#216. Gurl Get Your Mind Right

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I was born in Pittsburgh and raised in a middle-class family. My parents divorced when I was eight years old. My mom put me in dance classes when I was two years old. I took tap, ballet, jazz, tap solo, and baton — all at the same time. I became really good at it. My teacher told my mom I should audition for the play written by Gershwin, Porky and Bess. Out of 4,000 kids, I got the part. When I was eight, we moved to the country to live with my grandparents. I was no longer able to go to dance lessons. This was devastating to me. I loved dancing and believe that was God’s calling on my life. I was raised going to church every Sunday, but I don’t remember confessing and accepting Christ as my Savior. 

My mom remarried when I was 15. We moved back to the city. I moved from a predominately white school in the country to a predominately black school in the city. It was a culture shock. One night I went in a car with some of the guys from my high school. We ended up at a wooded park. They got out, but told me to stay in the car. I didn’t listen and when they saw me coming toward them, they grabbed my arm. They told me there were guys who were planning to rape me. They took me back to my house. God worked through those guys to save me. 

I was a thick girl. I thought I was fat. My mom was very critical. She made comments about my clothes making me look big. My mom was physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive. Nothing I ever did was right. If she and my stepfather got into an argument, she blamed me. He was the best stepdad a person could ever have. He tried to get my mom to be nicer to me. 

My senior year in 1976, I was a cheerleader and started dating a football player. He turned me on to weed, opium, hash, and cocaine. I started trying other drugs. I even snorted heroin once. It was God’s grace that protected me. I was promiscuous and slept with married men. 

I was excellent at typing and after graduation became a secretary in the nursing department at the University of Pittsburgh. I got my own apartment at 17, a two-room efficiency, paying $95 a month. I watched a movie of a baby being born when I worked in the nursing department and knew then I never wanted to have a baby. I was 23 when I had my first daughter, Brandi. I had seven abortions prior to that. Six with the same man who fathered my daughter and one with a boyfriend. I didn’t know any better. No one taught me. I had no self-worth. My pregnancy was a nightmare. The father told me that it wasn’t his baby and that I was fat. I had stopped doing the drugs during my pregnancy and replaced the drugs with food. I became addicted to food. In the last three months of my pregnancy, I gained 100 pounds. I was an emotional mess. 

My daughter’s father didn’t go to the hospital with me when I gave birth. He came around a few times to see Brandi, but he wasn’t really involved in our lives. I started smoking weed again. I got a job at Aetna insurance. Jim, a Christian gentleman from the Houston Aetna office, came to our Pittsburgh office and asked me to come to Houston. He said there was a position that I would be really good at. He said, “If you come to Houston, I will make you the supervisor and you will get a raise and you will get a bonus to cover your move if you show me what you showed me in Pittsburgh.” They offered me $10,000 more to do the same job in Houston. My daughter was only three when we left Pittsburgh. When we got off the plane in Houston, Jim and his wife, Tamara, met us. They drove us to our apartment complex and gave us a TV. We only had our clothes, a couple of towels and a clock radio.  My furniture was coming on a truck that was stopping in other states.  It took two weeks to get our furniture.

When you move to a new town you don’t ask people, “Who has weed?” One day as I walked through the apartment complex there was a big group of guys and one of the guys came to my door and asked, “Do you get high?” I told him I did. I sent my daughter to her room. I thought he had given me weed, but he had given me crack cocaine to smoke and I was hooked immediately. He told me where to get it. I started dating this guy and he would bring the crack over. I became more and more addicted. 

Jim did everything he promised. After one month, he made me a supervisor and gave me a $10,000 raise plus a bonus to cover my moving expenses. I was excelling at work, traveling to provide training and had been the employee of the month four times in the same year. But I didn’t have the money to afford my drug habit. So, I came up with an elaborate plan. I started forging names on checks at Aetna and cashing the checks. Eventually, I was out sick and one of the girls in my department figured out what I had been doing. My boss asked me to come into the conference room. A man with a briefcase said, “Have you ever cashed a check besides your paycheck?” I told the truth. He said, “I’m glad you told the truth.” Then he took the checks out of his briefcase and laid them across the table. He said, “We know what you did but don’t understand why you did it. Why? You had such a bright future.” I said, “I’m addicted to crack.” He said, “We thought it was drugs.” He asked me how much I had taken, and I told him I had a folder at home with all the checks. He asked me to bring it in. I brought the folder to him and he told me to go home and they would let me know what they were going to do. 

My friend John from work called me and said, “Where are you?” I was driving and said, “I’m just going to kill myself.” The devil was telling me to just let the wheel go. John said, “Just drive to my house.” Then Jim called me. He had told the leadership at work he was going to remain my friend. I believe God was intervening on my behalf through both of these men. Jim told me I needed to immediately go to treatment. I went. Jim and Tamara not only took care of Brandi for two weeks, they also went to my apartment and packed up everything and put it in storage. They sent my daughter back to Pittsburgh to my family. Aetna fired me, but because I cooperated with them, they didn’t press charges. The bank didn’t press charges either. Nobody came after me. God spared me. I should have gone to jail for what I had done. Jim came to that facility every day and brought me a Bible. I wouldn’t listen. I said, “Get that Bible away from me.” He said, “It’s the only thing that can help you.” My therapist told me I had to get to the root of why I was there. I felt like my parents had robbed me of who I should have been. I loved dancing. I should have been a choreographer. They took something from me that was near and dear to my heart. I also realized the resentment for my daughter’s father. I discovered all of those things in treatment. 

After 90 days, I got out. Aetna had kept me active on the payroll to pay for my treatment. This was another way that God provided for me. God saved me from killing myself through John and Jim. He saved me from myself. Jim and Tamara let me live with them with only two rules — stay sober and go to my meetings. They gave me a car and credit card. 

I went to church with Jim and Tamara but was still stuck. One night they were getting ready to go to Bible study and I was sitting on the couch and balling. My daughter was coming back from Pittsburgh and I knew that I was going to have to face her and make amends for all I had done,  including locking her in the house at night, while sleeping, so I could go out to get crack, putting her in danger. 

Jim and Tamara invited me to Bible study but I didn’t want to go. While they were gone, I was thinking about how to kill myself again because the thought of facing Brandi was overwhelming. When they came back, I was still crying. They got down on their knees and said, “There is only one way. You have to accept Jesus.” I asked, “Will it make this pain go away?” That night I confessed Romans 10:9 and everything changed. I started going to a Bible study group. I got an apartment. One year to the day of my sobriety, December 16, 1988, I got offered a job at Enron. This company was drug-free, and employees had to be drug-tested to work there, which was what I wanted.


Things were going well at Enron. I got promoted and got bonuses. The girl they put me with at Enron was a Christian and had me listening to a Christian radio station. I went to her house for Bible study. I was clean and sober but then I noticed people were getting things and recognition that I wanted. I figured out a way to cash travelers checks at work. They confronted me and I admitted it. They fired me but didn’t press charges. This time I couldn’t blame it on crack. I had to do self-inventory and say to myself, “Are you a thief? Do you just steal?” Even though I had accepted Jesus, I still didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. 

