When I was seven years old, I discovered that the boogieman was real. It was my father. He was a hard worker, but he was also a hard drinker. He beat my mother every night, yet she would never leave him. I would nail down the windows in our house to keep my daddy out.
Growing up in a dysfunctional home in south Minneapolis, I turned to the streets to find fulfillment. I learned to lie, steal, and hurt people. At 15, I was sentenced to one year at the State Training School, which was basically prison for juveniles. At 16, my girlfriend gave birth to my first child. At 18, I finally had enough of my father, so early one morning while I was riding with him in his truck, I told him, “If you ever hit my mother again, I’ll blow your brains out.” Stunned, he reached for his .22 pistol, but by the time he got it out, he was staring down the barrel of my .38. He never hit my mother again, but that wasn’t the end of my troubles.
Somewhere during that turbulent time, a man started coming around our neighborhood. His name was Art Erickson and he was the new youth minister at Park Avenue United Methodist Church. In contrast to all the dope dealers in our neighborhoods, he was what I now call a “hope dealer.” But at the time I wanted nothing to do with him because he represented change – and I wasn’t willing to be reformed.
My involvement in gangs and criminal activity increased. At age 20, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for theft. I served just four, barely escaping death at hands of inmates while locked up. After being released, I went back to the streets. I fell in love with a prostitute and married her. Soon after our wedding, she told me she was pregnant. Several months later, Shaun was born. Being a career criminal, I didn’t sign the birth certificate because I didn’t want to pay child support. In a few weeks, everything returned to normal. My wife continued as a prostitute, our son became a welfare kid, and I remained a thief and a gambler.
I moved on to bigger crimes, stealing from jewelry stores, corporations, drug stores, even nursing homes. Then Minnesota got something called “computerized fingerprinting” and I was its first victim. I was sentenced to five years in the Minnesota Correction Facility.
While I was incarcerated, Art Erickson, whom I’d ignored and walked away from many times, proved the kind of man he was. With the help of members of Park Avenue Methodist Church, he saw that my family had food. That would have amazed me, except that I knew Art was that kind of man. Later, I would realize it even more.
Since I was locked up, my wife and son were vulnerable. Another pimp literally stole them, which is not uncommon, and took them to Oklahoma. The man was violent and didn’t like looking after my son while she turned tricks. In 1981, the pimp hit Shaun in the head so violently, the boy’s brain swelled and he died.
They brought Shaun’s body back to south Minneapolis for the funeral and, to my surprise, a guard called me out of my cell and took me to the service, still in chains. It was a dark time in my life, but it would get darker before I saw the light.
At first, I blamed God for Shaun’s death because that was easy. But as time wore on, I realized that God had nothing to do with the terrible events of my life. I hurt inside – the kind of pain I couldn’t explain to anyone. Twice I overdosed enough to kill myself, but I didn’t die. Finally I made a decision: when I got out of prison, I would get straight. I truly meant it, but I was hopeless to do it on my own.
I avoided prison in 1994 through a plea bargain that sent me to a recovery facility called Eden House. While there, I ran into Art Erickson again. He left the church to found the Center for Fathering. I was allowed to work with him and one day as we sat in a conference room, I told them everything. Art said, “We’re all sinners and we sin the rest of our lives.” Then he said something I would hear several times: “Pain will lead you to God, and success will lead you away.”
I became the first client in their new program. After nine months, I was licensed by the state of Minnesota as a teacher, qualified to teach an accredited course on computer programming at a school for physically disabled adults. I wanted to change my behavior, but inside I was still the same. I didn’t go back to drugs, but I got involved in crime again. And once again, I got caught.
Three days after my arrest, a student ran into the room in the middle of class. “Sorry to interrupt, but there’s a TV reporter here. He’s got a camera crew and everything. And he wants to talk to you, Mr. Turnipseed.” He grinned probably assuming the reporter was going to publicize the wonderful work I was doing at school. But I knew why they were there.
I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t do that to my family, and I’d eventually have to face things like a man. I barricaded myself in my office. People knocked and the noise outside my office grew louder. I shouted, “Go away,” and they eventually did. I collapsed on the cement floor and started crying. I bawled so hard my stomach hurt.
I grabbed the phone to call my mother, but I accidentally called my daughter Lisa. “I’m going to embarrass you again. I just wanted you to know. I’m sorry…” The tears flowed so hard I couldn’t finish. “Just give it to Jesus,” she said. Thanks to my mom, Lisa had grown up in the church and she was a believer. After I hung up, her words kept ringing through my mind: “Just give it to Jesus.”
“Jesus, take me,” I moaned. “I’m no good I’m not worth saving. But please, please accept me.”
For several minutes I pleaded with Jesus Christ to change my life. Then, in a flash, the tears stopped flowing. A deep sense of peace came over me. I’d never experienced anything like this in my entire life. I could explain it, but I knew Jesus Christ accepted me. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it would be all right.
That day, I hit bottom with nowhere else to go. That was the beginning of true hope – sensing that the Lord loved me and wanted to set me free. In that miserable condition, I reached out to God he clasped my hand. Slowly, I began to accept that I might be worth saving.
My new life began with transformation. It was hard and painful, but the best thing I ever did. For a long time I was an evil person. Prison or hell seemed my only options. However, God “so loved the world,” and that amazing love included John Turnipseed. After I turned to Jesus Christ, everything in my life was different. I found real hope. Like Art Erickson and many others who helped me along the way, I’m now a “hope dealer” for others. Because of my past, I am able to reach those who seem hopeless. I refuse to give up on them, because God never gave up on me. That’s the best news of all: God hasn’t given up on any of us. In Him, we all have hope.
John Turnipseed is the author and subject of BloodLine: You Spend Enough Time in Hell and You Get the Feeling You Belong, published by Broadstreet Publishing Group.