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Mike Carr, Broomall PA

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I consider a testimony, a journey, a story, like “How did you land here, Mike?” So I’ll just walk you through it all.

I grew up in Drexel Hill, PA and was the third of six kids. We were pretty poor and my faith really depended on my parents. They sent me to Catholic school and, over the years, I became to know God as a God of guilt and fear.

Part of my “dark world” really started when I was 14 when I started drinking and drugging. Throughout high school, I partied a lot – like way, way too much. Growing up I was insecure and I just found that I could disappear through alcoholism. My problems continued when I went to Temple University and got into a really bad fight with a guy – a fight that eventually led to me dropping out of college.

After dropping out, I got into the real estate business and got married. I was only 21. My ex-wife was 20. But my life was going nowhere because of the alcoholism. I made my ex-wife’s life miserable – many nights she didn’t know if I’d make it home. I made a habit of blackout drinking all the time. So my marriage was a wreck, my health was really bad, and I was $50,000 in debt, and my life was crumbling.

But Super Bowl Sunday, 24 years ago was my last drink. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember vividly holding my ex-wife’s hand, walking around the block, promising her I’d not have more than four beers. From the bottom of my heart, I meant it, but in the back of my mind, I also knew I wouldn’t have to work the next day but she would leave the party early because she would have to work in the morning.

The next thing I realized, it was 2:30 in the morning and I was in my brother’s garage, weeping about how my life was a complete and total trainwreck. I then headed home and stumbled into my backdoor and had what seemed like a revelation – although I was incredibly intoxicated, I just had this conviction on my heart that if I wanted to get my life together, I had to stop drinking. It made no sense for me to think this way, considering the alcohol, but I now realize it was God.

I called my older brother and asked to go to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting with him (he had already been in AA). I had always been stubborn about going, refusing so many times before. I went and again I didn’t want to be there. But it was a new beginning for me. They had a saying that “God led me to AA and AA led me back to God.” And after a while, through AA, my faith started.

Originally, when I landed there, I was very anti-God. I wanted nothing to do with praying and god-talk. One time I told this guy named Bob, huge guy, lots of tattoos, “Hey Bob! I have a drinking problem, not a God problem! So don’t give me any of that God stuff!” And Bob just smiled and said, “Mike just keep coming back.” And what happened was that I slowly came into the belief. At AA, marriages were being restored, people were recovering, and after a few years, I found that I was still miserable. My own marriage had collapsed and my life wasn’t going anywhere still. So I gave in and one day decided to give up and just pray. And the shadow over my heart and over all the struggles I had started to disappear.

My kids moved in with their mother nearly an hour away from me. I remarried after meeting my current wife at a 15 year high school reunion. Things are going well. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still face hardship.

The second part of my story is my son Patrick’s story. He is currently in the state penitentiary. Patrick is 31, I have a 28 year old daughter, and a 17 year old from my second marriage.

Patrick was a normal public high school student, enjoying playing on the wrestling team. He switched to a catholic high school And that’s when things started to go downhill, not because he went to Catholic School but because he was taken out of his comfort zone. He entered a school where he didn’t fit in with anybody and so he almost immediately fell into the wrong crowd. He started drinking, drugging, and over time did pretty much everything but heroin. By the age of 24, he had wrecked five cars, rolled three. He had been in four rehabs, a couple of detoxs, and I lived for years scared to death that the phone would ring at two or three in the morning and I’d receive news that he was in jail or in the ER.

One day, I received such a call. It was Patrick’s girlfriend. She was completely hysterical, barely understandable, screaming, “Pops! Pops! I think we’ve lost your son! Call me, call me!”

By the end of his addiction, he was taking sixteen OxyContin a day, which would have killed most people. He was dealing drugs out of North Philadelphia and selling them in Bucks County. His habit got so bad that he couldn’t afford it… One time a drug dealer put a gun to his head. He owed the guy $16,000.

Patrick ended up robbing four banks and a drug store, which is armed robbery x 5.

He was arrested by the FBI. You never want to get a call from the FBI, especially about your son. There was a period of about five days where we couldn’t talk to him. Thankfully, he admitted to all of his crimes right out of the gate. He waited in prison for sentencing.

It took a year to get to the sentencing. And that was a long, long, long painful year – talking to lawyers, but mainly seeing him in prison. There’s nothing worse than seeing your son in a jumpsuit, handcuffs behind his back, shackled at the ankles, and watching him walk to a phonebooth, to talk to him for 20 minutes with cuts and bruises on his face, knowing the pain he must be enduring from getting beaten-up in prison.