When I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter, Courtney, I immediately went to have an abortion. I was single, overweight, depressed and scared to death because of my pregnancy with Brandi. I went to an abortion clinic. I knew I was right at 12 weeks. They lady said, “You are 13 weeks. We can’t do it. But you can go upstairs. They do it up to 26 weeks.” So, I went upstairs. I am sitting there with a sheet over my lap and the doctor is getting ready to examine me. I prayed, “God I know this is a sin, but I can’t have this baby. I can’t even afford to raise Brandi.” The doctor examined me and said he couldn’t do it. I asked him why. He said, “I don’t know. I just feel there is a risk with you.” God intervened . . . again.

When Courtney was born you would have thought she was a crack baby. She had a hernia, a tear in her liver, a hole in her spine, her heart was on the opposite side, her intestines were in knots, her neck muscles were messed up, and her head was tilted. She was transferred to the ICU at Texas Children’s hospital, where she stayed 90 days. She went home with a feeding tube. She had a special-needs caregiver. I was working at Enron when that was going on. God preserved me — my mind — through all of that. I had no family, but I did have Jim and Tamara. They were my family.

Some of Courtney’s problems have been healed, but she still has some health issues. God gave her a brilliant mind. He preserved her and He did the same thing for Brandi. Brandi is so imaginative and creative. I truly believe God protected her mind through my drug battle.

In 1999, I began attending a non-denominational church, New Light Christian Center. Dr. I.V. Hillard was having a Spiritual Millennium Warfare conference at this church. I went down for the altar call and experienced spiritual healing. I had finally found my church home. This church taught me so many things. I was delivered from addiction in 1988, and I never went back. Crack cocaine is euphoric-demonic and is spiritual warfare. I finally got to the root of my problem. I had been self-sabotaging. For so much of my life, I didn’t have a personal relationship with God. When this happened, my life was transformed. God called me to evangelism, to minister to women with low and no self-esteem, bound by addiction like I was. 

When I was pregnant with Brandi, I developed diabetes. As a result, I’ve had five toe amputations. I have diabetic retinopathy in my right eye. I have been in stage three kidney failure for 15 years, but God is sustaining me. I have been at death’s door many times, but God has protected me. God is faithful and loving. If we just seek Him, He will never turn His back on us or leave us. God did not give up on me. He kept pursuing me. He kept helping me get on the right track. God protected me and my daughters and provided and intervened for me so many times. I am so grateful for the people God placed in my life, for the revelations He has given me, for the healing He has provided. I am grateful for my two daughters who are amazing women. 

I transferred to Mooresville, North Carolina, to work in human resources with Lowe’s. I thought that my purpose of coming to North Carolina may have something to do with my ministry GurlGetYourMindRight which God gave me 10 years ago . My lease is up in August, and I plan to go back to Pittsburgh. I believe God wants me to go back home. There are women who are there who need life spoken to them. I really believe the ministry will take off there.  

Lastly, no matter what you go through in life, always remember “it’s just temporary” because we’ve already won! The ransom that was paid for us covered all our sins but we must continue to renew our minds and not be subject to this world.  To the ladies, who are still being controlled by men and this world…….GurlGetYourMindRight!

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Matthew 6:33 NIV

#208. Purposeful Design

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

Years ago, God gave me the opportunity to be on the board at Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis. I was also involved in discipling men. For about 15 years, I led Bible studies at Wheeler. Often when I was there, I would ask the men how they were doing. Over and over the answer was “I’m looking for a job.” I must have heard that a hundred times. I had sorrow about this and wished I could do something to give them a job. I decided to ask God about this. I prayed, “What do you say about this God?” Some other men friends of mine began to join in that prayer also. 

One day I was doing something on the internet and I ran into the idea of taking shipping pallets and turning them into furniture. I wondered if we could sell the furniture and create a revenue stream to cover the cost of wages. So we did an experiment and started small. We used shipping pallets and started making beverage carts. Pretty quickly we figured out shipping pallets weren’t the way to go. A local business donated lumber and we began making furniture and selling it to friends and family. That’s how it started.

We hire men and train them to make beautiful handcrafted furniture. Now over 90% of our operating expenses are covered by things the men make themselves. Everything is custom made. We sell to a lot of commercial enterprises. We make a lot of conference tables and shelves. We make tables for restaurants, school cafeterias and some residential furniture. The first year we had $37,000 in sales, which was a great blessing and beyond our expectations. Last year we sold $1.4 million in furniture. While the finances are important and we are very grateful for the business, our primary mission is to hire and train craftsman and see lives changed. Our organization, Purposeful Design, has two components. 

One part is a training program called the School of Woodworking and Discipleship and the other part is the business where we hire people to work making furniture. Even if we don’t hire people to work for Purposeful Design coming out of the school, we have a network of other employers who offer job opportunities. All the those we serve come from places where they struggle with addiction, incarceration or homelessness and otherwise would have difficulty finding a job. 

We have partnerships with ministries and relief organization that send people to our school. The trainees are exposed to woodworking, job readiness and discipleship training. We start each day with prayer and have weekly Bible studies. We have about 40 volunteers from the community who do the instructing. They come in to teach and add their own stories. They are loving and build relationships. One of our partnerships is with Purdue University. They helped us launch the training program and sent us two professors to teach the trainees how to work with wood. This whole ministry is really a walk of faith. A lot of people who serve have a background in business. My own background is in business.  But I had no experience with woodworking or running a nonprofit. Our business is a registered 501c3. God has provided so much for us. We depend on Him to show us our next steps and to provide the resources, people to help us, and customers. It has been amazing how the Lord has helped us and provided. 

The second part of our organization is the Purposeful Design furniture business. We have 16 full-time craftsmen. It is a delight to see them grow. They are not all believers. But we expose everyone to the Word of God and flood our place with love and encouragement. We strive to strengthen everyone and help them succeed. We are like a family. We want to keep it a walk of faith. It has been a joy to see where God has brought us. We didn’t plan any of this, and now we find ourselves in a niche that sells to many large institutions like big hospitals, universities and banks. All of these organizations have their own mandate to do good for the community. They desire to do good for society, and they also need furniture, which makes our products a perfect fit for them. 

As long as the Lord keeps opening doors, we will keep running as hard and fast as we can to help more people. We provide on-the-job discipleship, beginning each morning by circling up and praying together and sharing a bit from the Word. We have a lunch Bible study every Monday. 

We are getting ready to launch a campaign, “Turning the Tables on Poverty.” To prepare, we have run some statistics and have found that in our six years, we have saved the taxpayers $2.3 million in what it would have cost to take care of those who were homeless who are now employed. In addition, our employees have paid about $350,000 in taxes. These folks have changed from being totally supported by taxpayers to now contributing their own taxes to our city. We also see our neighborhood changing for the good before our very eyes. Healthy people make healthy neighborhoods. Most of us live about a quarter of a mile from Purposeful Design. We are available to help each other and encourage each other. We see marriages restored and kids reunited with their fathers. God is truly amazing. 

