#202 Yet, I Will Rejoice: Part 2

 

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

So, I became a young single mother and have raised my almost 11-years-old son alone, since he was about four months old. I went back to finish my master’s degree that I had started in Kenya years back. I got support from my family and I went back to church. However, I still felt like a failure. I felt like I had failed God, my family, and myself. None of my relationships worked because I brought a lot of trauma that I had not dealt with into them. I thought my career would make me feel better. I did have a relationship with God, but I focused more on work than letting God work in me to heal me. I got very good jobs that were well-paying and was able to take care of my bills and my son, but I still felt empty.

After finally graduating with my master’s degree in Kenya, I enrolled for a PhD course in Public Health. My sister wanted me to come back to the US, but I didn’t want to leave because my career was going so well. I told my sister, “I’m not coming as a student. I will only come if I get a green card so that I can work.” I applied mostly not to disappoint her. I knew chances of me getting it were slim, but on my seventh try, my application was successful! I still did not want to leave Kenya, but people I trusted told me this was the second time God had opened a door for me to go to the US, and I should ask myself why God opened the same door twice. They advised me to walk through the open door by faith.

I resigned from my job and came to the US with my little boy, a plane ticket, a $50 bill and two suitcases. I was very afraid. I cried all the way in the plane and kept telling God I hope I made the right decision. I had worked so hard to get to where I was career-wise, but left all that (my well-paying job, my friends, my relationship, my consultancy firm, my PhD, family, church). I left everything to come to the US and start over.

I thought it would be easy to jump back to my career. I knew there were a lot more opportunities for me to advance my career in the US and to make my life better than back home. What I did not know was that it would take years. It took me a year to get my transcripts sent from my former college in Kenya to the Board of Social Work in Kentucky, so I could get certified as a social worker. It also took much time and moneyfor me to get my transcripts accredited. By the time I finally got certified, available jobopportunities were for people who had prior experience working in the US and/or had a master’s in social work. My master’s was in medical sociology, so the only option I had was to use my high school certificate to get a job.

So, I started working at Amazon. I went from an office job to standing 10 hours a day. All the money was going to daycare and rent. I could barely pay my bills, and I got frequent eviction notices. When I put my son to sleep, I would cry to God, “Just take me. Why did you bring me here?” I was in this job close to a year until I finally got a job at the state psychiatric hospital as a mental health associate. I led groups and also provided direct care. It was tough. Patients wanted to fight, but I still had a heart to work with people with mental illness. I did this for two and half years.

After I got the job at the state hospital, I got accepted into the university. I tried to continue my PhD in public health, but I had to start at post baccalaureate, then four semesters of a master’s program before being accepted into the doctorate program. But social work was still my passion. When I was near completion of my doctorate, I still felt empty and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I also faced many challenges in the program. My professor-mentor prayed a lot and felt his work was to shepherd students. He realized that public health wasn’t my passion and was probably not a good fit for me so he prayed with me. I believe that was God’s favor. My professor said, “Why don’t you transfer and get a PhD in social work. If you push yourself, you can finish your PhD in three years.” God brought me back to His original plan I believe. I had already practiced in the field of social work and I had a desire to work with vulnerable populations. I hope to defend my final project in August and graduate in December. God gave me the grace to work and do my best in school. People would say, “How did you do that?” Even I don’t understand. It was definitely God’s grace.

Lately God has been dealing with the inside of me, releasing me from the trauma of my childhood. I have been praying about it and letting it go. I feel like I am experiencing healing in this area. God is my counselor. I breakdown and cry, and He leads me to Scripture.

I look back and see God’s hand working behind the scenes. In the past, He seemed far away and I felt like He had forgotten me, but He was always there. Looking back, I have come this far because of His grace. Every day he provides healing and delivery from my past trauma. I am still a work in progress, but I have come a long way. I am amazed at God’s unconditional love. He loves us as we are and though at times we see ‘broken,’ He sees ‘precious.’ In His due time, He will elevate us. Our lives are in His hands, and He has good plans for us. We may not understand the mountains and valleys that we go through, but His love will keep us. He will always be our victory. He will embrace us in our trying moments and give us the grace to sing even in our most painful times. His love sustained me, and I know He embraced me when I felt broken and lost. He embraced me when I was giving up on life. He did it for me, and He will do it for whoever might be going through a similar experience and is feeling lost or forgotten. The Lord surely does give beauty for ashes. He is able to fix our brokenness into a precious vessel — a work of art — that is so valuable. He is able to bring out the best from even the most painful moments.

Jeremiah 29:11–14 (NIV) speaks hope to me because I know that in every season, whether good or bad, God has a good plan for us. He is a God who restores and brings us back to His purpose when we deviate from His plan. He loves us unconditionally and never gives up on us. At times we may not understand the pain that we go through, but He is still God, a good God who has good plans. Whatever the season, it does not change who God is!

