Sunday was an awesome time at Joe’s. We opened up the mike for people to share some of their testimony—their story of what God is doing in their life. My next few blog entries will be about these stories. I hope you enjoy hearing the things that God is doing in Valleybrook!
The first man who came forward is a resident at the “sex offender trailer park.” (There is a trailer park here that serves as a half-way house for sex offenders who have just been released from prison or are on probation. The restrictions placed upon where they can live are very narrow, and this particular location meets those requirements.)
Carl began his story by telling us that for his whole life (over 50 years), he has considered himself a “nihilist.” He went on to explain his definition of “nihilism” by this illustration. He said, “If I were working at a counter, and a customer came to me complaining of my service and asked if they could speak to my “superior,” my response would be, “You can speak to my “supervisor,” but there is no one on this earth that is superior to me.”
He also described himself as having many material things. He had an abundance of the physical things that life can afford. His life was controlled by himself. Until… he found himself in a criminal relationship with a minor.
When his crime was discovered, he lost everything–his home, his material possessions, his family relationships, his pets. He was devastated. He seriously contemplated committing suicide. After a day away from the hotel he was staying in, he returned to find that all the money he had in the world had been stolen from him.
In panic, rage, confusion, desperation, he went into a big church. He told us that before that day, he had never prayed in his whole life. He had been in church on several occasions, and when the man up front asked everyone to bow their heads for prayer, he did. But just waited until the man said “Amen,” then he opened his eyes. He had never actually prayed.
This day, there in the church, he began to pray, but surprisingly he was not praying for himself. It was the first time that he cared more about the other people in his life than himself. He prayed for his parents, for his wife, for his daughter, the people who had been most wounded by his actions. He felt the shame and humiliation that they were experiencing and asked that God would help them.
Then he felt as if God was saying to him, “You cannot run away from what you did. You must go back and face it.”
The half-way house in our neighborhood has a six-month waiting list, but somehow his probation officer was able to get him in within two days of his sentencing. Two hours after being dropped off there, Carl walked through the door of Joe’s Addiction.
His description of that night is everything that we hope for in the dream of this ministry! He said that when he walked in the shop, every head turned toward him and smiled. John and I were working Joe’s that evening, and I will never forget it. Several people said, “Hi, welcome,” to him. A smile spread immediately and broadly across his face. He came in, took off his coat, ordered a bottomless cup of joe and sat down at a table. We had no idea what was going on in his mind at the time, of course.
Sunday he told everyone that when he walked through that door, he knew that here was a place where he was welcome, a place where people would not care who he was or what he had done, a place where he could be a part of a community. He said he didn’t know what it was about the place and the people, but he just knew he wanted to be there all the time! He even has written a short essay on his first three days of experiencing Joe’s Addiction called, “A Most Remarkable Place.” (The next entry on this page.)
Carl has been “hanging out” at Joe’s every day since. He brings his computer and sits for hours, writing essays and stories and applying for jobs. He always orders a bottomless cup of joe.
The week of Christmas, we had a special Christmas program performed on the stage at Joe’s. John and I were sitting there enjoying the program and the crowd filling up the place, when Carl came in. He rushed over to us, not even bothering to take off his hat or coat, and dropped down to his knees on the floor beside me. His face was red from the cold walk up from the trailer park, but his eyes were flashing with excitement and intense emotion. He said, “I have to tell you about something!”
The men at this half-way house are required to attend a weekly Bible study, and most of them (if they even show up) just put in their time sitting quietly until they are “released” from the hour of obligation. Carl was sitting in this Bible study, not really listening to the man speaking, but contemplating the devastation of his life, mulling over the loss, the pain, the seemingly irreparable damage that he had done. And he was angry.
He had been awaiting a hearing, in which a judge would decide whether or not he could move out of this trailer park (in which he is living not in a mobile home, but a travel trailer–in the dead of winter!) and move in with his sister (who is willing for him to live with her). He couldn’t wait to get out of that place. Not only is it cold, but many of the other men are using drugs, have poor hygiene, and are even violent. It is not a pleasant place to be.
He was supposed to have had the hearing that week, but for some unknown reason, the judge had pushed the hearing back a month and a half. In frustration he thought, “God, why did you allow my hearing to get moved?” Immediately he had this awareness that God had moved it. Of course his next thought was, “What?! Why?!” Then in the quiet of the next few moments, he looked around the room at the group of men. He described them to us as “zombies.”
Most of these men do not know what to do with themselves after they are released from prison. They don’t know how to go about getting a job, they don’t know how to fill out applications, go to interviews, follow up with phone calls, etc. This all contributes to the depression that they are already experiencing, and most of them go back to their “old life,” rather than taking advantage of the new path that presents itself.
It those few moments, Carl actually saw these men. Kneeling there on the floor next to me at Joe’s, he gushed, “I am a teacher! . . . I know how to do all these things! I can teach them how to do life! I have skills!” He said, “I know this sounds strange, but I think God has been in this whole mess that I have made of my life. He now has me in a place where I can help other people!! Had I never screwed things up so badly, I would never have even considered helping! He has given me a purpose!”
His eyes bright with tears and face glowing, he told us that he had gone to the man in charge and asked if he could hold some classes for the men. He was told that they don’t really have a classroom space where he could do that.
BUT WE DO!! We have “The Kitchen Table,” our community center space that is just waiting to be used to hold these kinds of classes! I immediately told Carl that he can hold the classes here!
Carl got a job this week, so we aren’t seeing him quite as much, but he still comes to Joe’s every day. Yesterday Carl came to me with a packet of curriculum that he has written to begin these classes. He asked if we knew where he could find a used white board to put in our “classroom.” (There’s a need perhaps one of you could meet.) Then he told me that he had contacted the Health Department to see what they might have available to help the men in the way of hygiene. Most of these guys come out of prison with only the clothes on their back. He had just received a call that they had 50 toothbrushes and 50 tubes of toothpaste for him to pick up. Again, his face was beaming as he told me of his amazement that God might use him in this way.
He said, “I don’t know why I’m so emotional these days. I just feel overwhelmed.” He got a job, he has a place to stay, and the propane tank that runs his heater should have run out a long time ago, but it hasn’t. He said, “I think God must be sustaining my propane, because I don’t have the money to pay for more.” He said he asked God, “Why are you blessing me so much?” I asked him if he heard God answer him, and he looked at me kind of startled. After a moment, he said, “Well, yes I did. God said, “I’m giving you what you need to do the job that I have for you to do.”
Carl pulled me aside after his “testimony” on Sunday. He quietly told me that he wants me to understand that he doesn’t really want to call himself a “Christian” at this point. I told him that was okay, we aren’t concerned about terms. He said, “I’ve been living 50 years of my life entirely for myself. That’s a long time. I know how to do that. I am starting to live a different way now, not for myself, but for others. It’s new to me. It’s a way that I want to go. I think I’m going a new way. But I don’t want to start calling myself something, until I’m really sure that I am actually able to go this new direction.”
I laughed and patted his shoulder. It doesn’t matter what we call it. Carl has and is “repenting.” He used to be walking one direction–living for himself, living a life of sin. Now he wants to walk the Jesus Way, the way of loving God and loving his neighbors. The how’s of this path that we are on are not defined from the outset of the walk. It is a daily, step by step journey of walking in relationship with Him and with those around us. Carl has just begun the journey!
(Carl’s name has been changed to respect his privacy.)