love my beautiful wife and my 5 amazing kids. God restored all the broken pieces of my heart and today I know what true freedom is.  I never thought I could break the bond of addiction. I never thought I would be able to be a good dad, son, brother, and husband. Without Jesus, there is no way I could do what I am doing. I’m so thankful.

To me God is love, grace, and mercy. I have many days that I fall short and struggle with self- doubt, but I snap back and know that God loves me. It’s the religious stuff that turns people away from God. But His love chases you down and finds you and pulls you out of the pit of hell. Once you experience that, how could you ever go back?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
John 10:10 

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#167 The Pilgrim’s Path

Photo by Conor McWay 

“We have no idea where we are, we haven’t seen any other people for over an hour, and it feels like we’ve been wandering aimlessly through suburban Spain—but now there are factories everywhere…where are we going?!”

I was standing in the middle of a Spanish industrial park outside the city of Burgos, wearing a 20-pound backpack filled with all the belongings I would need to walk 500 miles across Northern Spain. My feet hurt, I felt lost, and I was annoyed. So, I very maturely articulated my inquiry to my husband, Conor, with complete calm—which meant I was whining and one step away from stomping my feet. How did I get here?

Conor and I had a wonderful first year of marriage; we made friends, and somehow, all of my siblings ended up moving back to the area where we grew up. It was a truly great year, but it was becoming more and more apparent that Conor was not meant to be in law school. He would often become whom I (lovingly and affectionately) called “self-deprecating Conor.” After Conor’s first year and summer of law school it was clear that he was not going to continue.

We had lost our plan before I even realized that it was one. Without realizing it, I had created the next three years (and beyond) in my mind: I would teach as long as Conor was in law school, when he graduated we would move to wherever he was offered a job, we would live in a fabulous city, he would be a lawyer, money wouldn’t be a problem, I could use our expendable income to fund my dream restaurant, all my siblings would move to live close to us, and we’d have beautiful and magical babies who wouldn’t cry and would never need their diapers changed…you get the gist.

Without law school, I didn’t know what our future would bring, how long I would have to teach, what job Conor would find, what Conor would be passionate about if not law, how we would ever afford a house—let alone my dream restaurant—and when we would have our non-magical, probably super loud, screamy children. If it wasn’t my idea of the perfect future, it would be horrible.

It was during this F-5-level worry spiral, among other moments during our first two years of marriage, that showed me two very big flaws in my thinking. One, I was thinking as an I, not a we. And two, I was thinking of my plan, instead of being open to God’s greater plan. This spiral of doubt was caused by my own insecurity, my lack of faith, and my singular thinking.

One day, while talking about how lost we both felt, my sister-in-law suggested that we go on the Camino de Santiago and it sounded so…right. It’s not that we hadn’t talked about going on the pilgrimage before, but this time it felt like a way to be found. Conor and I started talking and dreaming about going to Spain to do the Camino, then staying abroad for a while. We could live and work with family, friends, or acquaintances and spend some time adventuring, eating great food, and discerning what we are called to do next. We came to the realization that we want to be totally open to God’s call and follow where He is leading us next. We would take the year to listen, surrender, and discern.

Intellectually, it seemed crazy, but it just felt right. We quit our jobs, said goodbye to family and friends, and left on a one-way ticket to begin our year of pilgrimage and discernment. As reluctant as I was to give up the reigns, I knew life would be so much better if I stopped trying to control it.

Well, when I say I “knew,” I mean I wanted to know and I prayed for trust—but I couldn’t seem to stop trying to control. Though the beginning of our Camino was a prayerful, beautiful, and moving time, I still slipped into old habits. From memorizing the mileage to planning my next coffee stop, I was struggling to let go and follow the yellow arrows and shells that indicated the way. Less than two weeks into the Camino, I was totally doubting why we even came to Spain, let alone that we would find our way on the path into town. After trying to solve it myself, studying the map, and searching for an arrow, I shouted for a sign. Finally, I got a sign in the form of a neon bike vest and a shiny silver helmet.

“¡Buen Camino, peregrinos! ¿Estån buscando el camino?” A biker appeared, as if out of nowhere. He was simply asking if we were looking for the way, but his words touched so much deeper. I needed a sign that we were on the right track. I needed to let go and admit that I was lost. But not just lost outside this city in Spain, I had lost my faith in God’s merciful plan. I was desperately seeking the way, without asking for help. I needed to trust that the way had been prepared for me. Once I let myself be vulnerable, finding our way back to the pilgrim’s path was as simple as two turns and a bright yellow arrow. Suddenly, we were surrounded by backpacks, hiking boots, and scallop shells (all familiar Camino accessories). We had found our way, by embracing how lost we were. Each day following, instead of being worried, I was comforted with the knowledge that I am not in control. Conor and I are, and will continue to be, well taken care of.

Since the end of our Camino and our year abroad, Conor and I have continued to live “planless” as we call it, though that name is somewhat misleading. We live trusting in a much greater plan. We don’t need to know tomorrow’s walk, we just need to trust and listen during the walk today.

The Camino taught me many lessons. Well, to be honest, that Camino continues to teach me many lessons. An adage adopted by many pilgrims is “As in the Camino, so in life.” Through the Camino, I learned that sacrifice and humility are crucial to partnership and love. I not only had to sacrifice my comfort for Conor on more than one occasion, I also had to humbly admit when I needed help. This is a lesson we live constantly in our marriage. I learned that with God, and only with God, I truly have an unbelievable strength. With His help, I can achieve wonderful things. And I learned the beauty, peace, and joy that come with surrender. It is a gift to have total faith that God’s plan is better, more complete, and so filled with love. God has taken care of the big stuff and He continues to take care of the details. I just need to surrender and know He has prepared the way. 