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, they are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me in earnest, you will find me when you seek me. I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and bring you home again to your own land.” Jeremiah 29:11–14 (NIV)

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.

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.

#201 Yet, I Will Rejoice: Part 1

 Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I was born in Kenya in 1980, the last child in a family of three siblings. When I was six years old, I woke up late in the night and was looking for my mum. I asked my dad where she was. He told me she had left, and he did not know where she went. I was confused because to me, my family was perfect. I kept asking my dad where my mum went and would she ever come back? He kept telling me he did not know. My questions bothered him and at times made him very angry, so I stopped asking. But silently, I suffered deeply inside. I kept wondering why my mum had left me?I was so young. Why did she reject me? 

The next time I saw her was in court three years later. She had filed for divorce. She and I never really had a connection and, much later, I asked her why she rejected us? Why she left us? She told me that she had to leave because they were fighting a lot. She said she loved us and tried to look for us all those years, but my dad would not allow her to see us. I tried to accept her version of the story and worked very hard to establish a relationship with her, but it was so difficult. My relationship with my dad was so close. He was my hero and I loved him. I think I chose to believe his version of the story. 

My dadraised my siblings and me after my mother left. Growing up was tough without a mother’s love. I think dad was pushing himself too hard. I think he was afraid he would lose us. One time he mentioned his fear that the court could take us away from him. You could see that the thought of not having his children broke his heart. He provided everything we needed. However, he was very angry, bitter, and tired. So we grew up afraid. As loving and protective as he was, he would say some mean things out of anger. We learned perfection from him. Everything had to be perfect. From elementary to middle school (known as primary School in Kenya)we topped the class, and my dad pushed us even harder. Our grades had to be perfect. We were not even allowed to date. We were very involved in church, sports, extracurricular activities such as music and drama, but he monitored all that closely. By the time I was in sixth grade I could cook and clean for the whole family, and I could comfortably stay home by myself after school. He had taught us to be independent.

 

During college I visited my mother. We would bake, take walks, and try to do mother-daughter bonding activities to make up for the lost years. I was really starting to connect with her, but after a few months, she fell ill and died. It broke my heart. I was very involved in church and had a group of girls that I met with to pray and that got me through. Yes, losing her still hurt but the prayers and encouragement from my small prayer group gave me courage to keep moving forward. God gave me the peace and grace to continue focusing on school. I could trust Him despite the situation. I cannot explain the strength I had going through that situation, but I know it was only with God’s help. 

Both my siblings went to the US to build their careers, but I remained in Kenya and was among the first cohort in Kenya to train as a social worker. When I graduated, I got an internship at the United Nations in Nairobi. My first formal employment was in a research study for HIV prevention among high-risk women. I did not have much experience. It was a miracle that I got the job. I enrolled for a master’s degree in medical sociology. 

Having gone through a broken family and trauma, I was drawn to working with the kids from similar backgrounds and those going through abuse. While I was doing well in my career and working on my master’s degree, my father became ill. My dad began getting sick around fall of 2007, which was an election year in Kenya. When the election results were announced, violence broke out. This escalated cases of abuse and violence and kept me very busy at the violence recovery center. I could not go visit my dad because of the post-election violence. Tribes were fighting against tribes and political parties against each other and it was risky to travel.

 

Unfortunately, my father also could not travel to see his physician for medical care in another city. Instead, he went to a local hospital in a rural town in Kenya, but he did not make it. I remember the last time I spoke with him. I had left work at around 4 p.m. I talked to him and his phone went off. I remember him telling me to take care of myself and to tell my siblings the same. I asked him what he was talking about? I told him the violence would end, and he would get out of hospital, and I would go see him. I was told that the last thing he mentioned was that he wanted to take a short nap and rest, but when he slept, he never woke up. The next morning when I heard my dad had passed; I thought my life was going to end! I did not see how I would live without my dad because I loved him so much. He was my hero, my best friend. I was truly daddy’s girl. I felt like a part of me died when he died.

 

I didn’t date until I was an adult and got in my first serious relationship when I was 25 years old. I wasn’t experienced in relationships and I didn’t know about normal relationships because I came from a broken home. When my dad was sick, I met the man who would become my husband. He was there with me when I got the news about my dad’s passing. He saw how crushed I was and decided he would take me to the country to attend the burial/funeral. We were both risking our lives because there was still tension, due to post-election violence. I cried all the way from the city to the country. The seven-hour drive was very scary. You could sense the tension. We knew anything could happen, and we could get killed. This really brought me and my boyfriend close.