As we have seen God at work, there are three things we have learned: 1. It is good to pray. Purposeful Design is the result of prayer. 2. We have all tried life our own way, and it didn’t work out. God’s way is better. 3. Jesus really, really does set people free. We have absolutely seen the transformative power of God at work. We have seen a 17-year heroin addict set free. Another guy told me he hadn’t been sober a day in his life since he was 14. Now he is sober and can be spotted walking his children to the park. He is loving his wife, and he is one of our most loyal and trustworthy employees. 

My own heart tends toward prideful thinking. In our early days I would think, “Haven’t we done well!” The Lord has now shown me my need for humility. Now, I go down on my knees and thank the Lord right then and there when something good happens. Our success is not from me. God’s hand is at work here and our success is from Him.  

#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.

#196 Living on Assignment

 Photo by Sophie Goforth

God saved me from death eight years ago but, more importantly; He gave me a new beginning when, by all rights, there should only have been a tragic ending. 

My name is Melissa and I’m a recovering addict, but much more, I’m a redeemed child of God. I am a writer by trade, and have done well in this career; although I have failed miserably as the author of my own story. The story I tried to write of my life was one I insisted on filling with excitement, money, power, control, and all the love and adoration I could stand. I wanted the perfect modern-day fairytale, and I wanted things to go my way, on my terms. However, the sad story I strung together for four decades was pretty on the outside but a total mess on the inside. It was completely empty, yet filled with selfishness, shame, regret, loneliness, unresolved anger, addiction, and despair. My tragic tale included bad choices, bad characters, and a very bad outcome. 

On January 29, 2012, God got tired of the way I was writing Melissa’s story, and closed the book on it. 

Prior to this, I was the hero of my own story. I appeared to be an empowered, single mom who was in control of every career move. I had worked as a reporter and had worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. I have met astronauts and had my accomplishments recognized on the floor of Mission Control. I have the only Hello Kitty doll that’s traveled to space! I was a successful woman on the outside and a total train wreck on the inside. I struggled with excess for a long time — excessive need for attention, excessive need for stimulation, and excessive need for alcohol to dull and/or enhance every situation in life. I was horrible at relationships, constantly thinking I needed the attention of men, and unable to control my drinking to the point of not remembering the night and, eventually, the days before. The character Melissa, whom I didn’t want people to know on a deep level, was not a nice, pretty person. She caused so much hurt with her drunken words. She didn’t care for her precious daughter like she should have, and she found herself being in trouble with the law around every corner. She even spent the night in jail after passing out in her running truck in a parking lot one afternoon. 

You would think after all that mess, and so much more, it would have prompted a change of heart. But even a weeklong stay in the hospital with pneumonia, brought on by a weakened, alcohol-induced state, didn’t change my heart. Destroying essentially every valuable relationship as a drunk didn’t change my heart either. Even threats from my parents to take my daughter from me because I was an unfit mother didn’t change my heart. In all my despair and shame, I was still prideful and stubborn. I was unwilling to do the work I needed to get my life on track. I wanted help but I wouldn’t budge. I still wanted to control my own story. I couldn’t get on top of my addiction, so I would pray and pray to God asking Him to save me from my every mess, which He did over and over again. But was I grateful, was I remorseful? Did it change my heart? NO! I just made bigger messes. It was the pattern in my life that kept me away from God. Even worse, I was a master at hiding my true self and making life look perfect to those who barely knew me. I kept those who knew the truth about me shut out as much as possible. 

I kept all my lies, deceit, and charades in motion until a dreary Sunday afternoon on January 29, 2012. That’s the day my world fell apart. My sodium level bottomed out and my body was depleted of all the nutrients it needed to live. 

I had essentially drank myself to death. 

In front of my four-year daughter and elderly father, I collapsed face-first and started convulsing. I don’t have a memory of it, but my dad told me later that I began throwing up and had blood coming out of my mouth. My dad called 911. My daughter was crying and the ambulance came and took me away. They didn’t have time to get me to the trauma center at the university hospital because they said I would have been dead on arrival, so they took me to a local hospital. When they wheeled me in, I was frothing at the mouth. My friend Gabe, whom I call my angel Gabriel, happened to be the nurse on duty. He was stunned to see me like that. They had already done CPR, and they couldn’t get me to breathe. 

I was dying. 

Gabe, who now calls me Miracle Melissa, told me he was so worried I wasn’t going to make it. Another nurse walked in and bluntly said “Oh, she’s going to die.” He could tell I was fading fast so he prayed over my body. He prayed for God to intercede and for me to live. It was out of medical hands at that point. In the two days that followed I was unconscious and on a ventilator. But, in that time, my entire life was transformed. 

While I appeared nearly dead to the world, I was on the other side and had an experience that was so profound it altered the course of my remaining life on earth. I was alive in this world physically but in every other way I was living on the other side. It’s funny, I didn’t believe in near-death experiences until I had one. I don’t want to be the crazy near-death lady, but it is what it is. There really are no words to describe what I experienced, but I will try my best. 

It was the “realest” experience I have ever had. I went through a life review, vividly experiencing my life from birth until the moment I collapsed. Not just seeing it, but truly experiencing it with all my senses, including smells. It was wonderous and upsetting all in one. I relived a lot of joyous times but also saw how my negativity had overwhelmed my life. I saw how I had taken for granted all the blessings — and third and fourth chances God had given me. My time on the other side was filled with Jesus, full of grace, advocating for me. I pleaded with God to return me to my daughter Sophie. I didn’t read the Bible, so I didn’t know that it says Jesus is my Advocate (1 John 2:1). God had mercy on me, allowing me to come back to life. I woke up knowing that the most important thing in life is the love we give and the love we allow other people to pour into us. When I was allowed to return to life, I was given two assignments, clear as day. Number one, “get my life right.” Number two, “tell my story.” I have spent every day since then trying my best to do both. Even though I’m not perfect, God still gives me grace. He knows I am trying this time. I wasn’t trying before. The first person I shared my story with was my nurse, and she just sat down and wept. She said she had been praying for God to show her He is real.

Miraculously, I experienced no health issues after my brush with death. But the spiritual experience radically changed my life. I have more than 3,000 days of sobriety. I was the one who couldn’t go more than three hours without using alcohol or drugs. I know now without a doubt that God and Jesus are real and that our time on earth is just part of a much, much bigger picture. This knowledge has not only convicted me to live better, but it has freed me mentally and emotionally to live a bolder and more vibrant life for the Lord. I now let my life shine bright for Him, which is something I never did before. Before, my life seemed well put together, but it was depleted in every sense of the word. Without a personal relationship with Jesus to depend on at that time, I was crumbling quickly under the stress, sadness, and emptiness. My collapse represented where I was with life in all aspects, physically, emotionally, mentally and, above all, spiritually. 

