After my Brownsville experience, I went back home to Florence feeling like a new man.
That fall (1996), I was entering 9th grade, so I had to pick where I'd go to high school. Back then, Florence had two big public high schools, but there was a third, new option.
Our church decided to start a Christian school that would go through 9th grade, and they'd add a grade each year, essentially "scaling up" until they had a full high school. The school would meet inside our church. I was a new Christian, so I prayed about it. And I felt like God wanted me to go there instead of Bradshaw, where my two older brothers had gone. I convened with Tom, my best friend at the time, and we both decided we were jumping on the Woodmont Christian School bus.
Around the same time, my youth pastor, Greg (the one with the telephone pole forearms) asked if I'd like to meet weekly, just one-on-one, for a Bible study. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, so I agreed.
Brother Greg (as we called him) decided we'd go through a workbook called Experiencing God by a guy named Henry Blackaby. Every week, after school, I'd walk over to the church offices, and we'd sit down in a little room at the end of a big chocolate-colored conference table and discuss the lesson for that week. Experiencing God was a pretty big hit in the Christian publishing world back then, and the study taught seven main principles.
The gist was this: God is real. He's doing stuff in the world. And He wants us to jump in and be a part of what He's doing. This was all new to me, and I loved it.
I gave my Bible a daily workout, reading every lesson and every verse. I highlighted the stuff I found interesting.
I was fascinated by the idea that God was down here amongst us, getting stuff done like a shadowy CIA agent.
Greg would be the first of many mentors I would have over the years.
He was just what I needed at the time—patient and caring. He answered my questions and nurtured my young faith. He was Mufasa, and I was his Simba. Since then, I've learned that it's these types of relationships—the face-to-face kind—where people are changed. I didn't at the time, but now I truly appreciate just how special it was that Brother Greg took an hour a week to meet with a skinny high school freshman. My faith bloomed, and Jesus became real to me.
But in the summer of 1997, my young faith would face its first big test.
Dad, mom, my friend Tom, and I made our annual pilgrimage back down to the beach for our summer vacation. I could tell something had been wrong, because mom and dad had been acting weird. Dad was always pretty quiet, but he was more quiet than usual...withdrawn really. And kids can read their parents well, sensing tiny changes in behavior when mom and dad stray from the mean. Kids know.
The day before we left the beach, mom called me up to the master bedroom of the condo. This was the day before we were to leave, and she had chosen this day for a reason.
I remember everything being seafoam green—the walls, the comforter on the bed, the throw pillows. I remember the blades of the ceiling fan being shaped like the leaves of a tropical plant or a palm frond or something like that. The fan was set on high. There was a sliding glass door—half-way open—that faced the ocean. In moments like this, your senses remember.
Mom sat down and began to explain that dad had had some problems with his speech lately—he was slurring some of his words.
They had been to the doctor, and it did not look good. They told them it was either a brain tumor or Lou Gehrig's disease. I knew a brain tumor was bad, but...
What was Lou Gehrig's disease? Mom explained that it was a neurological thing.
Well, what's the treatment? There is no treatment.
Then, how do you get better? You don't get better.
You don't get better.
You won't get better.
Dad won't get better?
There is a very specific bodily sensation that occurs when you receive utterly devastating news...
It is a pressure in your face.
It is a narrowing of the eyes into tunnel vision.
It is hearing a deafening sound, though it's completely silent.
It is the suspension of time and space around you.
It is an icy bristling of the skin, a biological reaction to newly discovered horror.
The brain is like a sinking pirate ship in moments like this—lurching, firing cannons, shouting obscenities, swigging the last of the rum. And then its paralyzed, as water rises to the ankles, the waist, the neck. And finally, an icy black...
Sitting in that condo, my face was a canvas of blank nothingness.
Mom explained that we were going to pray and ask God to heal dad. Everything was going to be okay. They both gave me a hug and then left the room to give me some time to myself.
And that's when the floodgates broke.
I fell face first into that cheap floral bedspread, buried my head in a pillow, and wept pure liquid fear.
Within a few weeks, it was official: Dad had Lou Gehrig's disease. We broke the news to the church, and it hit hard.
But the church wasn't going to accept it...
Meetings were held.
Phone calls went out.
Troops were rallied.
And the decision was made: We're going to fight this.
We were going to besiege heaven with prayer until God healed my dad. We wouldn't take NO for an answer. We'd keep asking. Our strategy was to be like the persistent widow in Luke. And we'd keep begging 'til God said yes.
Within weeks, this vision of a divine miracle took hold of our youth group.
By this time, I was one of Brother Greg's go-to student leaders. Everyone rallied around me. I knew they had my back. And that they had dad's back. We were a family.
And so over the next few years, the youth group exploded. We went from about 30 kids on a Sunday, to 50, to 75, to more than a 100.
We would load up the church buses and take mission trips to places like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Florida. We took ski trips to Colorado.
We went to these massive summer camps where we'd listen to inspiring speakers and sweat our faces off jumping around to worship music with a thousand other kids.
We were all good friends, figuring out life and chasing Jesus together.
We laughed a lot and made lots of amazing memories. I have scrapbooks (yes, scrapbooks) full of memories from the Woodmont youth group days. Youth ministry, when done well, is one of the most transformative experiences in American Christianity. I know, because I lived it. I still keep up with a lot of the kids from the youth group. Most of them are married with a couple of kids now, and they're all still wonderful people.
Back in the youth group days, it seemed like we were always talking about some newly discovered Christian book.
And in the spring of 1997, a 21-year old homeschooled kid from Oregon published a book that began sweeping through youth groups like a Mongol horde through Portland.
And it was about to come crashing into Florence, Alabama... 👊
B.B.P.S. - Posted a little Instagram for people who are hesitant about where this story is going. Bottom line: You're welcome here anyway.
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.