When I returned, it was very hard to get back to work and to finish my master’s degree. I felt empty. I wanted to die and I prayed to God to take my life. I drank a bottle of wine or sometimes two, to wash away the pain. My boyfriend was there for me during this time, and I was still involved in the church, but instead of turning to God, I turned to this relationship. After a few months of dating, we decided to get married. We really didn’t know each other very well. My whole family was against it. They thought I was still going through trauma of my dad passing and thought I should wait, but I did not care. I went ahead with the wedding plans. My siblings could not make it to my wedding. Only a few of my family showed up. I smiled during my wedding ceremony, but I was breaking inside. I had no dad to walk me down the aisle, as I pictured all through my life, I was getting married to someone I didn’t know well, and my family didn’t support me. 

The morning after my wedding, I looked at my ring and I remember thinking, “What have I done?” We went for our honeymoon in Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya, but I was unwell and unhappy. One night we decided to go out to one of the clubs. When we were heading back, we were stopped and surrounded by a group of about 10 men. We actually thought they were police, but they were not. It may have been an initiation into a local militia group because they didn’t steal anything. They started cutting us with machetes. A man was cutting me again and again. I faced death. I had two deep cuts in my head, and blood was flowing like tap water. I was silently whispering, while holding my blood with both my hands, “Lord Jesus, forgive me. Please remember mercy. Save me!” 

 

I cannot believe I survived this ordeal! I had said my last prayer at the time because I knew I was going to die. Miraculously, they left us (probably for dead). People heard our cries for help and came to help us. A man offered to take us to the hospital in his car. I believe God intervened to save us. I really don’t know how I survived. From a beautiful bride a few days before, I lost all my hair. They had to cut all my hair with a razor so that they could stich my head. I almost lost my eye as well. I still have a scar. The next day we informed our family back in the city. They arranged for us to be flown back to Nairobi. That is basically how we started out marriage. With a traumatic experience and nursing wounds from our near-death experience!

 

My husband was drinking a lot and at times not coming home. I was also drinking my wine. I was depressed and felt stuck in the marriage. I did not know who to talk to because my family was against the marriage in the first place. I was too embarrassed to reach out for help. My siblings were far away in the US; I had no dad to talk to. My spiritual life was a mess. I felt very far from God.

 

We decided to go for counseling from our pastor, but we still had problems. We also went to talk to his family, and the aunts advised us to have a baby. They said having a child sometimes solidifies a marriage and makes a couple bond. I was scared and excited at the same time. I had stopped my master’s program; I did not graduate, taking a three-year break from school. I got pregnant but I had no one to take care of me emotionally. I felt alone. I spoke to my sister and explained how sad I was, and we decided it was best to go to the US. I applied for a scholarship and got accepted to pursue a master’s degree in public administration in Louisiana. My husband seemed okay with it. My plan was to go to Louisiana then transfer to Kentucky to be close to my family. I was only a few months pregnant. My husband and I agreed that we would try and apply for an F-2 visa for him as a dependent spouse. I traveled to the US and applied three times, but we were not successful. I also tried to transfer to Kentucky and was unsuccessful. I took a semester off from school and had my son. When I held my son, I felt blessed and happy. At the same time, I was scared because I did not know if I would be a good mother. I fell in love with my little boy immediately. He lit up some part of me that was broken inside. I decided that it was best to go back to Kenya, so my son could be close to his father. I did not want to go through a divorce like my parents did because I know the pain it caused me then, and I did not want my son to go through the same. 

When I went back to Kenya, my husband continued with his old ways, drinking, partying, and sleeping around. There was infidelity and neglect, and we reached a point where it was best to end the marriage. We ended up separating and later divorcing. It was so hard for me to divorce despite infidelity. I thought about repeating my parent’s history. All this time I kept crying to God. I felt unworthy because my walk wasn’t always right. I wondered if God really accepted me. But I realize now God loves me unconditionally. We are the ones focused on other things — focused on the pain or the lack, but He is always there.

Habakkuk 3:17–19 is one of my favorite verses and reflects how I was feeling at this time and what I still believe today. Through it all we should give thanks and Praise the Lord. It might be difficult to do that when going through pain, when the road is all foggy, and we are unsure of where we are going. Even when it hurts, we should put our trust in the Lord and rejoice because He gives us grace and strength to go through these seasons, whether good or bad. He is there behind the scenes. He is there carrying us, even though we do not “see” Him or “feel” His presence, He is there, putting every piece of the puzzle in place, where it belongs, and ordering our steps. 

“Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vine, even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren, even though the flocks die in the fields and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He will make me as surefooted as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains.” Habakkuk 3: 17-19 (NIV)

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.

#200 Finding God at the End of Myself

 

I was born in Denver, Colorado. I am the middle of five children. My mom found out my father was cheating on her when he gave her an STD. She had five small kids and all her family was back in Ohio. She packed us up and moved back to Cleveland. Our dad pretty much walked out on our life. 

