We were a young family in the 1980’s struggling to forge a living in a small camper-sized trailer. My brother and I learned English quickly but adapting to American culture took time. My family emigrated from South India. We didn’t understand much of the culture and were naïve to the realities of a drastically different world. We were poor. We prayed often for miraculous interventions of food or 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 the first semester of public school. Most of my classmates avoided me like a disease.
A few years after our arrival in the US, my mom was pregnant with our first sister. Her pregnancy, I later learned, went well for the first few months. Then difficulties with her blood pressure began and doctors urged her to endure a premature delivery. She did and our little sister entered the world two months earlier than expected. Doctors explained her enlarged bowel area as an undeveloped liver. I really didn’t know what it meant, but we dealt with the medical issues heartily for a full three years. Every weekend we made the two-hour drive to visit her at the government-funded hospital in Galveston, TX. Finally, she came home for a short period of time but within months, we were back to regular medical monitoring. We enjoyed her laughs, her uniquely cute smile, and her victory over so many physical battles. Time and time again the doctors gave up hope and God intervened because of 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 dreadful words that our sister had died a few moments earlier. My parents, brother, and younger sister 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 ocean view of the gulf 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. A police officer pulled us over for speeding. My dad was irate and attempted to communicate to him the reason for our urgency. 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. Maybe this would be a miracle of the same nature, I thought to persuade my little mind. Jesus surely could do it again.
My parents went into the room first. From my four-foot height, the room door seemed gigantic. My brother and I stepped in and I remember watching them pull back a sheet that covered our her. Peace, my three-year-old friend, and sister lay there in sleep-like stillness. I didn’t understand what was really happening. “She is only asleep,” I thought to myself. Just like Jesus said about Lazarus. I approached her bed and placed my little fingers delicately on her soft and cooled brow. She was not there. I stared at her. There rested her body but she was not present. 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 He did not answer.
In the days ahead I felt as if I was in a dream-like numbing trance. The hope of happiness and a sense of normal were consumed by great sorrow. 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 pain in my soul.
The following week I had to return to school. I walked up the stairway toward my class with my head bowed low. Kids were seated outside their classes lining the hallway. As I passed by each student their discussions silenced. A few looked 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 immediately turned and bolted down the hallway 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 follow every tragedy. What kind of a God would allow this to happen to me? Wasn’t He supposed to keep evil from happening? What kind of country am I in? What kind of people would allow this to happen?
Later that day my teacher handed me a little orange book. “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” was the title printed on the plastic cover. I gazed at it blankly wondering what answers this kid’s book could possibly offer. Later I read it over and over again. The gift was a sincere attempt to help me cope with my loss. It helped a little, but I had hoped for a miracle and as a result, lost my ability to hope. The book didn’t address the pain that had been permanently stabbed into my soul. Slowly time muted the anguish, but my wound grew deeper and mutated from grief to anger. I was broken. I feared friendships. I believed the lie that if I got too close to anyone, there was a chance that I could lose them. I resolved to never again open the door of heartfelt affection. That door remained tightly shut and my depression grew. From the third grade to the fourth grade and well into my freshman year of high school I repeatedly locked in the emotions in my heart. My solitude consumed me. Content with my lonely identity, I dressed in dark colors and spoke very little. My parents, burdened with the loss of a child, the weight of poverty, and running a new church tried to help my brother and me as much as they could. But it wasn’t enough. None of us knew what to do.
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 maliciously wound my parents. From church splits to betrayals, to racism, to blatant manipulation, each year passed methodically smashing 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 our small church facility. I buried myself in work. 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 didn’t know what 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 hands stretched out over me in prayer. Convinced that prayers were powerless, I ignored her words.
Entering my high school years, I became increasingly angry. I wasn’t physically violent but I felt a deep seething rage inside and I knew it was directed at one person- Jesus. I sat Sunday after Sunday listening to my dad preach hundreds of sermons.
Those years were far from normal. I remember that I dreaded Saturdays. I woke to the regular practice of cutting the grass. I would often find our front yard littered with trash. Beer bottles, fast food remnants, dirty diapers, and other things would be scattered throughout our lawn. I had no idea why all the trash so frequently appeared in our yard alone. Then a neighboring kid told me the reason. He lived a few streets behind us. He sharply enlightened me by saying, “It’s because ya’ll ain’t white. That’s why people are throw-in trash in your yard.” His statement awakened me to crude reality of racism. I didn’t hate white people. The few I knew didn’t know much about me or my family. No one knew of the Hell we’d endured. My resolve to not trust people was again reinforced. I struggled in my grades. I believed a lie that I wasn’t as smart as all the other kids. That lie plagued me throughout high school.
In 1994 I turned sixteen. I knew this was supposedly a big birthday event for most Americans, but at my home, it just meant we had a cake. I still felt the weight of a depression constantly pressing on my shoulders. My mom tried so eagerly to make us happy but to no avail. In the summer of that year, my brother and I were introduced to a small youth group. The group’s pastor was my dad’s friend. They invited us to a camp called Youth for the Nations. The church group had a few cute girls in it and that was the only appeal about the 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 consisted of fifteen kids. We were placed in a dorm room and given strict guidelines concerning camp rules. The evening rolled around and I wearily went to the first night’s event. The speaker was Gregg Johnson. After a time of some music, which was too loud, and a skit, Gregg stepped up to the stage. I had never heard of him, but I was convinced 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 church services. 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, I began to listen to his message. There were about a thousand teens in that room it seemed. “What makes this camp such a big thing,” I thought to myself. Then Gregg snapped me out of my monologue. “Listen to me,” he said, “some of you have been fighting suicide, you have fought God, and you are angry with Him…” He continued fully describing the condition of the great wound and anger in my soul. I looked intently at him from my back row seat and resisted his words. “He doesn’t know what I have gone through,” I thought to myself. “But God sees you, “ he replied as if he were hearing my thoughts. “Surrender to Jesus” he continued as he gave an invitation to come forward. I sat silently in my chair. I had heard this speech many times before. I stood up to get a better view and he called again saying, “Come, an Jesus wants to meet you here.” Not really thinking through what I was doing and almost in an involuntary response my feet began to escort me to the front. When I reached the left side of the platform I stood defiantly gazing upward. Confusion clouded my thoughts. In desperation, I called out, “Jesus, if you really want me, I have nothing to give to you.” With that confession, I knelt down under the heavy oppressive weight on my shoulders. In a moment I literally felt my heart’s pain intensifying. The loss, the betrayal, the wounds all wrapped around my body like a cumulative chain of despair. Then in a moment a powerful sensation of heat, like a blanket, fell on my back. The power of that darkness broke off of me. I felt a phenomenal and healing heat fall over me. I slowly lifted my head to find that I was bowing at the feet of Jesus. There, right before me, He stood.“Stephen,” He said, “Before you were formed in your mother’s womb I called you and ordained you a prophet to the nations. Follow me.” I replied, “God, I don’t have anything to give to you.” He gracefully responded, “Follow me.” I could not see His face, but I could feel the great force of His presence literally penetrating every muscle in my body. I could only glimpse his feet through the intense light that pulsed 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 lower before Him. All my rage had been against Him. The Jesus standing before me, I realized, was much different than the one I had 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 state. Then the widow into His realm closed and I came back to my world. I slowly stood to find the auditorium empty. A few teens and leaders remained wandering around. Wiping tears from my face I felt a sense of life that I had not known before. I felt as though I had awakened from years of hopeless sleep. My journey of pain and fear ended and a new journey began as I stepped out of the darkness.