#226. Love City: God Changed The Narrative I Believed

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I grew up in a home that wasn’t Christian. We did go to church a couple of times, but my mom was on drugs and was an alcoholic. We didn’t have nice clothes and the church asked us not to come if we couldn’t dress appropriately.

My limited experience in church was the only place that was a contrast to the life we were living. My dad was never in my life. I never met him. The man that I was closest to as a dad died in a car accident when I was a child. Father figures weren’t really a part of my life. The narrative that I learned growing up was that I would always have to take care of myself, and that I wasn’t really important. Other things were more important than me, like drugs. I was sexually abused and this also negatively affected my identity. In every facet of my life there were negative things being spoken into my identity. 

We lived in California and my mom relapsed and picked us up and moved us to Las Vegas my senior year of high school. Life got worse with the move. My mom couldn’t find work, so I started working. Things deteriorated so my brother and sister moved back to California, then it was just me and my mom. My mom ended up moving back to California while I was a work one day. She didn’t tell me she was going to leave. I came back from work and all her stuff was gone. I called her and she told me she was moving back to California. I started working multiple jobs. 

After graduation, I started working with a woman named Molly. She was the most persistent Christian that I have ever met. She wanted to talk about God and invited me to church. I tried to shut down the conversation. I didn’t want to talk about God. One night I was going to take a public bus to get home from work, but the bus was broken down and they weren’t taking passengers. I called Molly and she didn’t answer. I started walking home. I started thinking about God. I said, “God if you are real, send someone to pick me up.” Not five seconds later a woman stopped and asked, “Do you need a ride?” I got in and noticed she had her 2-year-old daughter in the back seat. She was a young Caucasian woman. So I asked, “I know that I’m not going to hurt you, but you don’t know that. I’m a 6-foot-4-inches tall African American male. Why did you pick me up?” She said, “I’m not too sure. I just felt like God just told me to pick you up.” When I got home, I paced the floor. I was really confused about what just happened. 

At work the next day Molly asked me about missing the call. I told her what happened and she said, “God is pursuing you.” She wanted me to come to church and I said, “If I come one time will you stop bothering me?” She agreed and I went. It was unlike any church I had ever seen. The people were in shorts, drinking coffee. After church, I sat around with Molly as they talked with a group of college kids about a mission trip to Peru. The more I heard the more I had a desire to go, a desire that I couldn’t explain. At the end of the meeting I told the leader I kind of wanted to go on the trip. She said the trip was full but they had a waiting list. She called me a week later and said someone had dropped out and everyone else on the waiting list said no. I said I would love to go, but the money was a problem. I didn’t have time to fundraise the $500 deposit, so I dropped the idea of going on the trip. She called me a week later and said she felt like provision was coming that week. I was skeptical. When we got off the phone, I checked the mail. There was a check from a company I worked for when I first moved to Las Vegas. It was for $500 — exactly the amount of the deposit. I thought I was being pranked. Over the summer we fundraised for the rest of the trip money. Crazy things happened and God brought all the money needed for me to go. 

Here I am, a young man who isn’t even a Christian going with a church to third world country to bring the Gospel to their people. I still was super confused about why I was there. I just knew I wanted to go. The poverty was like nothing I had ever seen, especially in the barrios where there was just one water tank and homes were made out of mud bricks — sometimes with tarps, sometimes not. The Peruvian families would make us food, but it didn’t feel right to take anything from people who had so little. The Peruvian people just kept talking about Jesus. The older generation in the barrios knew of the faithfulness of Jesus, but the kids not so much. 

We had a “camp” for the kids. I asked a lot of questions of the Peruvian people and the people I went with about Jesus. They discipled me about who Jesus is. On the last day of the camp we had a bonfire. One of the Peruvian leaders was sharing his testimony. He had a translator. Then he started praying in English. I had tried to talk to him multiple times in English while were there and he couldn’t speak English, so I said to someone on our team, “I didn’t know that he spoke English.” They said, “He doesn’t.” But I understood what he was saying in his prayer even though it was in Spanish and I didn’t speak Spanish. Here is what he said in his prayer: “I just feel like the Lord is saying that He has been pursuing some of you for a while, and now would be the moment to come and surrender.” 

At that point I stood up and started walking. The next thing I know, I am at the front surrounded by my team. We are all crying. The leader started to explain to me about the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I had a freeze frame moment about the woman that had picked me up, and everything that had happened that summer. It was like the narrative I had told myself all my life was being broken. This God that I didn’t know and couldn’t see went out of His way to pursue me and tell me that I am important. 

