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Sober faith: Former drifter jailed nearly 50 times

RUSK, Texas (BP) — At times, Ellis Brasher still wonders why God kept him alive decades ago when he was hopping from bar to bar, town to town, and jail cell to jail cell, wanting nothing more than another beer, another buzz.

Brasher, 83, testifies today to the saving power of the Gospel from his life as a drifter.

By his count, he was arrested nearly 50 times across four states, spending time in nine jails. His life was the stuff of outlaw movies: alcohol, hanging with the wrong crowd and talking to the wrong girls, with a fight or two here and there. He had trouble holding a job, and it wasn’t rare for his boss or co-worker to bail him out of jail.

“I firmly believe God kept me alive so that I could be a testimony to other people,” Brasher says, after 51 years of marriage to his wife Irene and nearly 55 years being dry.

For a long time, however, Brasher appeared headed for an early death.

Raised in church and the son of a deacon, his weakness for alcohol was obvious from the moment he took his first sip. By the time of his 25th arrest at age 25, he was facing a 60-day sentence at a Mississippi jail when the sheriff — a friend of the family — urged him to attend a free six-week alcoholism treatment center, paid for by the state. Facing health problems and nightly 104-degree fevers, Brasher agreed, and for a while, things looked up. He got off the bottle, got on a doctor-prescribed drug and went back to work.

Less than three months later, though, he was drinking again, living in his car and, eventually, he was back in jail.

This time, his widowed mother intervened, and the two of them moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, a transition that Brasher favored because, he figured, there were no jobs left for him back in Mississippi. And it worked, for about 60 days.

When Brasher began drinking again, this time he nearly died. One day, jail officials took him to the local hospital for an IV injection because he was in such pain they feared he wouldn’t live another night. On another occasion, Brasher contemplated suicide and might have followed through if not for the fact his mother and sister needed him.

Brasher had given up trying to quit drinking. “I think I may have been hoping for death,” he says.

When Brasher was working, he always visited the bar soon after he clocked out. One of his favorite beer joints was the Hi-Hat, which was run by a 6-foot-6, 250-pound man named Jack — a man who Brasher accidentally ticked off once when the two were sitting together.

“Without any warning he backhanded me in the face with that club of a hand, knocked me off the bar stool, across the floor and under a pool table,” Brasher recounts. “… Jack is towering over me like a huge gorilla saying, ‘Come on out. I’m gonna kill you.'”

At 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, Brasher didn’t stand much of a chance, but he rushed the large man, knocked him over, and somehow got him in a tight headlock. Jack, desperately struggling to breathe, promised not to bother Brasher if he let him go, and so Brasher loosened his grip and then sprinted out the door.

But on a different night, Brasher nearly didn’t survive. While living with his mother, he came home drunk and unknowingly set the bed on fire while passed out with a lit cigarette. Smoked filled his room, but his mom woke up, dragged him out of bed and then dowsed the fire. The next morning, Brasher asked what happened.

“When I finally looked in my bedroom, the mattress springs were all burned out and laying on the floor,” Brasher says.

Brasher took his last drink of alcohol in January 1962, crediting the power of God and an Alcoholics Anonymous group for helping end his addiction.

But it was a co-worker, in 1968, who planted the seeds of the Gospel, telling Brasher about “salvation, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and many other aspects of true belief.”

“He witnessed to me very strongly,” Brasher says. “He made the remark, ‘I think the Holy Spirit is speaking to you right now.’ That’s the very first time I had ever experienced that, and I was confused.

“I began to realize that sooner or later I was going to have to do something about it,” he says.

Yet he delayed his personal decision more than 25 years, rarely attending church. Finally, one day in the early 1990s, he asked his wife if she wanted to start going to church with him. “Yes, I thought you would never ask,” she replied.

“It had been in the back of my mind all the time. A lot of times when I was traveling, I would be in a hotel and pick up a Gideon Bible and read those. I kept thinking, ‘I have to do more.’ I read a little of the Bible every time I was in a hotel,” Brasher says.

It took him a few more weeks, but Brasher finally committed his life to Christ, walking down the aisle at a church service, having been prompted by the testimony of a man the previous Sunday who had lived a similar life. Shortly thereafter, he was baptized.

Today, Brasher and his wife attend Calvary Baptist Church in Rusk, Texas.

Brasher wants his testimony to serve as an example of the power of the Gospel — that anyone, even an alcoholic who has been arrested dozens of times, can be saved. But he also wants to encourage Christians to share their testimony with others, not giving up if they don’t see results. To this day, the co-worker who witnessed to Brasher and planted the seeds of the Gospel, does not know how the story ended.

“Miracles,” Brasher says, “happen every day.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust/Southern Baptist TEXAN

    Michael Foust is a writer and editor based in Illinois. This article first appeared at the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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