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#166 My Pain, God’s Goodness

 Photo by Nicole Tarpoff

My mom raised us in church until I was 9, and I was baptized as a young girl. We were very involved in church and I loved Sunday school. As I got older, we no longer attended church. I started smoking pot and drinking when I was 12 years old. I ended up pregnant at 16 years old. When my son was born I really hoped that I had found a pure love that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t know my birth father at that point in my life. I got pregnant on purpose because I wanted love. But I was a kid myself and never thought about how I would provide for a baby. My son’s father was 15 and neither of us knew how to do the things we needed to do to be good parents. So, when my son was 1 year old, my mom took him to raise. I grieved so much for him. I didn’t care what happened to me after that. I was sleeping in school buses and in public bathrooms. Sometimes I slept on other people’s couches, and when I did, I felt I owed something to the guys who were allowing me to stay. I allowed my body to be given away because that was the only asset I had to give. I felt I wasn’t worth any more than that.   

I wasn’t addicted to drugs at this time but I was making many bad and dangerous decisions. I remember one time the police picked me up as I was driving around with several men much older than me who were convicted felons. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I had nowhere to go. He knew how vulnerable I was in that situation, and to get me to a safe place, he paid for a hotel room for me and bought me a meal. He dropped me off and left. I know that was God showing kindness to me, protecting me.

When I was 21, my birth father got married and his wife heard about me from a mutual friend. She contacted me and asked if I would want to come live with them. I stayed with them for six to twelve months. They bought me a car and new clothes. His wife was so kind and she really tried to help me. I started nursing assistant school and did very well. I was third in my class and was ready to graduate, but then they wouldn’t let me because I didn’t have my GED. That was another hard hit and I went back on a downward spiral.

I left my father’s house and got into a relationship with another man. We had two children together. We were very poor and lived way out in the country with no indoor toilet. My sister took us in at one point. We split up after about four years when our youngest child was 3 years old.

In 2003, my children and I moved into an apartment, and not long after that my sister died. I began to lose my mind after that. The enemy just came in and consumed me mentally and physically. I lost custody of my children because of multiple suicide attempts. I was in and out of the psychiatric unit several times. They put me on many medications. Some made the cutting worse and some made me numb and emotionless. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know how to find God, and my life had no meaning without Him.

In 2007, I was in a horrible car accident. My pelvis was broken in half. I was in the hospital for a month. I was in so much pain. For the first year after the accident, I was prescribed pain medication. I remember the day I knew I was addicted. I ran out of pain pills and my whole body was shaking and trembling. I was so sick. I began using IV drugs and that took control of everything in my life. Even just an hour after doing drugs, I would get sick and need more. I prostituted myself to get drug money. It was no longer about getting high. It was about trying not to be sick. The mental obsession was insanity. It was all I could think of. Life became all about who I could rob, con, or sleep with to get my next drug. I knew addiction was of the devil. The moment you prepare to change your life is the moment people come out of the woodwork to give you free drugs. I saw this happen in my own life.

The day came when I was tired of it all. I cried out to God for help. Shortly after, a local drug enforcement agent caught me on tape selling drugs. God was answering my cry for help and intervening to save me. They put me in jail and then released me to drug court, which is an outpatient accountability program with drug testing and meetings with drug counselors. I talked to God a lot at this point. I asked God to let me serve Him and His people. While I was still in the drug court program, I discovered that I had leadership ability. I began facilitating faith-based recovery meetings through Lifeline. I continued to work with Lifeline after graduating drug court. I got custody of my kids back and we had four great years.

But then I relapsed. I got on heroin and it was worse than the first time. I remember my arms and chest being covered with needle holes. Social services were going to take my children, and I tried to stay clean so I could keep them, but I failed a drug test. I don’t know why I relapsed. It was a big surprise to everyone, including me. I had become the poster child in my town for overcoming substance abuse. God had changed me completely and then I relapsed. I talked to God again and said, “I have made a mess of this. I don’t want this anymore.” I went through detox and as soon as drugs were out of my system, I began to ask God for deliverance from drug addiction. I knew I couldn’t go on without God. I began to seek the Holy Spirit with everything in me. I started working at the church doing anything they would let me do, cleaning toilets…anything.

When my children were taken away because of my relapse in 2015, I thought my life had ended. But it was just the beginning. That was the last day I got high on anything. I have custody again, and I’m a productive parent to three great kids. The Lord answered my prayer and has delivered me from addiction. I am still very careful. If I feel any trigger, I talk to my pastor. I stay really close to God. When I wake up, the first thing I think about is Jesus. My relationship with Jesus is the only thing that has worked to help me. I can’t do this alone—not even for one day. Every day I ask God to help me and He does. I don’t function well without God…I can’t lose Him. Everything is at stake.

I now work as the Director of ReWired, a faith-based addition recovery program. A local church has taken ReWired on as one of their ministries. We have a church service on Saturdays and each time we meet there is a revival spirit. The pastor and I let the Holy Spirit lead and we worship and sing for God. Through ReWired, I also work as a coach with 10 people who have additions. The most important thing we do is provide spiritual guidance. We share our stories to help others know there is hope and that God can break the bondage of addiction.

I never thought I would be qualified to serve God or make it to heaven, but my pastor taught me that it is about a relationship, not perfect rule-following. God is love and it isn’t about requirements. The right lifestyle is acquired through the relationship with Him.

I am a miracle, because without God I would be dead or in a crack house at 90 pounds doing dope. I never expected that there would be a greater purpose to come out of the pain of my life. But God is using it all for good. I look at my “before” pictures—my mug shot—and cry because of how good God is and how real He is. He has loved me, forgiven me, and transformed me. I want everybody to know.  

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.

(Proverbs 31:25) 

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.