At age 13, I was baptized by my first stepfather. The baptism capped off an emotional high I had contracted at a recent church camp. To be honest, I was baptized because I wanted to date the pastor's daughter and assumed baptism was a prerequisite. And, to be more honest, I believed that having my stepfather baptize me might make him stick around. It was the same reason I intentionally lost our basketball games.
Three days after he raised me out of the font, my stepfather beat up my mom and me and ran off with the wife of a youth leader at our small church. We never saw him again.
Our family didn't talk about the strange events that dotted my childhood. Like the time I was almost kidnapped when I was 8. My mom and biological father (who left two years later) were hosting a party in our home in Santa Rosa, California, while a friend and I played on our front lawn. A stranger showed up and began talking to us, laughing as she suddenly picked me up and held me tight. While I screamed, she carried me around the corner, toward a black Lincoln sedan with the back door swung open. Hands emerged from the backseat to pull me inside while the woman started pushing me in. Right then, my dad and his friend arrived. The stranger jumped into the car and it sped away. My mom and dad never mentioned what happened.
The well-meaning people in the churches that my mom and I cycled through also didn't mention my unusual life circumstances, including four different dads within four years. Whether big or small, in Santa Rosa or in Sacramento, they were all suburban churches of the 1970s and early '80s, and they were very interested in saving me. This did not usually mean listening to me. They couldn't be present in the pain I was experiencing, and so my story felt stolen. I was without a father and without a voice.
Meeting the Man in Black
I found a few stand-in fathers through music. My safety zone was my bedroom, where I played with G.I. Joes and listened to Johnny Cash. Any Cash album I could get my hands on became my soundtrack. To me, Cash was the wooing voice of God. He sang of wearing black to honor the voiceless, and that he'd wear black until Jesus returns and makes it all right.
In 1975, my dad took me to a Cash concert at the Circle Star Theater in San Francisco. After the show we waited with a dozen or so other fans by the side door. A black Lincoln pulled up, but this one wasn't there to kidnap me. It was June Carter and her baby. Cash showed up soon after and shook a few hands before getting in the car.
My dad knocked on the car window. "Mr. Cash, Mr. Cash—you didn't say hello to my son." Cash got out of the car, walked over to me, looked down, and said, "Hello, son, I'm Johnny Cash." Then he shook my hand. That encounter and his music sustained me as I continued searching for a father who would stay.
I moved out my senior year of high school, joined the army, and swiftly got kicked out. I considered becoming a comedian. I would start off slapstick, then pull up the curtain and hit the audience with the truth. In order to do that, though, I needed to know the truth. And I realized I had nothing to say. I wanted to scream but ended up silent.
Music was still communicating to me, giving me inklings of a reality outside my own. In 1987, just as I was about to wear out my cassette tapes of Boy and War, U2 released The Joshua Tree. Arguably the Dublin rock band's magnum opus, it helped me center and remember that life was more than smoking pot and doing cocaine. That year, I went to see them in concert (yakked out on coke and tequila, still). The last song of the night was "40."
Out of nowhere, a wind of grace blew over me. It wasn't the lyrics that got me ("I waited patiently for the Lord / He inclined and heard my cry")—I had no idea they were based on Psalm 40. It was the music and the people singing together. Up to this point in my life, I felt like I had been standing in the middle of a circle, punching wildly at the air so no one could hurt me. But here I was drenched in a universal love, and immediately sobered. The mass of voices carried me toward the arms of God.
Psalms with Street Cred
This moment was profound, but it was fleeting. I carried on, chained to voiceless anger. I graduated from a state college, the first in my family to do so, became an RA, landed an internship at NBC, started a business—I was starting to come into my own. But my stabs at a few different careers didn't pan out, and I ended up working for my dad selling garlic for a couple years, then kicking around dead-end jobs. I was starting to realize I couldn't manufacture my own joy.
One night in 1995, I was driving around listening to Nirvana, flipping off people who were lined up outside of bars. My middle finger was my life statement. With my mouth sealed shut, I was saying that their games were meaningless, even though I couldn't have told any of them what was meaningful.
Later that night, lying in my bed in my apartment in San Jose, I heard a voice. It both was and wasn't audible. Give me 100 percent. You've never given me 100 percent. I knew right away that it was the God I'd heard about in churches growing up, the God I had started to believe might exist at the U2 concert.
I realized then that I had never talked to God. I had only talked to God's people. And I had been judging him based on Christians' attempts, however well intentioned, to save me. In that moment, he was asking me to see him for himself, just like I wanted to be seen for myself. I said aloud, "All right. I'll give you 100 percent." I had nothing to lose.
I got out of bed and grabbed a Bible from the leather-bound, gold-embossed, soft-cover, youth-version, study-version, latest-version pile I had collected over the years. The majority of what I had heard in church had no staying power, but I did remember that the Psalms were in the middle of the Bible. I devoured their words like the lyrics on the liner notes of a Cash album. They were deep and rich. They had street cred. I started to think, Man, thismight be true. Even though I hadn't slept well for years, that night I slept like a baby.
The next morning, I was driving around listening to U2's Rattle and Hum when the song "Hawkmoon 269" came on:
Like a desert needs rain
Like a town needs a name
I need your love. . . .
Like coming home
And you don't know where you've been
Like black coffee
I need your love
I pulled the car over and started weeping. I didn't just hear Larry Mullen's drumbeat at the end of the song—I felt it with my being. His bass drum was smashing Satan in the face, each hit loosening his grasp on my life. It called me from violence to chivalry. It called me to a strength that was for justice and gave me hope. All the chains I'd been dragging around, all the screaming and no one listening—it all shattered and fell away.
I hadn't paid attention to where I pulled over. When the song ended, I looked up to see a woman watering her lawn. Sitting in the car, a snotty, sobbing mess, I watched the water fall from the hose, the sun sparkling and dancing off the drops, lighting them up like jewels. They were clear and pure and radiant, and it was ordinary and everyday, right there for me to see. I knew God was there, with the woman watering her lawn, with all of us.
A Robe, a Ring, and a Party
I was raised from the dead by the God of love. It's just that simple in a way I can't deny. I was dead. Now I'm alive. Because my story is now a salvation story, I have a voice. I don't have to duct-tape fruit to the vine. I see the fruit of my resurrection every day. The Work of the People (the media ministry I founded) is living, breathing proof of the fruit that resurrection makes possible.
Because of union with my heavenly Father, I'm becoming less and less fatherless. It's the truth at the heart of my being a husband and, yes, a father: God wants you to know he loves you very much. God is running toward you with robe, a ring, and a party. That's about all you need to know.
Travis Reed is founder of The Work of the People and lives in Cypress, Texas.