Now fast forward to this moment, and for me to be walking bolding in the light and standing strong is nothing short of a miracle. Any one that knows me can point to that collapse and say the experience changed me forever. My life was still a mess when I woke up. It wasn’t perfectly put back together instantly. But I learned that I had to let go and give my problems to God. And He has pieced my world back together in incredible ways. 

I was baptized in my early 20s. I believed in God but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. But God didn’t give up on me. I knew God wasn’t punishing me. The life review was so important because it showed me all the chances God had given me. I have to push myself to share my story because I don’t want to be labeled crazy. I never knew that telling my story would set me free and point others to Christ. My story is not Melissa’s story. It’s God’s story told through Melissa’s life. I now serve people in active addiction and recovery, using my story. God has turned my mess into my message. Every day I get to use what was my shame to help pull people out their own personal hell. I know where to look for them in that darkness because I’ve tried to hide there too. 

God gave me the chance to get my life right, but I had to let Him take over as the Author of my story. I am still in awe of the way He has transformed me from life as an addicted, twice-divorced, single mom — stumbling through deep, dark despair — to someone living as a sober, devoted mom, grateful friend, and active church member who loves life. I have watched my daughter grow, rebuilt relationships with my parents, reconnected with friends and now I have a great Godly man in my life who loves me AND my redemption story! I’ve been transformed by the Lord into something beautiful. He has allowed me to connect with hurting hearts in my job — there is nothing that compares. 

The story God has written for me is beyond what I thought I deserved or would ever receive from Him. Honestly, all I had to do was to hand Jesus the broken pieces of the mess I had created over the years and let Him rebuild my shattered world. From there, Jesus took control, and I have never looked back. 

Don’t give up until your miracle happens. God is there. You just have to reach out and be willing to do what He calls you to do. 

“…. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah  29:11 (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.

#195 God Renewed My Mind

 

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I was born in 1956 and lived on a farm with my parents and two sisters. My parents were sort of sharecroppers. Our rent was free but my dad had to farm the land, and my mom had to do all the ironing and work that normally black people did back then. 

We moved to Lexington, Kentucky, when I was about five or six. I got into a lot of trouble at school because I had a speech problem. I stuttered really bad and people made fun of me, which caused fights. The teacher would always call on me to read, knowing I had a speech problem. I hated going to school. One day the teacher sent me home with homework, and I asked my mom and dad if they could help me. They told me they couldn’t read and write. I thought if they could make it without being able to read and write, then I didn’t need to go to school. I dropped out in the seventh grade because I got into trouble fighting.

I started hanging with guys in the streets when I was about 10. They were driving big Cadillacs. I didn’t realize what they were doing to get those cars. A couple of older guys liked me. They would give me silver dollars to watch the girls. They made their money on prostitutes and drugs. That was the only role models we had in those days. Drug dealers, pimps and thieves.

I was about 13 years old when I started stealing and robbing. I ended up going to about every juvenile institution in the state. At about 14 or 15, I was sent to Woodsbend Boys Camp. A young man lost his life there. They tried to charge me and another boy with the murder, but it didn’t happen the way they said it did. I wasn’t convicted, but that young man’s death haunted me for years. That was the first time I had been around somebody who died. When I got out of Woodsbend, I went back to stealing in the streets. My parents didn’t have much money and were struggling. I felt bad for them and I wanted to help them. There was a lot of racial tension and blacks were trying to find to their place in society. I still remember when a food train came into the city to give out food to people who couldn’t afford to buy it. I went with my mom and two sisters to get some food. My mom was next in line, but a white lady got in front and told my mom to go to the back of the line. That lady called my mom all kinds of names.

When I turned 18, I was charged with theft by unlawful taking and detaining a female. The young lady had been babysitting my sisters, and I picked her up to take her home. She told her mom that I made her do things but this was not true. They sentenced me to four years in prison, and I did 13 months. I got out in 1977. I went back to the streets doing all the wrong things. In 1979, I ended up with a five-year sentence for possession of a forged instrument. I got out in 1981; then got another charge for robbery and assault.

I was given a life sentence because of the new persistent felony offender law. I was told I would never get out of prison or see the outside world again. I was sent to a maximum security prison and saw a couple of people get killed. That changed my life. Something clicked in me. I thought about my mom and dad and that they never had an education. I thought, “I’ve got all this time. I should at least get my GED.” I didn’t get into any trouble. I studied and got my GED, then they transferred me to another prison for good conduct. I decided to try a college course and eventually got an associate degree. I got another degree for hotel management. I also learned a trade in furniture upholstery. The way I viewed people and life was changing. I was at this prison for 10 years before I was eligible for parole. They denied my parole and told me I would never be allowed to return to Lexington. 

In 1992, I was transferred to Bell County Forestry Camp for good behavior. This was almost like a halfway house getting me ready to return to society. While I was there, I met a young lady and we began corresponding with one another. I explained to her that I couldn’t return to Lexington, which is where she lived. I asked if she would move to Frankfort, which is close to Lexington, and she agreed. I had been saving money all those years. I sent her money to get an apartment. She got the apartment and got in touch with a parole office in Frankfort telling him that I was going up for parole. He said that he wasn’t willing to allow me to come to Frankfort with my criminal record. She continued to talk to him and he agreed that I could come to Frankfort, but he wasn’t willing to let me move in with her without getting married.

I went to the chaplain at Bell County Forestry Camp, but he said he couldn’t marry us because they didn’t believe in interracial marriages. They let us go to another church to get married. We ended up being married for 21 years. During this time, we had a home and I had a good job where I worked for 17 years. But I got comfortable and complacent, thinking I wasn’t going to make a mistake. I ended up getting a DUI that violated my parole. I went back to prison for a year. I was out for another seven years, but then I got another DUI and went back to prison again for two years. 

I got back out and it was hard to pick up the pieces. I went to a halfway house. My wife asked me for a divorce, which I could understand. I got a new job working at a factory. My nephew came to the factory and told me my mom had died. I left work but told my supervisor my mom had died before I left. We were trying to make arrangements for the funeral. On Monday my supervisor told me I no longer had a job. I lost my mom, my job and my wife all in one week. I was devastated and started drinking a lot. I don’t know, maybe I was trying to commit suicide by drinking myself to death. 

In 2018 I got sent back to prison for absconding, which means I didn’t report to my parole officer. The parole board gave me 15 months. This time I was at Blackburn State Prison. I started attending a program called Alpha. I was told by some people that the people at Alpha would help me find a home. The first person I met was Greg (story #193). I told him that I wanted help finding a home. He said, “We don’t do that. But you can come and listen to what we are talking about.” I went back and then continued to go to the Alpha meetings every time they were there. I had never met any group of people who were so humble. They weren’t judgmental. They would sit and listen. Greg asked me if I had a Bible. I told him I had had a few Bibles in my life but never opened one. Some of the films they would show in Alpha had me in tears. I was really being touched inside by something. I didn’t understand it. I kept reflecting over my life and my childhood. I was the only one left alive from the people I grew up with. I thought about being told that I would never get out of prison. The Alpha program showed me that I might not have believed in God, but God believed in me. They taught me that God has me here on earth for a reason. I began to see how God was working in my life. Honestly, going to prison saved my life. I wouldn’t have gotten an education or training. I would have been dead. Somebody in the street would have killed me or I would have killed myself doing something crazy. And I wouldn’t have gone to Alpha. God changed my life through the Alpha program.