I crashed and burned that year, hard. I badly wanted to drink again – drink like I hadn’t in 24 years. I eventually stopped going to the gym. I stopped going to AA meetings. I stopped praying. I hurt my back twice and I was also diagnosed with depression. I loved to barbecue, I loved to fish, I loved to play in the yard, but I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move off of my pillow – it was just so painful.

When the day of the sentencing came, I just wept. The judge sentenced Patrick to 7 ½ to 25 years in prison. It’s hard to say that even today. But the good thing was that the sentence was not stacked – they were concurrent. And really, we made out good. Had the FBI kept the case, he would have been sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.

I’ll never forget what a man named Craig said to me. He pointed out, “He’s in there for at least 7 ½ years and this is a marathon, not a sprint. Many, many prisoners go away and their family and friends forget them. Don’t ever, ever, ever let him feel forgotten.” So I said that day that I will never, ever let him be forgotten.

But that wasn’t easy. Patrick was moved five hours away from me to a western Pennsylvania prison. Earlier in the process, they promised he’d been moved to a prison close to home, but something went wrong and he landed nowhere near me. I was speechless, numb, and so upset, and I thought, “How can I physically do this?”

It’s been six years and I’ve had 109 trips out there. Sometimes I go by myself, sometimes with friends and family; I’ve watched every rest stop on the turnpike be rebuilt, I’ve been through storms in western Pennsylvania I didn’t think could exist. And it’s all been worth it. I’ve seen Patrick go from a skinny, scrawny drug addict, fighting in prison to a man with morals and values.

It all came down to really surrendering him to God. That’s hard when you want to have control of your own son’s life, but big changes came when I did.

There’s a guard who “adopted” my son. He got Patrick a job, watched over him, and hooked him up with a good counselor. The guy just rocks. He called me once when the prison was locked down just so I didn’t have to waste a trip out there. That’s how good of a friendship he had with my son.

Patrick now is a committed member of Narcotics Anonymous. He’s in college now (in the prison) and wants to get to Associate’s Degree before he leaves. He’s an avid runner. And I couldn’t be more proud. I once wrote him off for dead, but God has taken him through so much. And there’s hope. I asked him a couple of months ago where he’s at with God, and he said, “Dad, I got on my knees and prayed today. I’m not quite sure what it’s all about. But I’m praying and I’m believing.” To me, that’s God showing up.

We hope to see him released in November.

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Stuart Smith, Newtown Square PA

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My parents raised my sister and Me as best they knew how, involved in school, involved in the community and superficially involved in church. Being popular in school and athletically active became my main concerns however, and my interest in religion evolved from luke-warm to non-existent. I met Joanie in college and after graduation we married. Her stronger faith brought me back to church for awhile. The firm I began my career with transferred us from New England to Philadelphia and put me into an entirely different job market, aggressive and opportunistic, where success and the number of zeroes on your 1099 were all that really counted. I later resigned and started with a two man company in a high-risk, high-return environment as a manufacturer’s rep in the computer industry. They taught me well. I learned that there was no such thing as a wealthy or successful Christian; they were weak, under-achievers who used religion as an excuse, as a crutch. Staying out several nights a week partying with customers took priority over spending quality time with my young wife and three small children. I lived by the statement “We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time”. My income increased dramatically, I judged a man by the car he drove and I accomplished all this on my own.

The Lord then began to do things to try and get my attention. My partners were alcoholics and a great deal of my commissions were spent on booze, cars and women before I even saw them. The next firm I went with went bankrupt shortly thereafter and my partying had taken it’s toll, my marriage was on the verge of collapse. A friend who attended the same church my wife started going to persisted in trying to get me to go to a bible study. In a moment of weakness, unemployed and now void of self-confidence, I agreed. But after only three weeks I had another high-risk, high-return position and things looked brighter. The early morning bible study began to interfere with my late-night lifestyle and I stopped attending. Five months later that company folded and black smoke poured out from under the hood of my turbo-charged car the first day I went out job-hunting. One of my close friends introduced me to an executive consultant who had been at my bible study six months earlier, and he offered me a position with his company. I began a new direction where the opportunity still existed to make as much money as my energy allowed but by then I had no energy left and my self-confidence had never had a chance to rebuild. After nine months of empty, half-hearted effort, working in an ideal Christian atmosphere, I was a broken man.

