Last month, my wife was organizing a room filled with junk in our house. Often these attempts to declutter just spread junk from one room to others throughout my house. Yet, sometimes items surface during these purges that remind me of important events in my life.
Someone took this picture of me twenty years ago while speaking at a Youth for Christ fundraiser. It was the first time I spoke in public. I was sharing how I came to Christ with a small crowd, maybe 20-30 people. As I spoke, I felt God’s spirit animating my words. This was the first time I can recall God empowering me in this way. If you told me twenty years ago that I would speak for God as my full-time job, I would’ve laughed in your face.
Looking back on my life, God has led me through a circuitous path to bring me where I’m at today. I grew up in Chicago during the ‘90s. At a very young age, my teachers noticed that I had behavioral issues. I defied my teachers. I would often get into fights with other students. Things got so bad, I had been expelled from two elementary schools before entering 5th grade.
I had trouble making friends at school, so I started hanging out with some older neighborhood kids who were part of a street gang. My association with them gave me the respect and admiration for which I was yearning. Eventually, I joined the gang and started getting into a lot of trouble. People at school started treating me different after hearing stories of what I was doing on the streets.
Although I made lots money selling drugs and built a reputation in my neighborhood, my lifestyle caused me to do things I never thought I would do. Me and my friend committed a string of armed robberies. This all ended when I robbed a gas station in my neighborhood. Little did I know, this gas station had been robbed about a dozen times within a three year period. As a result, the gas clerk hid a pistol under the counter. After we grabbed the cash out of the register, me and my friend ran out of the gas station. As we were running away, we heard gunshots. When I looked back, I saw the silhouette of the clerk taking aim at us. I fired a couple shots at him and quickly ducked into an an alley. Immediately, police cruisers flooded the neighborhood looking for us. After a few hours of running and hiding in gangways and people’s backyards, the police arrested us. I was fourteen years old.
The district attorney charged me and my friend with armed robbery and aggravated assault. Luckily, I was facing these charges as a juvenile. A year earlier, the state of Illinois started charging violent juvenile offenders as adults if they were fifteen or older. I was two weeks away from my fifteenth birthday. At sentencing, my lawyer told me that I was incredibly lucky. If I robbed this gas station two weeks later, I would have spent fifteen years in prison. My friend wasn’t as fortunate. He was sixteen when we got arrested. He served seven years in prison.
I spent the next two years in a juvenile corrections center in Illinois. Those years were the darkest, loneliest and most difficult years of my life. One night in a moment of desperation, I remember calling out to God while I was in solitary confinement. I plead with God. “God if you are out there please help me!” I quickly forgot about that prayer and time passed.
Upon my release, my parents wanted to get me away from my friends. So they decided to move to Columbus, Ohio. It felt as if they were throwing a dart at a map blindfolded because we didn’t have family or friends in Columbus. They reasoned with themselves, “How could he possibly get in trouble in Columbus Ohio?” Of course, they underestimated my ability to find trouble. About a year later, the police arrested me for two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
As I was awaiting trial in the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center, a Youth for Christ chaplain started talking to me about God. I was standoffish at first. I grew up Catholic, but lost my faith in middle school. But he was persistent. He showed me Old Testament passages that predicted aspects of Jesus’ life and death. He asked me if I would read a book, which contained evidence for Christianity. It was entitled, Christianity: The Faith that Makes Sense. I quickly read it and became convinced that Christianity was true.
One day, as the Chaplain and I were talking, he asked, “Where are you spiritually?” I didn’t understand the question, so I said, “good.” He sensed my confusion, so asked, “Have you decided to trust Jesus and ask that His death to cover your sins?” I told him I hadn’t. He said, “Do you want to do that right now?” I was ready. I was tired of my life. I was tired of running away from God. I was tired of trying to make things in my life work without him. When I prayed for God to enter my life, a sense of peace came over me. My circumstances didn’t change, but I felt like God filled the emptiness in my life.
I lost touch with the chaplain during my eighteen-month sentence. Days after my release, I got a phone call. It was the chaplain. He invited me to come to a lecture about the Bible down on the Ohio State University campus. I had nothing better to do since I was on parole, so I agreed to go.
As I sat through the teaching, I was blown away by how clear and relevant the Bible was spoke to my life. I liked it so much I went to a home church meeting that same week. As it turned out, the guy who taught the large meeting attended that home church. Afterward, I introduced myself and told him my story. We quickly became friends and he began to mentor me spiritually.
Two months later while I was cleaning my room, I found the book the Youth for Christ chaplain gave to me while I was in the Juvenile Detention Center. I looked at the back cover and noticed it contained a picture of the author. It was a younger version of the guy mentoring me. I couldn’t believe it.
I immediately drove to my friend’s office and burst through his door. Breathless, I said, “I want to let you know that if you didn’t write this book (clutching it in my hand) I don’t know if I would be alive today. I know lots of people have probably told you that, but I mean it.”
He looked at me and responded in a shrill voice, “Cooool!”
Ignoring his strange response, I said, “Look, I want to ask you one question. Did you ever think while writing this book that it would reach someone like me in the darkest place that I wouldn’t wish on any person?”
He looked at me and said, “I wrote it for ordinary people, just like you.”
Disbelief hung from my face. I turned around and walked out of the room in shock. God made it clear to me that day that he was calling me to live for him.
As I reflect back on my life, I have a growing sense that God has been directing my life. He has shaped me both by the people he has placed in my life and the hardships he has allowed to enter my life. God has been preparing me for what he would call me to do: speak for him. I’m truly a trophy of God’s grace and love.
“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10).