I am out of prison now. I feel good about who I am and where I am in life. I have a new job, which is a great blessing. I know many people are out of work these days because of the coronavirus. I still connect with the guys from Alpha every day, and I read my Bible every day. They are some of the greatest people I have ever met. They have become my best friends. They have mentored me and helped me to understand so many things. 

I don’t know why it has taken me so many years to realize that God loves me, even if nobody else does. God is forever loving. God is all-knowing. One of the hardest things for me to do was to change my way of thinking. God has renewed my mind. If God can change me, He can change anybody. Every day I try to help someone out. I didn’t do that before. I am in great pain when I see someone suffer. I’m not saying I am perfect — by no means. I am a work in progress and God is leading me every step of the way. Sometimes I open up the Bible and don’t understand what I read. I ask God to help me to learn what He wants me to learn, and then I come back later to the Bible and I do understand it. 

I am happy for the first time in my life. I mean really happy. I really don’t have anything. But I have God in my life, and I am peaceful. Don’t give up on God. Don’t give up on yourself. Your life is a gift from God. 

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Romans 8:18–19 (NLT)

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.

#191 Formed in the “Suddenly’s” Part 2

Photo by Aly Badinger/1558 Visuals

“ ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, ‘You’re almost there, right on the borderof the Kingdom of God’ ” (Mark 12:32–34).

My home in Mijas, Spain, is in a quaint Pueblo village, nestled in the mountains on the border of southern Spain. The Melting Pot, a hostel that hosted my friends and me this last weekend, breathes life through the winding streets of Tangier, Morocco, on the border of northern Africa. As I write this, I am sitting on, as my brother, Jonathan, would say, a “big ole water bus” (boat), floating across the Mediterranean Sea in between the borders of two continents. On the border.

Coming to G42, a nine-month leadership training academy (Generation 42), I told myself I didn’t have any expectations of what this journey would look like. On the surface that seemed to be truthful, due to the fact that I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what class, community, practicum or this growing process would entail. However, I failed to realize that I buried one giant expectation in my heart. The expectation that through these life-changing experiences and incredible teachings, I would, “transform and build myself into everything I was designed to be.” Now I know that might seem like a pretty solid expectation going into such a crazy life change. I am not naïve enough to believe that I would have taken this leap of faith, had I not thought it would change my life for the better. But, as I’ve been unpacking much of my life over the last two weeks, I’ve been wrestling with where this stirring in my spirit was coming from. Slowly and methodically the answer has begun to bubble to the surface, and with each day was becoming more and more clear. I began to see that it was not the idea or the expectation of being changed that was the issue wrestling inside me. Rather, it was my idea of how that dream and transformation was going to happen

You see, for the last 22 years, I have been living life on my own strength. Sure, the Lord has, without question, given me gifts and abilities to have a solid work ethic and push myself in my life. However, the reality is that most of my existence has been me trying to use my own gifts to foster a relationship with the very One who gave me those gifts. All my life I believed that if I used my hard-working mindset, my own intellect, or my insatiable desire for something more — I would get there. I believed that if I used, “all MY heart, all MY understanding, and all MY strength” to relentlessly love God and others, then I would fill the void and quiet that stirring in my heart. I thought it was to be through MY strength that would I get there.

I came across Mark 12 at some point in the last few weeks, but it wasn’t until these last few days that Holy Spirit showed me why I seemed to stumble on that passage. Much like the man in the scripture, I came to the Lord with my own answers of what it means to be in the Kingdom of God. I believed that in my own understanding I knew the right answers and how to do it: 1) Love God and 2) Love others. I then poured all my strength into tirelessly seeking to love the Lord and those surrounding my life. Striving, out of my own desire to feel love, I took these instructions in my own strength and have been struggling to fill that void in my spirit. Much like the man talking to Jesus, I was close but not there. I was “on the border.”

The first time I read that Mark 12 passage, I believed that Jesus was telling the man that he was close to the Kingdom of God as a compliment and reassurance that he was doing the right things. But the more I began to sit with the scripture, Holy Spirit began to show me that it was not a reaffirming thing for this man, but rather a helpful lesson. Jesus was trying to show him that there was still something missing in his understanding of what it truly means to be living presently in the Kingdom of God. Much like the Israelites wandering close to the Promised Land, the Lord doesn’t want us to live on the borderof our promised inheritance. Rather, He invites us to live fully and truly into His design for us on this earth. Not on the border looking in. 

Just like this man, I had left out the most important part of the equation: that I was to understand and live in the knowledge that I was designed to be fully and overwhelmingly loved by the Father. You see that’s what the man was missing in his answer. He knew that he was to love God. He knew he was to love people. He was almost stepping fully into God’s plan for us. But what caused Jesus to respond with, “You’re almost there, right on the borderof the Kingdom of God,” was that He was missing the biggest piece. His answer needed to include understanding that he was designed to be loved by the Father.

 

That stirring in my heart and that restlessness in my spirit was coming from the fact that I hadn’t come to truly and fully comprehend that there is nothing I can do to be more loved by the Father. There is nothing in my own strength that is going to make Him love me more. There is no accomplishment that will bring me more of His affirmation of my value. There is nothing in my past that will hold Him back from loving me today. There is no version of myself that I have to become for Him to fill me up with His love. Exactly who I am today is exactly where He wants me to be, and He loves me fully in that place. He has plans and dreams for me, but His love is not dependent on my execution and completion of those things. He is a potter and I am His clay. He doesn’t just want the finished result of a beautiful product; but rather, He cherishes the process of molding and shaping me with each day. And that’s where I am at right now. Sometimes I feel like I am spinning around and around aimlessly on His pottery wheel called life. But it only takes a quick second to look around and see that His hands are cupped around me crafting and forming me with each day to understand that it’s His plan and He’s got it! 

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.

#190 Formed in the “Suddenly’s” Part 1

 

Photo by Aly Badinger/1558 Visuals

“If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12–14 NIV).

June 2, 2019

One of the biggest things that the Lord has taught me over the last few months is intimacy. Intimacy with Him. Intimacy with my own heart. And intimacy in the relationship I have found with the Father. For those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I am pretty much an open book when it comes to my personality and the details of my life. Despite this, the Lord has been showing me the beauty found in keeping the intricacies of our relationship between just us. However, this is one of those intimate details I feel like the Lord has been leading me to share, so that His glory and goodness may be seen. 