Having that realization, I decided to give my life to Christ. I got saved that night and got baptized in the Pacific Ocean the next day. The rest is a journey of obedience and the places that the Lord led me to. The Lord has allowed me to travel the world and work in different churches and organizations. I have learned to understand His heart for people and His heart for me. And now, He has me in a place to speak to young people who, just like me, only understood one narrative, one version of their story that seems hard to get out of. The reality is that God’s love transcends it all, and that brings hope. God has a plan for their lives beyond what the world would tell them. I can be an example with my life and my words — because I was that kid. 

God pulled me out of the lifestyle I was accustomed to, the lifestyle that would set a person up for failure. God pulled me out of that and put me in communities with people who loved the Lord and who were patient with me as I grew in my faith. I hope to be a person like that to someone else. I want to use my story to bring God glory and bring His children back into the kingdom. That’s what my yes is now. 

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. — Colossians 1:19-22 (ESV)

#223. Love City: Radically Transformed

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I was raised in the church for first 12 years of my life. When I was born, there was no dad in the picture for the first five years. A guy got my mom pregnant but was not a part of my life. I grew up in my grandparent’s house with four of my cousins, two uncles, aunt, mother, and grandparents. I loved family — family was my life. I didn’t really have other friends, just my family. 

At age five, my mom met a man at Southeast Christian Retreat Center and they got married. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but there was a falling out between my mom and my grandparents, so we got kicked out. I can’t remember — either we left or got kicked out, but it tore me up. It devastated me. It was such a transition going from living in community with family to living in complete isolation. The man my mom married adopted me at age five, as soon as they got married. So I had a new last name, a new man I’m supposed to call “Dad,” a new school, and a new family. I had a new life.

That’s when I started to act out and rebel. We call it the Bible, but I’ve come to find out that it is a 66-book love letter from God to me. Scripture uses the metaphor of a wild animal to describe how I was acting. If a wild animal gets angry, it will devour  people and things around it/tear them apart.

In the same way, when I couldn’t express my feelings, it would come out as rage. I was feeling something but couldn’t express it or understand it, so I would act out. I never found healing because I could never identify the problem or release it. So, I ended up living for other people’s acceptance. I knew who I was in community with family, but after losing that I didn’t know who I was. I kept going to Sunday school and all my friends got baptized. I wanted to also, so I began doing what everyone else was doing. I believed who Jesus was and what He did, but what I didn’t understand was what comes after deciding to follow Jesus.

So, when I started to live for other people’s acceptance, I also started to die from their rejection. In middle school I got bullied, so in high school I was chomping at the bit to fit in with the cool kid crowd. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to fit in, but there was always something in me that was tugging at me not to do “that thing.”

At 17 years old, I got kicked out of my parent’s house for being disrespectful and rebellious. I graduated high school and was glad I got kicked out. I wanted to take on the world. My selfish ambition started a ripple effect, not just in my life but also in the lives of other people.

I had a girlfriend for about three years, but I also had this pain inside that I didn’t know how to deal with. So I turned to money, sex, and drugs to turn off my mind, because I had to numb the pain that was in my heart.

I got a theft charge for stealing from UPS and got fired from Ford for failing a drug test. I would spend all my money on drugs, then my girlfriend would get me a meal at the end of the day — even though she knew I was doing drugs. I would repay her by punching holes in the wall when I was mad. I felt like a piece of trash — God didn’t make me to be a monster. My girlfriend would cry and I felt like trash.

I remember that I had a glass prism with Jesus in it and, in a rage, I threw it through a glass table. I had a Bible that was gifted me when I was baptized but, one day we argued and I threw it in the garbage. I never got it back out.

Finally, I ended up on painkillers and cocaine because nothing else would numb the pain. I got in a fight with a good friend, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back. No words were exchanged — we just got up and started brawling. My parents let me move back in when I was 19 but then I got in a fistfight with my dad, so I got kicked out again. It was a never-ending cycle of self-destruction. But it was not just destroying me. I was inflicting pain on other people.

I wanted to change, but knew I would have to get away. One day I called my cousin and told him what was going on. He was about to move to Mississippi. He said if I wanted to clean up my life, I could go with him. So that is what I did. I developed a work ethic and got my driver’s license back (which I had lost because of a DUI charge). It was good timing to get away from the toxic environment I had been in.

Unfortunately, my cousin and I had a falling out, so my girlfriend came to Mississippi to get me and took me back to Kentucky.

The Lord has reminded me of Matthew 23:27 where Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, telling them that they are like whitewashed tombs. There was this beautiful picture on the outside, which gives you the impression that what is on the inside is even better. But Jesus said that what is inside is actually rotten, decaying, and dying. When I came back, I “looked good” on the outside, but on the inside I was still the same monster. I had never sought healing for the pain that was on the inside.

I was still a monster to my girlfriend. I talked badly to her and I was disrespectful. She kicked me out one day, so I moved in with a friend. I got a job at Planet Fitness, but the background check came back and I got fired. I had another interview, but that fell through. 

