As a young family in the 1980’s we struggled. We lived in a small camper-sized trailer. My brother and I learned English quickly but adapting to American culture took many years. My family emigrated from South India. We didn’t understand much of American culture and were naïve to the realities of the drastically different worldview. We were poor. We prayed often for miraculous interventions of food and toys. On more than one occasion provisions were mysteriously dropped off at our door. My brother and I didn’t realize how poor we were. That reality didn’t hit until our first semester at public school. Most of my classmates avoided me like I had a communicable disease.
My mom was pregnant with our first sister. Her pregnancy, I later learned, went well for the first few months. Then the problems with her blood pressure began and doctors urged her to have a premature delivery. She did and our first little sister entered the world two months earlier than expected. The doctors explained her enlarged bowel area as an undeveloped liver. I really didn’t know what that meant, but we dealt with the medical issues heartily for a full three years. Every weekend we took the two-hour drive to visit her at the hospital in Galveston, TX. Finally, she did come home for a short period of time but within a few months we were back to regular visits to the hospital. We enjoyed her laughs, her uniquely cute smile, and her victory over so many medical battles. Time and time again the doctors gave up hope and God intervened because of my mom and dad’s prayers.
Then the sky fell. In the dark morning hours of that dreadful day I heard my mom scream. I jolted up and out of my top bunk bed. I rushed into her room to find her wailing with grief as dad hung up the phone. Having never seen such an emotional outburst from either parent, my brother and I waited for an explanation. Standing fearfully in our pajamas, we heard the wounding words that my sister Peace had died a few moments earlier. Our family of four kneeled around my parent’s bed and did the one thing we knew to do. We prayed. We pleaded. We cried. After praying we hurriedly grabbed our clothes and rushed out the door. In times past we would enjoy the water front view of the Gulf of Mexico during our drive and play at the back of the Ferry ship as we sailed into the island. On that cold morning, however, we cried and sat silently waiting for the reality of what had happened to be realized. A police officer pulled us over for speeding. My dad was irate and attempted to communicate to the him why we were in a rush. He succeeded and we arrived at the hospital aided by a police escort. As the main lobby doors of the hospital rolled back, I remembered the story of Lazarus in the Bible. It must have been a scene similar to this one. Jesus went to one of His most loved friends. Three days after he had died, Jesus raised him up. Maybe this would be a miracle of the same nature, I thought persuading my little mind. Jesus surely would do it again.
My parents went into the room. From my four-foot height the doors seemed enormous. My brother and I walked in and I remember seeing them pull back a curtain. Peace, my three year old sister, lay there still and sound asleep. I didn’t understand what was really happening. She was only asleep. Just like Jesus said about Lazarus, “ he’s only asleep…” I approached her bed and placed my little fingers delicately on her soft and cooled forehead. She was not there. I stared at her. This was her body but she wasn’t in it. I thought I had cried all the tears I had on the two-hour drive, but the wells of sorrow erupted from deep within me. We prayed to the only One who could keep this from happening. We prayed and God did not answer.
Like a predetermined course of events my world moved from that day to the next in a dream-like trance. The hope of happiness and a sense of normalcy were consumed by a great sadness. I was no longer a naive child. I don’t remember the funeral. I don’t remember the burial. Within a week I was back in school. In my small class of sixteen I was the shortest and shyest. On that first day, I literally could not think about anything else but the great sadness in my heart. Arriving at the school, I walked up the stairway toward my class with my head bowed low. As expected, kids were seated outside their classes lining the hallway. I walked down the center and they all peered up at me. I didn’t like the attention. I made it to my classroom door and there stood my teacher. She looked compassionately at me, placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry, Stephen.” I turned and bolted back down the hallway and into the boy’s bathroom. I cried, and cried, and cried. Crouched in the corner of the bathroom I began to ask the questions that come with every tragedy. What kind of a God would allow this to happen to me? He was supposed to keep evil from happening. What kind of country am I in? What kind of people would allow this to happen? My parents, burdened with the loss of a child, the weight of poverty, and running a new church tried to help my brother and I as much as they could. But it wasn’t enough. None of us knew what to do.
Later that day my teacher handed me an orange little book. “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” was the enlarged title printed on the plastic cover. I pulled back the hardback cover and glanced at the first page. I gazed at it blankly wondering what answers this children’s book could possibly offer. Later I read that book over and over again. The gift was a sincere attempt to help me cope with the loss of my sister. It helped a little, but I had hoped for a miracle and lost my ability to hope. The book didn’t address the pain that had been permanently thrust into my soul. Slowly time muted the anguish, but my wound grew deeper and evolved from grief to anger. I was broken. I feared relationships. I believed the lie that if I got close to anyone, then there was a chance that I could be hurt again. I resolved to never again open the door of relationships. That door remained shut tight and my depression grew. From the third grade to the fourth grade and well into my freshman year of high school I repeatedly shut down the emotions in my heart. My solitude consumed me for years. Content with my lonely identity, I dressed in dark colors and spoke very little.
Before Peace’s death, my dad got a job as a missions pastor for a large church in our area. The senior pastor befriended my dad. We had a few good years at his church and then with the loss of his job, my dad ventured out to pastor a small church in the quaint town of Bridge City. We were the only non-Caucasian family in the town. I didn’t realize it at that time, but the harshness of racism affirmed the wound in my heart. God did not care and neither did anyone else. My family took some of the most bigoted treatment from supposed “Christian” people. Those pre-teen and teenage years of bitterness darkened my soul.