A few months prior to graduating from college, I felt the Lord pulling on my heart to step out in faith and pursue Him in ways that I never had before. This was a weird sensation for me because over the last few years, my faith had been pretty much nonexistent. I was in a place of doubt and was living in intentional denial of the Lord. Still, God never wavered in His pursuit of my life. Despite this dark season, I was unable to shake this feeling, so I finally decided to meet God in the middle and to take a leap of faith. This led me to signing up for a monthlong mission trip to Nepal through an organization called World Race. The result of this leap of faith? A radical change of my life, my plans, my identity, and my future. But, how did I get to that point?

As I prepared for Nepal, I had this kind of “picture perfect” idea of what my trip might look like. I figured in my head that I would go on this mission trip, and it would lookreally goodto those surrounding my life. Growing up in a small, private, Christian school, I always felt an expectation to create this outward image of what my relationship with the Lord looked like. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my experiences throughout high school, and I’m even more thankful for the incredible friends, families, and mentors that it brought into my life. However, whether it was my own expectations or just a product of the environment I was in, I always felt like I had to put on an outward appearance of being in this amazing walk with the Lord. 

And the biggest problem? I was good at it. I mean really, really good at it. I could talk the talk, craft eloquent prayers in front of groups and overall just create a persona that made it look like I was on fire for the Lord. However, the reality of my heart could not have been more drastically different from the image I was portraying.

So when I arrived in tiny Gainesville, Georgia, for my weeklong training camp before leaving the country for Nepal, I was not really thrilled about it because it wasn’t exactly the start to the “beautiful” mission trip I had envisioned. However, those days in Gainesville changed my life forever. My faint prayer before leaving Lexington for Nepal was that the Lord would make Himself known to me in ways I had never experienced. And from the moment I touched down in Georgia, He did just that. From the shuttle ride to training camp to the first of many worship sessions to gathering around a picnic table eating meals with complete strangers, the Lord showed me His love and presence. It was the first time in my life that I had been surrounded by a group of people who were uniquely and genuinely on fire for the Lord with no motives other than living recklessly for Him. 

As the Lord began to move in my heart over the first few days, I felt like He was calling me to completely surrender my life to Him. Sitting in one of our last worship sessions of camp, I had this immense feeling in my heart that I wanted to start my life over again and that the Lord was calling me to baptism. Little did I know this would be the beginning of not only new life, but also of my God story, which would lead me to quit my job to go to Spain for training at a Christian leadership academy (G42). However, I still had a propensity to want to create this ideal picture of my transformation. I sat in that worship session fighting against that feeling right then and there. Instead, in my head I figured I would wait until I got to Nepal, where I could have my baptism somewhere beautiful, like under a waterfall or in one of the serene rivers tucked on top of the mountains we summited. Well, once again the Lord stepped in with His blueprint instead. 

Not being able to shake this feeling, I sat there amongst my disbelief and skepticism. Feeling like I could escape the Lord’s timing for my own timing, I prayed, “Lord, if this is what you want for my life and this truly is you right now, give me any sign of water.”It’s almost comical that I believed that this, something so small as a sign, would be too much for the Creator of the heavens and earth to manage. Yet still, I sat there almost proud of myself, believing I had escaped His alter call then and there, for something I believed would be more a beautiful act in Nepal. 

Sidebar. Let me be the first to say that in many ways I have had a faith like Thomas in the Bible (John 20:25). Meaning, I always figuratively felt like I needed to really feel the holes in Jesus’ wrists to truly believe in Him. Essentially, I was extremely skeptical and doubting of the Lord. Healings, signs, prophecy, all of it I thought was a big load of bologna. Well, the Lord humbled me and changed my skeptical heart over and over again throughout my trip, especially during this moment. 

About 10 minutes of worship had passed since I prayed that skeptical prayer when, all of sudden, a girl unknown to me from another group walked up on stage and asked for the microphone.

“Hey, I’m Kirby. Over the last few days I have been really praying that the Lord would speak to me. I had originally thought the Lord was going to speak to me, but I feel like He right now is wanting to speak through me. During the last few minutes of worship, the Lord really laid this image on my heart of this strong and beautiful cactus in the middle of the desert. The cactus had all of these big thorns all over it. And as I got closer to this cactus, the thorns one by one started falling off, until there were none left. Once the last thorn had fallen to the ground, the top of the cactus came off, and there was just this overflow of water pouring out of the top. I don’t know what that really means, but I just feel like the Lord meant that for someone tonight.”

Woah. I sat there in disbelief. I mean real disbelief. The kind when you have just seen a crazy magic trick or a car crash right in front of you. And again, I sat there and tried to rationalize in my head that surely this was just a coincidence. But, it wasn’t. Feeling that the Lord was giving me yet another opportunity to take a leap of faith for Him, the same way He did by putting Nepal on my heart, I decided I had to answer that call once again. 

Still a little in disbelief, I found one of my trip team leaders and told her that I felt the Lord was calling me to get baptized. Fast forward 24 hours and I was on the verge of giving my life over to the Lord: In tiny Gainesville, Georgia, in a kiddie pool, in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of strangers around me. And it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Whatever idea I had in my head of Nepali mountains or waterfalls to be baptized in, none of it could have measured up to the peace and freedom I found in that lukewarm, kiddie pool water. 

The beauty of this part of my story is that it’s simply the beginning of many moments and experiences the Lord has orchestrated in my life over the last few months. However, despite the reasons for the different experiences that have led me on this journey, the Lord has kept one theme throughout each moment. A lesson that is both terrifying and freeing. In each part of my story, the Lord has shown me that to surrender to Him is to trust Him with a leap of faith. And when I take that opportunity and jump into the unknown for Him, He blesses my life immensely and then opens the next door for me to step through.

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.

#187 Operation Making A Change

 

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

I was born and raised in Waukegan, Illinois, near Chicago. My mother divorced my father but later got involved in a relationship with a man who I would call my stepfather. He was a very violent man. He drank a lot and there was a lot of drug use. My mom didn’t drink or do drugs. She suffered a lot of physical, mental, and financial abuse from him. He abused me as well. I didn’t look at education as important and I didn’t think I was as smart as the other kids. I was disruptive and disrespectful. I was taught not to trust people and that hindered me from letting anyone get to know the real me. I was afraid that if I told what was going on at home that social services would come in and take us away from my mother. Between eight and nine years old, I experimented with marijuana for the first time. I had watched my stepfather use it over and over, and curiosity got the best of me. I didn’t know that going down that path was going to create a whole different chapter in my life. In my community there was gang activity and a lot of crime. A lot of the kids I hung with were drug dealers and users. I became criminal-minded at a very early age. I was trying to survive by doing whatever it took to get money and food. 

My grandmother was a positive person who spoke hope into my life. She was the backbone of my family. She took us to church periodically. My grandmother was someone I loved very deeply. She had a good home where I got a chance to see healthy relationships. I had other people in my life who were positive influences. I made a friend named Louie at around second or third grade. His life was much more normal than mine. He witnessed what my stepfather would do to me and tried to protect me. He taught me to play baseball and I taught him how to steal. 