I found myself overcome with such a burden of shame. I called my mom and apologized, and she accepted my apology. I didn’t deserve her grace but she forgave me. My dad was still bitter and wasn’t ready to reconcile. So I ended up meeting my mom and little sister at McDonald’s to grab breakfast after three years of not seeing them. My little sister had become a young woman, and it tore me apart.

At this point the last resort was the military. I went to enlist and they said as long as I didn’t have a murder charge or drug trafficking charge, I could apply. Twice before the military had not worked out, so this was the third time going to enlist. I wanted to be a Marine but ended up with the Army recruiter. They said they would let me know in a month. 

While I waited, I stayed in contact with mom and my little sister. One day I was running laps with my mom and told her that I would love to have a relationship with my family before I deployed. She was OK, but she said I had to ask my father. I was genuine with my dad and expressed how sorry I was and that though I couldn’t take away the pain I had caused, if he was open, I wanted a relationship. I ended up moving in with them while I waited to hear back from military. My dad suggested I get with one of his friends and see if he could use help roofing. A couple days later I was working again.

The military option fell through, but in the midst of the waiting, I had to praise God. I had a Bible app on my phone and was reading a devotional plan called the “Battlefield of the Mind” by Joyce Meyer. Every day was about the Holy Spirit cutting off all the junk I was carrying.

I could tell at this point I was just tired of it. Enough. I saw the wake of destruction which spurred the realization to not just “desire change” but to “need change.” There comes that point when you stop crying out just when you need Him. Instead you just genuinely want Him.

There is a difference between desiring and yearning. I had always desired change, but now I knew I needed God for change. I was yearning for Him. There is a supernatural God who loves me in a supernatural way. I knew transformation would come if I believed in Him.

If what He says in His Word is real, I’m going to know it, because that is how deeply I am going to seek Him. So I got a notebook and started writing — prayers, thoughts, and hopes.

One of the first incredible things God did in my life was that in my weakness I was able to look down at this notebook and read between the lines. There were words that were an exact depiction of what I was feeling in my heart. I was finally learning to express what I was feeling. God just did it all. That began the healing process! It also began to bring joy! I began to find out who I am because I was learning whose I am.

My dad started to see me change. I was seriously seeking. He showed me a book and I started reading it, though I can’t even remember the title. I was reading and just started weeping — the floodgates opened. I was compelled to get on my knees and I just started talking to God. There are three things I remember about that moment:

  1. I told God I was tired of hating.
  2. I told God I was tired of being ashamed.
  3. I told God, I’ve got to find out who You created me to be — because it is not this monster that I have been my whole life.

I got up from the floor and I knew something was going to change. I can’t even explain it. God was telling me: You’re going to change because I am with you!

I’ve heard this quote: “The cross beckons the man who is sick of himself.” That was me! The cycle of shame had formed an anchor in my life.

Scripture says in John 8:36, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” I accepted His freedom that day.

After that experience, I asked my boss, who was also a member of our church, to get me plugged in to a group at the church. I got into a men’s group and the first question they asked was “How is your personal relationship with Jesus?” That made me ask if I have a personal relationship, and if I do, what is it like? It was a small group where we could be genuine and authentic.

They were also big on obedience discipleship. Jesus said, if you love me you will follow my commands. He says loving me empowers you to obey me, just like a child.

In their song, What if I Stumble, DC TALK makes this statement: 

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.

That was me! So I recommitted my life to Jesus in February 2019 and was rebaptized in April 2019.

This joy (fruit of the spirit) that started to come to life brought freedom! Now I want everybody to want that! Jesus is about mercy and selflessness. And that realization drove me to the frontlines to see others set free! My whole life I sought meaning and purpose without ever including God. In less than one year, I didn’t care about anything but knowing that I am His. It is hard to fully explain the change that has occurred in me. My parents told me recently that they always anticipated getting a call asking them to identify my body. That’s the path I was headed down, that the kind of life I had chosen to live. Understanding God’s love and grace radically transformed my life.

The one who has been forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:47). I have found this to be true in my life, when I finally understood God’s grace. Jesus on the cross was God telling me that He loves me. If I was worth dying for, He’s worth living for! 

I started visiting the residents of a halfway house and one of the guys invited me to a Bible study at a place called Victory House. I would go with a friend named Tom, and he invited me to live my life on mission. I remember we were leaving one night and I told Tom, “As long as my heart is beating, I’ll see you tomorrow.” That seemed like such a random comment I couldn’t even explain why I said it, but the next morning I found myself dying to play a song I used to listen to as a child. And one of the verses says “As long as my heart is beating, where You lead me I will follow, where You lead me I give my life away” That was it! I was sold out to Jesus and as long as my heart is beating, I will follow!