Every kid wants to know their dad. I wanted to go to Denver and live with my father. I lived with him from fourth through seventh grade. Before I moved in with him, I had this idealized image of him in my head. He was going to play catch with me and teach me about girls. I had a rude awakening when I found out my dad was a violent alcoholic and drug addict. There were times of physical abuse. I remember he smashed a plate in my older brother’s face and then on the way to the hospital he told him not to tell what had happened or he would do it again. My stepmother also was very cruel to us kids. 

My dad lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Nearly everyone was white. Whereas in Cleveland, we lived in abject poverty in the projects. I went to an inner-city school that was almost 80% African American. I struggled with identity. I didn’t fit anywhere. I grew up angry and not knowing who I was. I peed the bed until I was 12 or 13 years old because of the anxiety and the abuse. 

When I moved back to Cleveland, I started getting into fights. I was angrier than ever and headed down a road of stealing and juvenile delinquent behavior. I had no direction or guidance, and no role models. I gravitated to the older kids in the neighborhood, and they were involved in gangs. I was constantly getting picked up by the police. At 15, I got picked up for stealing cars. They sent me away to a juvenile boot camp, but I escaped. It got worse. I got involved in selling drugs and doing drugs. I overdosed on LSD and two days later I was doing it again. I was hell-bent on destruction. I got involved in selling narcotics. I was taking customers from grown men who wanted to kill me. They would drive past our house with guns. It was insanity but when you live in insanity long enough, it seems normal. I was working with a man who would give me drugs to sell; then I would give him money after I sold the drugs. Once I received a large amount of crack cocaine from him, but the drugs somehow disappeared. I frantically searched for the drugs because I had to pay this guy. Three weeks go by and the guy is looking for me. He ran me off the road and I got slammed into the window. A week later he was threatening me with assault rifles. I didn’t know any way out. I was 16 years old. I thought I would have to either shoot him or he was going to shoot me. My only solution was to rob someone to get a bus ticket to get out of town. I robbed a guy who was coming out to his car. But he didn’t have any money, so we ended up going back into his house. There were other people there. The police were called, and I was arrested. I was taken to the county jail for juveniles to face five counts of kidnapping and aggravated robbery with a gun. I had a prior record and had escaped from juvenile boot camp. It was bad. I was facing 45 years in adult prison for the crimes. I was supposed to be arraigned for five felony level 1 charges. The odds were, I would be charged as an adult and receive close to a life sentence. 

I spent seven months in the juvenile detention jail awaiting trial. After about three months, a corrections officer took me to the hallway. He told me my older brother, Larry, was murdered the night before. Larry was the only father figure I had. He had never been in trouble — ever. He was my hero. He had been at a club and was stabbed to death. The guilt of this overwhelmed me. Here I am involved in criminal behavior, stealing and in jail, and he is the one who got killed. Because of the severity of my crime, I couldn’t go to the funeral. There was no closure. I immediately freaked out, tried to fight everybody, smashed chairs. They stripped me down naked and put me in the box — solitary confinement — for six months. 

There are different stages of grief, but being in that environment didn’t lend itself to going through these stages. I kept telling my mom I needed something that was my brother’s. Shoes are one of the few things you can bring of your own possessions to jail. My mom said the only thing they would let her bring to me was my brother’s shoes. But she said, “You don’t want his shoes. His blood is on them.” I told her I didn’t care. I cried so much there were no more tears in my tear ducts. I would fall asleep from exhaustion, then wake up thinking it was a dream. 

God began to soften my heart through a 16-year-old kid who was in jail for dealing drugs. We had become friends. We talked, hung out and played cards before my brother died. When I was put in that solitary cell, he would come and lay down at the bottom of the door. He would talk to me under the door and say, “I’m so sorry about what happened to your brother. I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I haven’t forgotten you. I’m praying for you.” He flicked pieces of candy under the door for me. He did that day after day, week after week, until I had a big pile of candy. You don’t typically experience kindness like that in a juvenile detention center. Through his consistent random acts of kindness, he was showing me the love of Jesus. 

I didn’t go to church growing up. I had no sense of who God was until solitary confinement. I came to the end of myself in that cell and reached the point of suicide ideation. I thought there was nothing left to live for. But then I thought about what that would do to my mom. She had already lost one son. God used that to bring about conviction about all the terrible things I had been a part of. I finally felt the full weight of everything I had done. It was a spiritual awakening. I was like Jacob wrestling with God. I didn’t want to be the person I was anymore. But I didn’t know how to be different. 

The first prayer I ever said was laced with profanity. I used every foul cuss word you can imagine, but it was holy because it was raw and honest. “God where were You? Why him and not me?” There was no filter. I finally moved through the anger and then I had an encounter with Jesus. I didn’t have much knowledge of the Bible, but in that moment, I knew that Jesus was real. I said, “Jesus, I know you are real. I know you died and arose from the dead. I need You. I cannot do this on my own.” I confessed with my mouth and believed in my heart without even knowing that’s what the Bible says to do. Jesus meets people where they are. I was kneeling and the floor was cold. It was like someone came into the room with a heated blanket and put it around me. It was that supernatural. And this is coming from someone who at that point in their life had no reference point for any of this. It was so real, it startled me, and I jumped up. This completely changed me from the inside out.

