I was being peed on in Canada when it first dawned on me that my childhood might not be like everyone else’s.
My family was doing a revival (string of church services) in a YMCA, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. We would set up the equipment every night, sound check and play for 30 to 40 minutes. Then my father would preach for an hour. Then, we would play for the “alter service” (which could last up to an hour). Then we would shake hands and greet everyone …then we would tear down the equipment and store it in a broom closet for the night …every night (apparently, the Y in that town got robbed a lot).
We did this 8 nights in a row. I was 12.
One of those nights, one of the men who brought us in to Canada asked my father to come join him to pray with his daughter who was strung out on drugs and in crisis. It was urgent that we get there soon, they were going to try and pull her out of this place and get her home this very night …so our whole family went straight from the YMCA to the other side of town.
Our van pulled up to what I now know was a drug house, in a very bad part of Regina (I know …I didn’t know there were bad parts of Canada either). There were all kinds of shady people walking around, looking like zombies outside this house and on the street in front of it. It was a terrifying sight for a 12-year-old white kid from Tennessee.
My dad instantly knew this wasn’t a safe place for his family. He turned around and spoke to us very sternly. “Lock these doors and DO NOT unlock them for any reason. I don’t care if someone is beating on the windows. Stay inside this van.” He then got out and walked with the other minister right into that place, not knowing what he was going to find. I remember watching him walk up the sidewalk and thinking how brave he was. I was terrified.
After about 20 minutes, my mother started to get rattled. She looked at me and said, “Regie …I’ve got to find out what is happening in there. I have to make sure your father is alright. I’m going to go get him and we’re leaving. You stay here with your brother and DO NOT MOVE until I get back. I will be back soon.” Then I watched her walk up that horrifying sidewalk …and I realized how brave SHE was.
What seemed like an eternity passed. My brother and I were so scared we were shaking, staring at that front door, wondering what was going on behind it. All we knew was people kept walking in that house and not coming out. If bad things were happening to my parents, then we were on our own in this van. We could stay here and deal with that consequence …or we could all go down together as a family. Finally, I made the decision. I looked at my ten-year-old brother and said, “Okay, Leny. We’re going to go find mom and dad. We’re going to jump out of the van together and you hold on to my arm the whole way up.”
We jumped out and ran together up that dark, ominous sidewalk …and entered a nightmare. I opened the front door and stepped into a foyer with a chandelier in the center and a winding staircase that led to a balcony above it. It was completely dark inside. It looked like it might have been a beautiful place at one time. Then, my eyes adjusted and I saw the dead chicken in the middle of the floor of the next room and a hexagram drawn on a large wall to the right. This was right out of a horror movie and there was occult activity happening here.
There was no furniture in the place …just hardwood floors covered in ashes and baggies and needles and God knows what else.
My brother and I clung to each other as we looked feverishly for our parents. We heard loud rock music coming from somewhere but we couldn’t place it. The only lights in the place were black lights that revealed strange writing on all the walls, and whatever moonlight was bursting through the windows. It made the inside of this place feel absolutely evil. I yelled for my parents but no one answered. I was frozen. So was my brother.
Were we all going to die in here? This was like a real-life Halloween haunted house. And it was terrifying.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, the roof started to leak on us. We shifted to the right and left but the stream of water seemed to find us wherever we moved. Then I heard laughter echoing through the large room and I looked up to see a young man on the balcony above. The roof wasn’t leaking …he was peeing on me and my brother and laughing maniacally. No doubt, he was high as a kite.
As I was processing all of this, my mother appeared from a room to my right, behind her was my father. Their faces looked ashen and I could see them fighting back the fear and confusion. This obviously hadn’t gone well. Or maybe it had. I was too freaked out to know.
They tried to smile and reassure us everything was okay. But anyone could see that NOTHING in this place was okay. They each embraced a son, and we walked very swiftly back to the van, got in our seats, and drove away, following the man who brought us there, back to relative safety. I don’t remember a whole lot conversation on that drive.
This is pretty much how I was raised. My family was a tight, 4-piece band who occasionally went out to do battle with Satanists together …on the side. My father and mother ministered to people all over the world. And they brought along my brother and me.
In any other hands, my childhood could’ve been a disaster of epic proportions. But my dad and mom had a rule: everybody in this van gets to talk about whatever they feel, however they feel it. Once we’re out of the van, we’re working and we don’t drag our personal lives into public. But inside the van …anything goes. No judgement.
And so my unconventional childhood was tempered by two people who allowed honesty and openness. They allowed us to question things and challenge things. And some of the the greatest memories of my life are riding shotgun on some dark open road, in the wee hours, talking to my dad about everything under the sun. He allowed me to be angry or defiant or indignant or afraid or excited or inspired or overly optimistic or whatever I needed to be. And I don’t remember everything he said to me on those nights …I just remember him always smiling while he said it.
I’ve said many times my childhood was surrounded by weirdos and religious zealots. And my parents were the calm oasis of cool in the center of it all. And that is true.
This past Sunday my parents retired from full time ministry …after more than 50 years. They don’t charge into too many crack houses these days. But I know they wouldn’t hesitate if they had to. Of all the people I’ve known in the business of religion, who have done damage to themselves and their children and countless people around them, my parents have always strived to love people and carry light into darkness. Nothing more complicated than that. And that purity lingers in a life.
I only make THEIR lives of ministry about MY life, for one reason …they did no harm.
Through the years, I’ve developed my own sense of what God is or isn’t. I’ve wrestled with my own relationship with Christianity and church and Jesus himself. And I know dozens of kids who were raised like me who have either careened into addiction and disillusionment and bitterness …OR they’ve embraced things they haven’t fully experienced or thought through. And they actually have no sense of themselves or what they truly believe. Somehow, my parents were able to strike a balance with my brother and me. And we survived …relatively unscathed.
John Kennedy Jr once said, “I’d rather be a GOOD man than a GREAT man.” He obviously knew firsthand the pitfalls and consequences of becoming a “great man.” And I suspect he saw up close and personal how men who give themselves to the public are often unavailable for their families. Hence, probably not being very good fathers in the process of being great leaders.
I was the very rare, fortunate soul who was born to a father who happened to be both great AND good. And although I followed him and my mother on one of the strangest odysseys a child can experience, they both mentored me through it with wisdom, grace and humor. LOTS of humor. Because often …if we didn’t laugh, we would have to cry. They helped us separate faith…from the “faithful.” And they were examples of how to maintain your hold on truth in a world of lies.
So, mom and dad …congratulations on over a half century of service. You sang a played for millions. You helped many thousands of people find faith. You loved and sacrificed and gave until there wasn’t anything left to give. You truly spent yourselves on others. Completely.
But from my perspective, your greatest achievement was helping two scared little boys constantly make sense of nights like that one in Canada, where Jesus and music and drugs and sex and addiction and fear and public urination would all constantly converge to try and create chaos and confusion in our young minds. You were the safe center of the hurricane. You still are. And you made us realize that there really isn’t much of anything love can’t fix.
I can’t say I love you enough. Happy retirement!