by Kay Etheredge
The August sun glares through the open blinds as a young couple pulls up to park just outside. They are young and attractive and she locks her purse in the trunk and they run across the street. I wonder where they are going and I think about how every one of us has something that we lock away like that purse—fiercely guarded and hidden away from view. Christian author Sara Hagerty says there are two stories inside every person—the visible story and the invisible story. So many of us lock away in the dark our invisible stories and carry the visible ones—the ones we think are okay—into our church pews on Sunday or onto social media sites or anywhere else that we want to be viewed as acceptable. We tuck our brokenness away like a secret and trust that nobody will ever know.
The refreshing thing about the men who come through the doors of Brother Bryan Mission is that they wear their brokenness like a torn and soiled garment because usually they are tired of pretending. And the God who makes beauty from grimy ashes is the One who can take those soiled, ragged garments and turn them into garments of praise. Ray (not his real name) describes his story as “happily ever after”. When I looked into his eyes, piercing and blue, they avoided mine. As he began to tell me his story I understood why he felt insecure. After completing the program at Brother Bryan Mission he is finally coming to believe the truth that he has a father who calls him beloved.
Ray grew up locally and lived mostly with his grandmother. His mother had a drug addiction and his grandfather was an alcoholic who lived across the street. His father lived in another state. His grandmother, kind and godly, still cared for her husband even though he wasn’t allowed to attend family gatherings and she always sent Ray across the street to take him a plate of food. On one of those visits, when he was around 16 years old, he found his grandfather’s lifeless body on the floor—the grandfather who’d taken him fishing lay dead on the floor right across the street—and one of many huge holes was blown in Ray’s soul.
Ray hated school, mainly because he had to walk right past a neighbor’s house where a bully taunted him. All these years later he winced when he described how it hurt to be called “white trash” all because he didn’t have the right brand of sneakers or the right kind of clothes and he was also teased because he was chubby. He says he dreaded the parent nights at school or the times when a parent was supposed to come to the classroom. He knew that either his grandmother would come, a sure sign to everyone that he was “different” or that his mother would come and be messed up on drugs and whenever he saw her walk in his heart filled with dread and how is it possible that we spend so much time trying to fit in and look the same and not stand out when God created each and every beautiful and different detail? If we could only understand as children and maybe even adults that the bullies in life are so afraid themselves; they’re dealing with their own hurts and fears and it is so much easier to throw weighted words as weapons than to look our own insecurities squarely in the eye.
Ray’s testimony reads like so many others…words like neglect, instability, insecurity, deception, and empty promises fill the page and how we all long to know stability and promises kept and attention and love. But we live in a sin cursed world and people are sinners and we are let down and we let down repeatedly, and drugs and alcohol become outlets that many turn to when they want to either be somebody or maybe when they want to disappear. The drugs and alcohol grab hold and enslave and before long it’s hard to remember that we’ve ever breathed anything that wasn’t stagnant. That’s where Ray found himself—living out of wedlock with a new baby and the baby’s mother and using drugs and selling them out of their house—and he had been in and out of jail “more times than I could count”. It’s funny how we listen to the hissed lies long enough that we start believing them and Ray told me that he believed for years that he deserved whatever bad things happened because, after all, that’s what happens to white trash.
In February of 2017, Ray showed up in the lobby of Brother Bryan Mission where he came at 8 am sharp for three days in a row. As he waited he observed and listened to what was going on around him and he knew that this place was special. He was finally given a bed and through weeks of meetings with Chaplain Don Steele and reading the living Word of God, he gave his life to Christ.
Ray’s grandmother told him once, “I hope I live to see you straightened out”. She lives nearby but struggles with dementia. The last time he visited, she didn’t know who he was. In an ideal world, she would have enough lucidity, even for a moment, to know that he knows the Lord and “got himself straightened out” but if she never knows that here, Ray knows that they will be reunited in Heaven. His mom is now free from addiction as well, and the bully down the street recently sent Ray a Facebook friend request. When Ray accepted, the former bully wrote paragraphs to him in the way of explaining/apologizing for his behavior as a boy. And forgiven and redeemed Ray forgave him, even though he said, “He’ll never know all the deep hurt he caused me”. Not everyone gets to experience so many happy endings, and God who calls Himself the Word is the Author of our every story. We have a God who never gives up and who sees a way through every wilderness.
I asked Ray what is different about him now…how he has been changed in the deep hidden places inside—in his invisible story. He hesitated, thinking about his answer, then began to quote Jeremiah 29:11 from memory. “I now believe that God doesn’t want bad things to happen to me and I’m not white trash and He has a plan for me”. As he spoke I noticed that he held his head higher and he had a different demeanor and said what he said with great confidence. And when he gave me his bold answer, I noticed that he was looking me straight in the eye.