Before I went before the judge, I read 1 John 2:1, where it says we have an advocate and the word advocateis used as a legal term, like a lawyer. I prayed, “Lord, I know what You have done in my heart and my mind is real. I could never deny You. Even if they give me 45 years, I will never turn my back on You.” I knew it was going to be okay. It wasn’t like Jesus was telling me I was going home, but instead that He was going to be with me whatever the outcome. I went before one of the strictest judges. She said, “I don’t know why I am doing this, but I am going to keep you in the juvenile system.” I was sentenced to “juvenile life,” which meant I was sentenced until I was 21 years old. I did the four years in the juvenile system and that was my Bible school. I went to school and got my GED and completed barber training. I started writing music and poetry. 

As a part of my release, I was not allowed to go back to Cleveland. I went to Colorado to live with my dad. It was still a horrible situation, but I got to reinvent myself. Many of the friends I had made in Colorado didn’t know about the crimes I had committed. They knew me before the criminal activity began. I connected with a great church out there, and they really discipled me. They affirmed and embraced me. They didn’t judge me. They brought me up on stage in church to play my music, even though it was hip hop and not considered “religious” music at the time. 

They invested in me going into a recording studio. The music I created was inspired by Jesus. The music was redemptive, and they saw the value of that. At the time, it wasn’t common at all for that kind of music to be accepted in churches. Our church was two blocks away from Columbine High School. I played my first concert there two weeks before the mass shooting. Being able to share my testimony and play my music for the kids at Columbine was very affirming for me. I felt like music was a calling I needed to pursue. 

Now I am back in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. My wife and I planted a church, The Fringe, almost two years ago. We had come across a lot of people who wouldn’t fit into a typical church environment. Instead of complaining, we said, “Let’s do something about it.” We have a heart for people who haven’t connected with God for whatever reason. We have a heart for people on the outside of the church — whatever their story, whatever they look like. It has been amazing to see what God has done. We were not part of any church organization because no church really understood what we wanted to do. Our church was self-sustaining within four months. We are getting ready to launch a coffee shop that will hire people who are re-entering society and will pay a fair wage. The coffee shop will be part of a re-entry program. The program will help people get their GED and provide parenting programs. There will be free tattoo removal and a recording studio for at-risk youth in the community. It will be a holistic hub to help empower and rebuild the lives of people who have been thrown away. 

In the story of Jacob wrestling with God, he was also wrestling with himself. The name Jacob meant deceiver. He was always scheming and always trying to find an angle to manipulate the situation because he believed the world was an inherently bad place. I don’t think Jacob believed that God is really good. What I have learned from my experience is that God is not like my biological father. He is good. One of my favorite verses is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” John 11:35 (NIV) Jesus was comforting the sister of one of his friends who had just died. 

God is not a detached deity but a Father who weeps with us when we weep. He cares about us.

I’ve also learned that I am enough. I don’t have to earn God’s approval or love. He is not going to abandon me like my biological father did. He is a good Father. 

You are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done. No matter what you’ve done, God is not ashamed of you. His love has been running after you your whole life. It’s time to stop running from Him. 

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.

#199 A Mustard Seed of Faith

 

Photo by Cholee Moran

I grew up in a single parent home, living with my mom and younger sister after my parents divorced when I was young. My parent’s marriage was plagued by domestic violence, so my earliest memories are of my parents fighting. My home situation and my parents fighting made me feel very insecure, though we did have lots of extended family, which provided safe places to spend time. My mom became a Christian when I was seven. I remember going to church with her and to Vacation Bible School, but I didn’t understand what was going on in church. 

When I was 11, my mom got remarried to a man who lived in Indianapolis. He was a godsend. He was a great guy and didn’t have any children, so he took me and my younger sister on as his own. He was a Lutheran and put us in a Lutheran school. That is really where I learned about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We had religion class and learned the books of the Bible. But this was head knowledge and had not made it to my heart. There was no relationship with Jesus. As a result, I always felt like something wasn’t fulfilled within me. 

In high school, I could see I had two choices, two groups of friends to choose from. I could pursue my education and do the right thing, or I could take another path. I chose the other path and started smoking weed. I became pregnant at 16 years old and had my son the first week of my senior year in high school. Out of fear, I didn’t tell my mom and dad until I was seven months pregnant. To their credit, they didn’t put any pressure on me to choose — either put the baby up for adoption or to keep the baby. That was another God moment for me. I lived with them and they helped take care of the baby. My mom helped care for my son, and my dad took care of us financially. I was enrolled in night school and finished high school mid-year. Our family dentist then hired me to be his dental assistant when I was 18. 

