LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–No money. No friends. No home. No hope. Barry Washington had lost everything. Twenty years of drugs, alcohol, crime and violence had left his life as empty as the abandoned shack where he slept.
He was constantly hungry. He was constantly high on dope. And walking one day on the streets of Philadelphia, he even contemplated suicide.
In his sorrow and shame, Washington could barely see two men who were cleaning outside a house. Washington approached them and asked for money.
The men, two Nigerian Christians, gave him a few dollars and something more — hope for a clean life. The men saw something beneath Washington’s disheveled, dirty, drug-scarred exterior. They saw a man whom God loved and wanted to use. They saw a man whom God could save.
More than five years later, Washington, who will obtain his associate of arts degree from Boyce College (the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) in Louisville, Ky., on May 19, now sees it too. God has transformed a drug dealer with an eighth-grade education into a sinner saved by grace.
“One of my favorite texts is in Mark 5 — the man at the tomb who is out of his mind,” Washington said. “What God has done for me lets me know about true compassion.”
For most of his life, Washington modeled the man that Jesus met. As a newborn, he was given up for adoption by his 16-year-old prostitute mother. Raised in Pittsburgh by his adoptive parents, he rebelled from the start.
In grade school, he never learned to read or write. And though a talented baseball player, he gave up on sports and school to play another game.
“I chose to follow my brother’s career as a drug dealer and ended up dropping out of school in ninth grade,” Washington recounted.
His decision began a 20-year downward spiral of destitution.
“Things just really turned,” Washington said. “I started selling. I went from reefer to cocaine, to selling heroin. I went from smoking reefer to drinking to using cocaine and heroin.”
In the 1980s, Washington moved to Michigan, but he packed his old lifestyle with him, continuing to sell, steal and smoke.
But the drug running finally caught up with him when several other dealers confronted him one day and left him for dead in his front yard.
“I got stabbed up 41 times,” said Washington, who still bears the scars. “I almost died.”
When he recovered, though, Washington fell back into his old addictions, moving to Philadelphia to live with his sister but carrying the habits with him again.
The drug pushing made him money — sometimes $5,000 in a day. But his business and his life soon turned sour. He overdosed three times. He would wake up in the hospital in handcuffs. He was in and out of jail. And he watched friends die violent deaths.
“I started using real heavy to the point that I took all my sister’s televisions and sold them,” Washington said. “I sold clothes. I sold whatever I could sell.”
Yet he knew that something was wrong, that he needed help.
“Every time I would use drugs I would start asking God for help,” Washington said. “I said to the Lord, ‘Don’t let me die like this.'”
Finally, he came to the breaking point outside that old abandoned shack. He wanted to kill himself. He had the gun and the suicide note. But those two Nigerian men pointed him to true life.
“I called them my Peter and my John in the Book of Acts at the gate called beautiful,” said Washington, referring to the passage in Acts 3. “That day they invited me to a church meeting in their house.”
At the small service, the preacher explained the gospel, and for the first time, Washington comprehended it. At the end of the service, he prayed to receive Christ.
Though he still struggled with his addictions, the desires gradually fizzled. Several weeks later, the prodigal son called his sister.
“I was waiting for her to fuss at me about stealing from her and taking her televisions,” Washington said. “But the only thing she said was, ‘Are you coming home for Christmas?'”
In 1995, Washington returned home and walked away from his old way of life.
“I literally walked out of using cocaine and heroin and crack to freedom,” said Washington, who has been clean to this day.
A few months later, he returned to Michigan and began to attend church regularly and then received a calling to the ministry.
“God kept putting this urge on me to preach,” Washington said. “One day I went to the church, and I could hear God telling me, ‘You’re going to preach here.’ I looked around and I was trying to see who was talking to me.”
Washington could still barely read at the time. Six months later, though, with the encouragement of his pastor, Washington had earned his high school equivalency and had begun to preach. His pastor also encouraged him to further his education at Boyce College.
“I came here for a visit, and I said, ‘Lord, if this is where you want me, then you’re going to have to do it. I can hardly read,'” Washington said.
But, by faith, Washington enrolled. And after three years at Boyce, 37-year-old Washington cannot only read well, but he has become an above-average student. He will graduate in May with an associate of arts degree, but he’s not finished. He’s planning on obtaining his B.S. degree in pastoral counseling.
Washington attributes these achievements to God, but he will dedicate the degree to his 84-year-old mother who prayed constantly for him.
“This graduation is for her,” he said. “Some pastors I know say, ‘Well, it’s only an A.A. That ain’t nothing.’ They don’t understand my history and what this would do for a woman whose sisters and brothers said, ‘You’re kids ain’t nothing.'”
Washington currently uses his experiences to minister to others. He leads youth ministries, helps with homeless shelters and boys’ homes, teaches on drug addiction at public high schools and preaches all across the state. He hopes to open one day a Christian drug rehab center called the Redeemed Center.
“I came here and got blessed,” said Washington, who was also blessed to meet his wife, Marie, at Boyce. “There’s a whole lot more I could talk about. The Lord has just been really gracious to me down here.”
But that graciousness was most revealed in his deliverance from a lifestyle that led to the death of many friends and family.
“I learned about God’s saving grace through these experiences,” Washington said. “I could have been dead a number of times. I could never have dreamed of doing anything like this. I couldn’t even see it. I don’t believe it still some days.”
But Washington does not want to forget either.
“I keep this old welfare card [picture] of how I used to look just as a reminder,” he said.