BY RICK MILES, GRACE ATTENDER
My story of faith is not an easy one to tell. I began attending Sunday school and church as a child, maybe 7. My mother would get my sister and I up every Sunday morning, and get us on the bus to Manhattan Baptist. We did this every week for almost 2 years. One morning, my sister and I returned home before getting to church, because she was feeling sick. When we walked into our home, our parents yelled us, and told us to go and get back on the bus. There were several other adults in our home, and the air was full of smoke. I came to realize later that they were using church as an excuse to get my sister and I out of the home so they could have a “party.”
Well, we obviously couldn’t get back on the bus, as it had already left, so, my parents made my sister and I sit outside on the porch, while they continued hanging out with their friends. Even at that young age, I’d started to question God, and why he allowed this to happen. Our family was the very definition of poor. Dinner normally consisted of a mystery tin can getting opened and poured into a bowl. To top that off, our parents had three other children younger than we were, that were still in the house, probably locked in a room getting ignored. I can only surmise what was going on, as I don’t know for sure, but, needless to say, it wasn’t long before the state of Florida had informed the rest of our family that if me and my siblings weren’t given another place to live, the state would find one for us. Just based on what had happened that day, and the condition which my sister and I were typically sent to school in, the state believed we’d be better off in Foster Care.
I was lucky. I went to live with my grandmother, who ironically, already had custody of me, due to the young age of my mother when I was born. My sister was also lucky, as she went to live with an aunt. My younger siblings were not so lucky. Their real father had moved back to Massachusetts, and when the state took the children from my mother, then shipped them up there. Eventually, he gave custody of the children to the state of Massachusetts.
In less than a year, my entire family had been torn apart, and were living in different geographical locations throughout the US. Eventually, my youngest 3 siblings were adopted out into a family, and we were told that we’d never be able to see/talk to them again. All of this occurred before I was even 10 years old.
My grandmother was a God-fearing person, but she never went to church. I wasn’t really sure why, but I never really pushed it. I’d lost all interest in going to church, even though it was the one place I felt the safest.
I spent the next 10 years not even thinking about God, unless I was asked to play music at a church service, and even then, it was selfishly because I was looking to get paid. Eventually, I became militant about not believing in God. I’d say things like “well, something created the Earth, but I don’t believe it was God,” or “I don’t have to prove that God doesn’t exist, you have to prove to me that he does.” Friends would even joke that when I drove past a church, I’d better be careful not to burst into flames. Fast-forward several years.
My friend’s daughter was getting baptized at Grace, and she really wanted me to come. I reluctantly agreed, but all I could think about was how boring it was going to be. The night came, and the service was beautiful. I heard her speak such kind words about how great God was, and how she was ready to surrender her life to Jesus. I chuckled inside, but I was polite on the outside. From that night on, our friends continued to invite us for church, and we would politely decline most times, but would end up coming one or two more times before we stopped completely.
After my son went to high school, we met another family. Their oldest child was in band with my child, and for some reason, had taken a liking to him. They became instant friends. I also served on the booster board for the band, and ended up becoming friends with this kids parents. We would continually joke about the pains of being a band parent, and all that it entailed. None of knew how much of our life would be consumed with this activity, but, it brought me closer to a new set of people.
At the end of the marching season, the mom said to me, “I’m glad this season is over. I really need to get Jesus back into my life.” I smiled, and said “OK.” She then asked if we would want to come to church with their family. I hesitated, because the last time did nothing really for me. But, with the promise of a family meal afterwards, I couldn’t resist.
I’m not really sure what happened to me that night. It was a Saturday night, in Oct 2015, and that’s all I really remember. The entire congregation was standing and singing, and all I could think was “How embarrassing…you’ll never catch me singing these nonsensical songs.”, but I continued to stand, and if anything, was at least enjoying the music, even if I didn’t listen to the words.
That night, Dave Rodriguez was preaching, and I was half listening. All I could think about was that pizza I was going to eat later. Then, almost without explanation, I looked up at Dave on the stage, and it felt like he was looking directly at me. To paraphrase Dave that night, “Someone out there tonight is looking for a reason to surrender their life to Christ. What are you waiting for?”
My body got chills. It was as if Dave was inside of my head and heart, and said exactly what I needed to hear. And I swear, he was looking right at me when he said it. I had no ideas of becoming a “religious” person, but, for some reason, that night…
Our “host” family had asked if we had a good time, and I said we did, but I couldn’t shake the image of Dave for the next few days. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. We were invited back again, and we accepted.
The next weekend, we came back. Everyone around me continued to sing, and I was at least tapping my foot to the beat. It was progress.
Barry Rodriguez was preaching this weekend. He was a young, energetic guy, and I really felt like I connected to him. Fortunately for me, my 15-year-old son, also felt a connection. He went on and on about how cool Barry was. My son and I were having a LOT of issues at this point, and I couldn’t keep him focused on anything other than his cell phone and video games. He’d gained a reputation as a funny kid, which I came to find out meant he used a lot of profanity. I remember that sermon, as if it was almost written for me. It was entitled “Is God Real?”
We’d attended sporadically for the remainder of the year, and then my son asked if we could go to church again. I said “sure,” still not absolutely convinced why. That night, the sermon was delivered by Corinne Gunter, and it was entitled “I Will…Work on My Family.” That was one too many signs to ignore. I’d begun to recognize many of the behaviors in my life that was ashamed of, and would be completely horrified to have anyone outside of my house discover them. Let’s call this my “a-ha” moment.
I remembered the love I’d had for Christ as a kid. I remembered the great joy I’d experienced singing “Jesus Loves Me.” I’d started to wondering if my family deserved a shot at knowing the love of Christ, even if I was still sort of skeptical.
I began to understand that my life was not filled with “coincidences” or “Karma.” It was God. Over the 40 years I’d been out of the church, I’d remembered little things that had happened in my life, and I had come to believe that it was God at work in my life, even if I didn’t know it. I was like a puppet, and every few years, he’d move my strings around, and when I wasn’t ready, he’d just “come back another time.”
We’ve been at Grace consistently for a year now. I’ve met some wonderful people along the way that have prayed for me and tried to make sure that I understood that God loved me. I went from making fun of the people singing around me, singing at the top of my lungs now. I no longer feel ashamed, and my faith is growing stronger by the day. And I have to give thanks to Melody Boyer, who for some reason, took an interest in my story, and has talked and shared with me so many times. It was Mel who convinced me that I was worthy of God’s love. She even had a hand in convincing me to get baptized. I feel like I have a friend for life in Mel, and she is someone that God put in my life for a reason.
I actually thanked our “host” family one night after service, and she looked at me and said “You were my ‘1’.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but she went on to explain that Dave had preached recently on finding your ‘1’ and inviting them to church. She said she knew I was her one from the moment she heard Dave say it. She looked me directly in the eye and said “The funny part, is that you didn’t need convincing. I asked, and you showed up.”
She then told me, “And your son…was my son’s ‘1’.” I don’t know if they saw a broken family, or, if they just saw a family that needed a push, but I am so grateful to them for asking us to join them. My life has changed in so many ways, that I cannot begin to even share it all.
All I can say is that I’m glad I was the ‘1.’
God is good.