I had second child, a little girl, when I was 19 years old, with a man who became my husband several years later. I was still working for the dentist, though I moved out into a place with the father of my child. We did the best we could, but we weren’t very equipped to raise two small children. At around 20 years old, I got introduced to crack cocaine. The first time I used it, it changed my life. I became addicted immediately and, by age 21, I was arrested for the first time for drinking and driving. 

I was in and out of incarceration from 2000–2011 for drug-related issues. My life just spiraled out of control for several years, but I believe the Lord was working in my life during this time. In 2005, God awakened my soul! I had to go to prison when I was seven months pregnant and that finally got my attention. I was imprisoned in March, my daughter was born in April, and I was released in September 2005. My mom was her caregiver while I was in prison. My other two children were living with my mother-in-law. I moved in with my mom when I was released. God provided a good job for me, which was a true blessing. I worked in that job for a few years and things went pretty well.

For me, it wasn’t one moment, but many moments over the years that really changed me. Each time I was incarcerated, there were volunteers who would come in and minister to us. They told their stories, brought Bibles, led recovery groups and Bible studies. They were so consistent in sharing God’s Word and God’s love with us. It made such a big impact on me. There was a mustard seed of faith that was growing inside of me into a tree. The Bible studies, recovery meetings, and programs available while I was incarcerated, were the biggest blessing to me. 

I remember one man named Ralph who came weekly to pass out Gideon Bibles and to share the Good News. He was probably 80 years old and had emphysema. It was really hard for him to breathe, but he came faithfully. I asked him if he would visit my grandparents and share the Good News with them. He ended up going to my grandpa’s house to share the Good News and my grandpa accepted Christ. About a week or two later, my grandpa passed away from a heart attack. I’ll never forget that moment — that is when awakening began!

I did well for several years, but in 2008, I got into another relationship and got pregnant with my last son. The relationship with his dad was very hard. It was a rebound relationship for me, we didn’t know each other very well, and there was a lot of emotional instability on my part. I was just in a bad situation. By March 2010, my life was out of control, so I gave my two-year-old son to his father and my five-year-old daughter went to live with my sister. I got arrested in September of 2010 and was incarcerated for four months. 

In 2011, I had gotten back together with the man who fathered my second child when we were 19. We were staying in hotels using drugs every day. I was exhausted and just couldn’t take it anymore. On November 5, 2011, I cried out to God from a hotel room. I prayed, “God, if you don’t save me from myself, I’m going to kill myself doing this. I need you to help me.” God answered my prayer. I prayed that prayer around 6 a.m. and around 6 p.m., we were pulled over by the police because we had tinted windows. I was arrested, but I believe my arrest was divine intervention. Actually, each of my arrests was divine intervention. I feel like each arrest came at a time when I was going to die. God was saving me from myself by using the judicial system to stop me. Nothing else could stop me. It was like being possessed — something I couldn’t control. My addiction was such a tug of war for my soul. 

On November 5, 2011, the day I cried out to God, I was arrested for the final time. I went from jail to prison, jail to prison — four different facilities in one year. At that point, I was really engaged and applying myself in pursuing God. I was attending Bible studies and using all the resources available to me. I took a recovery course and went to classes. I worked a recovery program for a whole year while I was incarcerated, which really set the foundation. In January of 2012, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in jail. My spiritual eyes were opened and each day after that I grew more and more in my understanding of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. One night a scripture verse (just the book and verse number) came into my mind during a dream. It was Galatians 6:9. I looked up this verse when I woke up and read it, I realized these were just the perfect words to encourage me. This was a real game-changer for me.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Galatians 6:9 (NLT)

I was due to be released on November 7, 2012, and before I was released, my mother-in-law sent me information about Wheeler Mission Ministries: Higher Ground Addiction Recovery Program. It is a God-centered program and I thought it sounded perfect for me, so when I was released, I went directly to the Wheeler Mission Higher Ground program. One of things that makes recovery challenging, is that often, when people get released from prison, they go back to the same community, same friends they left. Then they end up back in a bad situation. It’s important to look for a supportive program or another place to go. There are re-entry programs and resources available, you just have to find the courage to do something different. 

The initial commitment at Higher Ground Addiction Recovery is eight months but you can stay as a servant leader in training to serve your program after this eight months. I chose to stay and became an assistant in the recovery program. In 2014, I became an employee. My personal relationship with Jesus has been growing since God’s intervention in 2011 and I am still actively pursuing God. I am now a case manager for Higher Ground. By the looks of it on paper, I wasn’t qualified for the case manager position, but God made a way. God provided me with this position. I love my job. I love being able to encourage and strengthen women and their relationship with God and be a person they can count on. I love being able to share about Jesus. 