A woman named Holly, who was a mentor, picked up a group of us a couple times a week. She took us to a church and we would play basketball, study Bible scriptures, and eat food. She said the school gave her my information because they were concerned about me. She gained my trust so fast. Looking back now, I know she was God-sent. Eventually she took us to her home, where we would cook meals and talk about God and pray. When she came and got us, there were no more worries in my life. But when she dropped us off, we were back to darkness. One night she cooked a special dinner and told us she was getting married and moving away. That was one of the worst days of my childhood. I was about 14 at the time. When she moved, my life became much darker.

In high school I decided I wanted to join the military, so I enrolled in the ROTC program. For the first time in my life I was able to be a part of something positive other than a sports team. Unfortunately, that was short-lived because while at school one day my grandmother called and requested that I come home immediately. When I got home there was a moving truck sitting in our front yard. My stepfather was gone doing an odd job and my grandmother said, “Get your things. We are moving you out.” We went to a shelter and then moved to the state of Wisconsin, which was not too far from Illinois. The school that I attended did not have the ROTC program, so I got involved in criminal activity even more (drugs, gangs). My drug addiction was getting significantly worse. By the time I was 17, I had dropped out of high school. On my 18th birthday I became a teenage father to a daughter. A year later my son was born. Two years later, the mother of my children and I broke up, but she was pregnant with our third child. At the time I didn’t have a job, I was doing drugs, I was a full-fledged gang member, in and out of jail, creating an unsafe environment for my family. I didn’t know anything about being a parent. I had forgotten about God and I wasn’t attending church regularly like I used to. The only time I called on God was when I was drunk and high and wanted to sober up, or when I was about to get caught by law enforcement for doing something wrong. But I always remembered what my grandmother and my mentor, Holly, had taught me . . . pray and God would answer my prayers. I knew scriptures from the Bible and I knew who God was, but I thought God didn’t hear me because I was a criminal, a drug dealer, a deadbeat father, etc. I thought God only listened to people who were perfect. I didn’t think I was good enough for God to do something in my life. 

In 1994, there was a sweep of my neighborhood, arresting people for dealing drugs and gang activity. Law enforcement were looking for me as well. So, I went on the run, but eventually I was arrested and charged. I had three counts of delivery of crack cocaine on three different occasions. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 36 years. When I went to jail, I felt so alone but still remembered what my grandmother and Holly had taught me about prayer. I believe God had been trying to get my attention because I had been running from a relationship with Him for so many years. After the court negotiations, two charges were dropped, which exposed me to one charge and a possible 10 years. Of that the judge sentenced me to four years in the state prison. I got classified for a medium minimum, which made it possible for me to go to boot camp. This program showed me so many things that I didn’t know about myself. It was ugly and I believe God set that up for me to take a look at myself. I ended up doing about 13–14 months total. When I got out, I got a job and started spending time with my kids. I was clean and sober. But my mistake was to go back and visit the old crowd. I started using and selling again, and I ended up going back to prison for two and half years for violation of parole. I wasn’t really locked in with God’s plan yet. I didn’t see it. I was going through the motions being in prison, so I wasn’t focused on change. I walked out of prison for the second time. The day I got out was the same day I relapsed. What a nightmare. I had a $300 or $400 drug habit a day. The drugs had such a stronghold on me. I couldn’t escape the urges until I fed it. It was much worse than before. 

By that time my children had moved to Missouri with their mother. I ended up going back to prison, this time for three years. I was mad and blaming others for my situation and not taking a deep look at myself until December 31, 1999. While sitting in prison I was scared because they said the world was going to end. So, I started taking a much deeper look at who I really was as a person, deadbeat dad, convict, drug addict, gang member, drug dealer, etc. I thought, “Wow, this is how I am going to die, a nobody. I have not accomplished anything but a life of crime.” That is when I decided it was time to reevaluate my life (again). People around me were dying from drug overdoses, getting life prison sentences, yet God still allowed me to live through it all.

I got on my knees and prayed to God wholeheartedly, “I don’t know if You hear me, but I am ready to be a new person. I just want You to take charge. I keep messing everything up. My way isn’t the way. I just need Your help.” I was ready to surrender. I knew I wasn’t ready to face the outside world when I got out of prison. God gave me the idea to develop a program called Operation Making A Change (OMAC) while I was in prison. This program helped me get ready for my release from prison. God gave me a vision that someday I would use OMAC to help many other people. I walked out of prison almost 18 years ago. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what or how. I just knew my mind was made up and I wanted to do better. Instead of running from people who wanted to help me, I sat down, listened and learned. I started picking up different ways and habits. I was terrified of change because I didn’t know what to expect. I had made so many mistakes and didn’t know if I could really change. I had asked God to forgive me but many people didn’t forgive me. I had to realize it’s not about people. It’s about what God wants me to do. I surrounded myself with ministers, law enforcement officers, educators, and community activists, and I started to become like them. 

After being out of prison for about three years not knowing where my life was headed, a miracle happened. I was on my way back to prison because I was about $40,000 in arrears in child support. I had $30 to put toward the child support. They laughed at me in court. I realized I had nothing and couldn’t take care of my responsibilities. I was embarrassed. Just as they were about to put the cuffs on me, the judge said, “Wait a minute. Sit down. I don’t know why I’m doing this.” She gave me 30 days to get a job and start making payments. I had been praying before I met with the judge, asking God to be my lawyer, to help me. I had only 30 days and I knew how to get the money from drugs, but I also knew that came with another challenge. If I got caught, I would go back to prison, and if I start using, I would probably die. I got a call from some people I knew from a church in Racine, Wisconsin. They told me they had been praying for me. They got me a job interview at a school. I was saying to myself these people have to have the wrong person (I’m a convicted felon). I was sitting across from a woman at the interview, and I was just about to tell her I had been to prison. She said, “We know who you used to be. But my question is: What are you going to do if we give you a chance?” They hired me as a lunch monitor and to take the kids out to recess. Within two months, I became the gym teacher of the school. Every kid knew my name and I knew every kid’s name in that school. I was actually making a name for myself in a positive way. 

I started playing semi-pro football for the Racine Raiders. I became a personal trainer and got involved with the YMCA Young Leaders Academy. I became a case manager for Safe Haven and Safe Passage runaway shelter. For years I was building up my integrity and credibility. But I still felt like I had a dark cloud over me in Wisconsin, so I moved to Kentucky in 2010. In the beginning, I wasn’t able to find a job working with kids, so I got a job at a gas station. After six months, a police officer walked into the gas station. I said, “Sir, I am looking to work with young people.” I told him my story and he wrote everything down. He said he would get back with me in a week. I didn’t believe him because I was used to being let down. But he actually called me. He asked me to come to a meeting at the police department. I thought they were trying to set me up or I had an old warrant. But I went and he introduced me to a retired police captain who was working with the county attorney as a gang specialist. He said, “I’m getting ready to retire, but I believe I’m not supposed to retire because of you.” It was like God was joining us together at the hip. You have an ex-con, ex-gang member joining with a 40-year veteran of the police force. The captain took me under his wing for a long time. I still worked at the gas station all night; then went to work with the captain as a volunteer during the day. He treated me like a son. He introduced me to his boss, the county attorney, and tried to convince him to hire me but he said no. I didn’t get mad or discouraged. I just kept doing what I was doing, going with the police captain into schools, doing outreach work to prevent violence. 