I began to realize that with me directing my life, every facet of it had turned to rubble. I began meeting regularly with a member of the men’s bible study group. Although I felt a strange void developing in my life nothing dramatic happened…nothing until I was told to read Revelation 3:20. Three minutes later, sitting in my car in the parking lot of the restaurant where we had been meeting, I read: “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him”. It was the morning of June 27, 1984. I was overcome and literally awe-struck with the realization of the simplicity of that which I had been resisting and making so much of for my entire life. It defies my understanding. For the first time in my life I confessed all my sins. I turned over control of my life to Jesus Christ whom I now knew was more than just a great historical figure but the Son of God and the only means with which to bridge the separation between our short stay here on Earth and eternal life. 1 John 5:13 tells us “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life”.

With my rebirth I felt I had an enormous burden lifted from my shoulders. Instead of feeling weak or vulnerable I felt new and cleansed and that I had been given a second chance by His Grace. By spending time alone with Jesus in prayer I realized that He didn’t intend for me to live my life as a failure, that He would work out problems WITH me…but He won’t intervene if you don’t ask him to.

So where does being a Christian leave me now? Seemingly heartbreaking tragedies and insurmountable challenges still keep finding me, but by turning to God, by leaning on his shoulders and asking for help and guidance, I am never alone. Heartbreaking tragedies? My dear grandmother passed away many years ago after I became a Christian and God gave me something I never could have done on my own, He gave me the courage…and longing…to speak at her memorial service and in so doing was able to help support and spiritually strengthen my Mother and others rather than be just a bystander. The Lord called on me again when I spoke at Mom’s memorial service, as well as at the services of Joanie’s father Walter, my uncle Bud’s and finally my Father’s service this past summer. The last was especially difficult: my father had never been involved in my sister’s and my lives after divorcing my mom and remarrying, no matter how hard we reached out. At the time of his death last summer my sister called me after learning of the news only through a message of condolence left on her telephone by a cousin who read the news in the obituaries. He had already been cremated by his wife a week earlier and the obituary only mentioned that he was survived by her…no mention of his two children, Karen and I, his four grandchildren Cheri, Scott, Stacy and Steve or his six great-grandchildren (children of three of my four kids). Nevertheless God walked me through even that tragedy and gave me the words to help begin the healing process of those left behind. Insurmountable challenges? I was laid off in the fifth massive sweep of my last job in June of ’09. It was in the middle of the current recession and job prospects were grim, some of my peers who had been laid off two years earlier were still trying to land a viable INTERVIEW. But at 60 years of age and unemployed I no longer felt remorse or depression, I had God to decide how to direct and answer my prayers. My loving family all came in the first weekend and we had a board meeting. After reviewing many options and with the suggestion from my daughter Cheri from New York to “Think out of the box” and begin an “Encore Career”, my youngest child Steve suggested a rather radical idea: try out to become a personal bootcamp fitness instructor for Platoon Fitness. I prayed long and hard during this trial and the end result was that I felt this may be a way of using my God-given gifts of enthusiasm and physical fitness in helping and motivating others. Though the Navy Seal styled 5-day bootcamp and PRT (or Physical Readiness Testing) was maybe the most difficult thing I had ever done, God’s grace and mercy allowed me to not just survive it but win out over several other Instructor Candidates who were younger than my children. This career, though very physically challenging, has allowed me to touch many others by motivating and encouraging them to succeed in their endeavors.

I still have many shortcomings, weaknesses and temptations and often struggle to gain the right balance between my “encore career” and my relationship with my wife and children but I pray for guidance…… I know through a child-like faith (because it is beyond comprehension why God has blessed me with such Grace) that God will above all else, show me how to be the best that I can be for my family. And He has…through Cheri pushing me to dare to be different in my career, to Steve actually opening the door for me because of his relationship with Platoon Fitness, to Stacy first running with me because I didn’t even own a pair of running sneakers, to Scott working with his many talents around my house with projects and repairs to allow me time to prepare for the test to come, and to Joanie to work through her fears and insecurities and feed me, nourish me and encourage me.

So now, my children have given me six amazing grandkids…with several more to come(I put an order in for 10), and God’s direction in my life has me where he wants me to be, setting a healthy example for them in the way I lead my life, and being able to continue to keep up with them! I don’t deserve the blessings God has given to me.

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