When I got to Wheeler Mission, I saw the Bible lived out in the way the people loved God and loved others without condition. That is another reason I’m so grateful for the position I have now. I can share the love given to me and encourage other women to reach their full potential, to be good mothers and family members. 

When I look back, I see God’s protection all through my life. Sometimes I was in dangerous situations and He had His loving arms around me. I can see it completely now. God is patient and consistent and unconditional in His love. He does correct us though and that is an important piece of His character. But His correction is as a loving Father and is done to help and protect us. His correction saved me. I can’t put into words how loving and caring He has been to show me so much favor my whole life. I got my daughter back from my sister in 2015, which was a miracle, and I became a homeowner in 2018. The biggest gift that God has given me is my children, my relationships with my children and the grandchild I have on the way. 

All God wants is a relationship with His children and He doesn’t give up on them. Even when people don’t know Him, He still wants the relationship. He pursues us, but he is a gentleman, and He doesn’t force Himself on us. 

I am often reminded of this verse that is on the wall at Wheeler Mission: 

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 

Matthew 11:28 (NIV)

When I read that verse, I see a Father with his arms open to His children. Don’t wait to pursue your relationship with God and grow as a person. Start today! Pick up a Bible and read it. Let God change your life!

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.

#198 Improbable Survival, Part 2

 

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

In the first part of my story I shared about my miraculous survival of a sudden cardiac arrest. My experience of that event, once I regained consciousness, is another story of experiencing the powerful presence of God. 

As I regained consciousness, while being carried down the trail and loaded into an ambulance, I knew where I was and that something significant had happened. I felt terrible, like a truck had run over me, and while I was able to answer the paramedic’s questions, it was a struggle to focus. I kept trying to shake the cobwebs loose, but they would not go away.

I do not know how long it took the ambulance to arrive at the hospital, but they apparently made a wrong turn coming out of the entrance to the property where we were camping, losing about four minutes. Another factor that likely added to the confusion, is that on the road near the entrance a truck was on fire. This all seems so bizarre, unreal, like something out of a movie: collapsing on a trail, burning truck, wrong turn, riding in an ambulance?

Even the ambulance making it to the property is an amazing story of grace, as the property has no physical address. Earlier in the week someone associated with Crossroads Man Camp figured out how to fool Google Maps into dropping a GPS location pin. Only four people at the Camp knew the “address” and Bryan Carter was one of the four.

Bryan is a Crossroads community pastor and had a central role in hosting Man Camp. He was a busy man helping shepherd a thousand men through registration and on to their campsites. If he had not been listening to the Spirit, he never would have come to the commotion surrounding my collapse. While he heard the cries for a medic, he assumed someone had turned an ankle or something similar hiking up the trail. He felt no urgency to investigate, until he felt an inner prompting of the Spirit to do so. If he had not been there to take the phone from Basilo Harley who had dialed 911, the ambulance driver would not have known how to find our location. 

And the same goes for Basilo having a cellphone. All of “the campers” had been strongly encouraged to leave our cellphones in our cars and “unplug” for the weekend. According to Basilo, when he saw one of his camping mates leaving his phone in the glove compartment, he had the thought, (was prompted?) “Maybe I should keep my phone with me in case of an emergency.” I did not know Basilo — he reached out to me through Facebook to tell me his story. I know he is from out of town, likely Ohio, but he had 911 on his phone to give to Bryan who knew the fake address of our location. Crazy, bizarre stuff — God stuff.

One of the most astonishing experiences for me was who showed up along the way. At almost every juncture, beginning in the ER, there was someone I knew taking care of me, all of them former clients of mine. These are people who knew me and I knew them. I did not always immediately recognize them, but they let me know and, of course, I remembered. In the interest of confidentiality, I cannot give specifics, but it was stunning how often in the course of my treatment  —five specific instances —former clients were taking care of me, or associated with someone caring for me. It was incredibly humbling. It was like God was saying to me “Don, you are known and loved.”

I know some might dismiss this as incredulous, but I received comfort and encouragement seeing these folks, reinforcing to me the intimate connection there is in the body of Christ. It was as if the Spirit was saying to me “Your life matters, and the work you do matters,” not as an ego thing, but as comforting, encouraging, and reassuring.

This experience, from the moment I collapsed and my heart stopped, and all through treatment and open-heart surgery, manifested as a deep experience of connection that runs through everything and everyone, that there really is no separation, just connection. Separation is the illusion, connection is reality. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Romans 8:35.

I can only assume that God wants me to know this in an intimate and powerful way that only experience can impart. This is not an idea or an insight; it is a lived experience that has made a huge impression on me, and one that I am trying to sort through its meaning. How do I now live in a world where there is no separation but everything and everyone is connected? Maybe this is what the mystics call union with God.