Suicide became a common thought. I saw the shrewdness of church people and the struggles we faced year after year to make a living. I watched Christian families do malicious things to my parents. From church splits, to betrayals, to racism, to blatant manipulation, each year passed methodically killing what little hope I had of happiness.
My dad was a hard worker and he taught us to work. On the weekends we tended to the needs of the small church facility. As a sixth grader I buried myself in work. From studying to cutting grass, to menial chores around the house or church, I worked to keep my mind occupied. In my free time I would find a dark corner in my room and simply sit pondering the great sorrow within me. My parents knew something was wrong but they really didn’t know what else to do. All they knew to do was pray. At times my mom would prayerfully enter my bedroom at night. I would feign sleeping as she stood by my bed with her had stretched out over me in prayer. Convinced that prayers were powerless, I ignored her words.
Entering my junior high years, I increasingly became angry. I wasn’t violent but I felt a deep seething rage inside and I knew it was directed at one person- God. I sat Sunday after Sunday listening to my dad preach hundreds of sermons. As a teenager my weekends were not restful. On Saturdays my practice was to wake up early, go outside and cut the grass. I regularly would find our front yard littered with trash. Beer bottles, fast food remnants, dirty diapers and other things would be scattered throughout our lawn. My brother and I would go out and pick it up. I had no idea why all the trash so frequently appeared in only our yard. Then a little neighbor kid told me. He lived a few streets behind us. He knowledgeably informed us, “It’s because ya’ll ain’t white. That’s why peoples throw their trash in your yard.” With that statement I realized this wasn’t a game. I didn’t hate white people. The few I knew didn’t really know much about me, or my family. No one knew of the hell we had endured. My resolve to not trust or get close to people was affirmed. I struggled in my grades. I believed a lie that I wasn’t very smart. I brought home my first C in the third grade and from that time forward I felt I was not as smart as my classmates.
In 1994 I turned sixteen. I knew this was supposedly a big birthday event for most Americans, but in my house it just meant we had a cake. I still felt the weight of a deep depression constantly pressing on my shoulders. Many times someone would attempt to engage me in conversation and I would stare blankly at them thinking, “If I tell you what I really think, then you will get to know who I am and then you may hurt me.” So I would just sit silently. My mom tried so avidly to make us happy, but to no avail. In the summer of the same year my brother and I were introduced to a small youth group whose pastor was a friend of my dad. They invited us to a youth camp called Youth for the Nations. The church group had a few cute girls in it and, in all honesty, that was the only appealing thing about the youth camp idea. We ventured out on a humid summer day in July toward a week that would transform my life.
We arrived at the campus of Christ for the Nations in Dallas. The youth group, of which I did not want to be identified with, was about fifteen kids. We were placed in a dorm room and given strict orders on camp rules and such matters. The evening rolled around and I wearily went to the first night’s event. The speaker was Greg Johnson. After a time of some music, which was too loud, and a skit, Greg stepped up to the stage. I had never heard of Greg Johnson, but I was pretty sure he was going to preach one of a thousand sermons that I had heard before. So I proceeded to do what I normally did during a church service. I daydreamed. I thought, “why am I here? I don’t even like these girls. They sure don’t like me.” I looked up at the white tiled ceiling and started to count the squares. After an exhaustive time of counting, the guy was still preaching. He made a joke. No one laughed and for another forty minuets it went on. There were about a thousand teens in the room it seemed. “What makes this camp such a big thing,” I thought. Then Greg said, “Listen to me, some of you have been fighting suicide, you have fought God, and you are angry with Him…” And on he went to fully describe the condition of the great depression and anger in my soul. I peered at him critically resisting his words. “He doesn’t know what I have gone through,” I thought. “But God sees you, “ Greg replied, as if he was reading my mind. He caught my attention and then called for everyone who wanted to “surrender to Jesus” to come forward. I sat silently in my chair. I had heard this speech a hundred times. I stood up to get a better view and he called again saying, “Come, and give your life to Jesus.” Not really thinking through what I was doing I slowly made my way to the front. When I reached the left side of the platform I stood defiantly looking up. For the first time in years I called out, “Jesus, if you really want me, I have nothing to give to you.” With that confession I knelt down under the full weight of oppression on my heart. In a moment I literally felt my heart’s pain intensifying. The loss, the betrayal, the wounds all came to a culmination of pain. Then in a moment a powerful sensation of heat, like a blanket, fell on my back. The weight of that darkness dissipated under a familiar and healing heat. I slowly lifted my head to find that I was bowing at the feet of Jesus. There, right before me, He stood. It was Jesus. “Stephen,” he said, “Before you were formed in your mother’s womb I called you and ordained you a prophet to the nation. Follow me.” I replied, “God, I don’t have anything to give to you.” He simply commanded, “Follow me.” I could not see His face. I could only glimpse his feet through the intense light that emanated from His being. In that moment he untwisted all my darkness and fused into me His very Spirit. Tears poured down my face for what seemed like hours. My body began to tremble as I was bowed low before Him. All my pent up rage had been against a Jesus whom I had created in my anger. The Jesus standing before me was not the one that I had so bitterly accused in my thoughts. When I saw Him, I knew that I wanted to be with Him and I was willing to give my life for Him. He gladly accepted my broken excuse-for-a-life. As the evening event closed out, it seemed like I came back to the real world and I slowly stood to find that most of the auditorium was empty. A few teens and leaders wandered around. As I turned around, for the first time in years, I felt alive. I felt as though I had awakened from years of hopelessness. A season of pain and fear closed and a new journey began as I stepped out of the darkness.