In 2014, I won a Golden Apple award and the county attorney showed up. We met in his office again but he still wasn’t convinced about hiring me. The captain said he would put his name and career on the line for me because he believed in me. We had prayed a lot together and were spiritually connected. He wholeheartedly wanted to help me with no strings attached. The county attorney told the police captain that he was responsible for me and gave me 99 hours of work per month. God kept His promise to make me new if I would just trust in Him. Months later the county attorney hired me full-time and gave me an office with benefits. That was the first time in my life I had ever had benefits. They were the first ones to adopt the OMAC program I had developed in prison. The purpose of the program is to invest in the lives of troubled youth to promote change. OMAC is implemented in the county jail and the public schools and more. A few months later, a part-time position opened up as a substance abuse violence intervention specialist, and the captain encouraged me to apply. I doubted myself and the captain told me to have faith. God had taken me so far. How could I not apply? There were people with high credentials applying for this position as well. But God says He will put the last first, and I got the job. Four years ago, I got a call from the chief of the police department. He said they had someone retiring in the community service part of the police department and they would like me to fill that position. I hesitated because, where I come from, the police have a stigma attached. I said, “If I take the job the kids won’t trust me anymore.” But if I didn’t take the job, I felt I would be going against God. I decided to take the job and of course I did get push back but it didn’t matter. I just wanted to carry out the mission and the vision that God has given me. 

My faith in God is very powerful. I am an example of what God can do. There is no way I should even be telling this story right now. I should either be dead or locked up for the rest of my life. There had to be a Higher Power to get me out of my situation. My platform to help kids has just gotten bigger. God placed all these things around me for a reason. I used to think I was supposed to die violently in the street, now I just want to live and be a light for others, to witness to others. God motivates me every day to want to keep going. OMAC went from a small piece of paper in a prison cell to helping so many people stay away from crime, drugs, and gangs. This is God’s program not mine.

God is real. God loves us and doesn’t want to hurt us. God has ways of getting our attention. I believe the times I spent in prison, drug houses and gang activity — all of that allowed me to have firsthand experience so that now I can minister to other people about it. If you are going through life and trying to do it on your own, give God a try. What do you have to lose? I knew there were things that were better than what I was doing but I didn’t want to learn. You have to open up your mind and heart. God can help you with that. God will elevate whatever you are doing if you stay obedient. God protected me and covered me. He gave me the vision and He has opened every door along the way to make that vision come to life, even more than I ever imagined. I have learned that God can take pain and turn it into something good. I have learned to never give up, to never doubt that God is good — amazingly good. 

No weapon formed against me shall prosper. (based on the scripture from Isaiah 54:17)

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.

#170 God Knows My Heart

 Photo by Nicole Tarpoff

My parents were divorced when I was 3 years old. My mom was married nine times and we moved every two or three years. I was surrounded by drugs growing up. I was 5 years old the first time I saw cocaine being used. My dad wasn’t involved in my life in a meaningful way, and as time went on he spent less and less time with me. Many times, I can remember having my bag packed and watching for him to come and get me for the weekend and him never showing up. To fill the void, I ran to the streets. I started smoking cigarettes and hanging out with kids that huffed gas and White Out. At about 15 I met a friend who introduced me to alcohol and acid. Our moms would buy us alcohol thinking it was safer for us to drink at home. I needed money to buy a car and went to my dad. He gave me marijuana to sell. I started smoking marijuana with my mom and dad. When I was about 20 I was introduced to cocaine.

In 1998, I had a car wreck while speeding over 120 miles per hour. This is the first time I went to jail, but the charges were dropped. In 1999 I went to jail for possession of marijuana. This was the year my son was born. His mom and I had both been meth users and he had serious health issues from birth. His lungs were not producing oxygen. He was in the hospital for weeks but thankfully he responded well to treatment. We took him home and two hours later Child Protective Services came to our home. We had periodic drug tests after that. In 2000, my son and his mother were in a bad car wreck and she was killed. Miraculously, he only had a few scratches. I wanted to be numb after this. He went to live with his maternal grandmother and that gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, which was to indulge in meth.

I went to prison in 2001 and was in and out of prison for over a decade. During this time, I learned to manufacture meth, and my relationship with my son was non-existent. In 2013, I was put into solitary confinement in prison. There was no window and no interaction with people for five days. It was unbearable. I prayed, “God, if you are real, get me out of this room.” In two days, they moved me to another room with a window. But I felt this was a coincidence. Again, I prayed, “God, if you are real get me out of this jail.” Not even 36 hours later they came to get me and moved me to another jail. There I met a guy who convinced me to read the Bible. I read the Bible for about two weeks and this softened my heart. On August 18, 2013, I cried out to God and received Christ and the Holy Spirit. I had a spiritual experience that night that changed my life. The experience was like liquid love. Everything was broken off of me. I no longer had the desire for drugs after that. Everything was changed. Another inmate said to me, “I’ve never seen a change in anyone like I have seen in you. I want what you have.”

In 2014, I got out of prison in one state but I was facing a 20-year prison sentence in another state. I asked the judge to lessen my bond and he cut my bond amount by 90%—from $10,000 to $1,000. My dad and a friend posted my bond and I was able to spend time in a halfway house and spend some time with my son before going back to prison. My 20-year sentence was cut in half and I began serving my 10 years in July 2015. This was the best time I had ever spent in prison because I went back saved and I met some wonderful people. I witnessed to my roommate and prayed for him and for his release, and he was paroled. In two years, I had the opportunity for parole. Everyone was skeptical because it was so unlikely given my history, but I felt strongly that I would have favor and that they would grant me parole. When I went before the parole board I told them if I was paroled, my plan was to go back to the halfway house. They granted me parole.

 

I spent six months in the halfway house, and as soon as I got out I started going back into the jail to minister. I am now a part of Residents Encounter Christ (REC), an organization that has three-day weekends with inmates to teach them the Good News and bring them into a relationship with Christ. God has prepared me for the ministry I am doing now, offering hope and bringing people to Christ and discipling them. I spend time with the Lord every day. The power of the Holy Spirit is the only way I have the strength to live the life I am living now. It is an honor to bring Him glory and exalt Him.

 

God knows our heart and wants to give us the desires of our heart. He is restoring my relationship with my son. I am so thankful for the many ways God protected him over the years. I can now see all of the little and big things God did to save me and draw me to Him. I’m so thankful for God’s love that is beyond our understanding and that He answered my cries for help and changed me. I am a new creation and His power in me strengthens me every day.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4

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.