One of the things that almost, without exception, people commented on, those who saw me in the hospital and afterward, either medical personnel or friends and family, is how well I seem and look. And my experience is the same. Somehow “I came back to myself” in the ER at St. Joe East, after my heart catheterization. It is as if everything cleared up and I felt like myself, no worse for the wear. Maybe the sedation from the heart catheterization relaxed me, helped my anxiety, I really don’t know. I just know I felt fully present and not worried, even though my diagnosis was serious coronary artery disease requiring emergency bypass surgery. 

There was such an experience of the presence of God that were it not for the sober realization that I was going to have my chest split open, my heart stopped for about four hours, my body put on life support, and then my heart started again, it was an exhilarating spiritual experience. And really it was both: An overwhelming loss of control and exhilarating sense of the presence of God.

I want to make it clear that I have also had experiences, and still do, where I felt the absence of God, periods of confusion and doubt, where prayers were not answered. I have experienced suffering and pain, with struggles that could not be overcome and those taught me as much, and maybe more, about God. Learning to trust God in the dark, when you can’t see a way forward, grows faith in ways that miracles or other experiences of the power of God never can. “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” Hebrews 5:8.

One of my favorite passages in scripture is 2 Corinthians 1, specifically verses 3–11. Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, these words are beautiful and will speak to a deep place in your soul. And these words seem especially pertinent to my recent experience of an improbable survival. Paul speaks of a deep and abiding connection with the life of Christ and our life, with His sufferings, my sufferings, and your sufferings; with His comfort, my comfort, and your comfort. This is from the New American Standard Bible:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.

And Paul then references specific afflictions they experienced in Asia in verses 8-11, as well as the deliverance from those afflictions that God provided:

8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

When I listen to the stories of the men who were around me on that trail in Madison County, who jumped into action and saved my life with CPR and prayer, it is a similar story to Paul’s. The sentence of death (verse 9) was within me, my heart had stopped and they all saw it and felt it, this sentence of death. They felt the despair and fear that comes with death. And they experienced the joy and relief that comes from life arising in the face of death, “so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”

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.

#197 Improbable Survival, Part 1

 

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

It is Thanksgiving, around 5 a.m. I am less than two weeks out from quadruple bypass surgery. I actually feel pretty well and have clients scheduled for next week, so not too much disruption from having your chest opened and your heart stopped for four hours, while it g

 

ets a plumbing job of rerouting arteries around blockages. I really have not paid attention to the details of the surgery, but my surgeon told me if I did not have the open-heart surgery I would be dead, again, within a month. There were precious few physical symptoms to indicate that I had such serious coronary heart disease. I take care of myself physically and I go to the doctor for annual physicals.

That’s right, dead again. Those words do not even look real. I had no idea I died Friday November 15 around 4 p.m. I just remember collapsing on the trail and waking up as I was being transported down the trail. I had a sudden cardiac arrest while backpacking up a steep slope. I was participating in a church (Crossroads) retreat for men called Man Camp. There were approximately 1,000 men attending a weekend camping retreat near the Kentucky River in Richmond, Kentucky. 

I had experienced what is called “ventricular fibrillation” (VF) in the lower left chamber of my heart. This causes the heart to vibrate so rapidly that it can’t pump blood. It was not a heart attack per se, but rather an electrical malfunction, where the heart loses normal rhythm and there is no pulse. Only around 10 percent of people survive VF, and most of those survivors are already hospitalized or in health care settings.

I would not have survived if I were not hiking with two men (Eric Curvin and Shane Porter) who knew what to do and immediately jumped into action performing CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation. Eric is a nurse anesthetist and Shane is an Iraq veteran. They kept my heart and brain alive for at least 15 minutes, until the camp medics, volunteer medical personnel serving at Man Camp, arrived with a defibrillator to shock my heart back into rhythm. I was then transported to a hospital.

I would not have survived but for the grace of God. I am told that men immediately surrounded me and began praying out loud, calling on the name of Jesus. One of my best friends, Lynn Buckles, tells me my skin was ashen and my eyes were open, staring, like a dead man. I was a dead man — and he pleaded with God to raise me from the dead, as did others. Another friend, Bryan Carter said, “I have seen dead people before,” so he knew what a lifeless body looked liked. I can’t imagine what that was like for them, but it had to be traumatic; both of them have their own stories of dealing with death and near death.

So I am thankful I get to spend this Thanksgiving with my wife, Carolyn, our children, Seth, Danielle, and Isaac, and my brother, Trip, who flew from North Carolina to be with us during surgery. The gift of my life, to survive this, is a mystery. I could have just as easily died, as most do. I will die, someday … but why God allowed my healing is something to prayerfully and respectfully consider. There is more to this story, so many connections that cannot be explained as happenstance, and the telling of it will continue.

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.