Karen Pearce is an IMB worker among European peoples and contributing writer.
LONGVIEW, Texas (BP) — Seventeen-year-old Justin Spencer was with a team of Texas Baptists when an unexpected thing happened. Standing on the front porch of a house in Chalmettte, La., listening as his teammate Hailey gave a Gospel presentation, his heart quickened.
When Hailey asked the resident if he wanted to pray to receive Christ, he said no. But Justin said yes.
He waited until lunch break when he could talk to his youth pastor, Chris Godby, and then they prayed together: “I know that I’m a sinner, I know that I’m not perfect, I know that my sin separates me from You,” Justin said in repeating Godby’s words. “I believe that You sent Your Son to die on the cross for me to give me a way to be united with You and right now I place my faith and trust in You and want You to be the boss of my life.”
“And right after he made a profession of faith, he was like, ‘I want to tell people,'” Godby said.
The youth pastor helped Justin practice sharing his testimony and the Gospel and they went out together door-to-door. That afternoon Justin led four boys to Christ. A couple of weeks later he attended a youth retreat at Pineywoods Baptist Camp and led a friend to rededicate her life to the Lord. Now he regularly shares Christ with his peers in the skate park.
“I’ll skate and then sit down for a few and someone will be talking to me about what I did and then out of nowhere I’ll say, ‘Do you know Jesus? Let me tell you about Him,'” Justin said.
“It’s great that I’m able to relate to some of these guys. Sometimes it can be testy because some are atheists, agnostics, anti-Christian — a mix of people. But if you let God speak through you, He’ll work because God’s Word never returns void.”
Justin is only a teen, but in his short life he’s known poverty and abuse, abandonment and violence. He’s never met his real mom — she was imprisoned for child abuse when Justin was three months old and, although she’s free now, she won’t pursue a relationship with him.
He lived with his father, who was also physically and emotionally abusive, until he was 14, growing up in anger. He watched his sister become a victim of violence, eventually defending her as well as himself and getting kicked out of the house. He got into drugs and alcohol, leading to an arrest.
He moved in with an aunt who has now adopted him and in that home he began to seek answers.
“I was sitting on the couch one day and I wanted some drugs and then I realized that drugs was just a way to run from my problems, that drugs weren’t a stress-reliever, but a stress-postponer, and that I needed something to help me carry that burden,” Justin said. “I believe that God was pulling me towards His love.”
He resisted at first because of his tragic upbringing.
“I figured if God was really real then He wouldn’t have let me grow up and watch my dad break my sister’s nose and beat her to the kitchen floor. I grew up believing God wasn’t real because a god is supposed to be caring and not let his children see things like that,” Justin said.
But eventually a friend invited him to Magnolia Creek Baptist Church in League City, Texas, where he met Godby, the youth minister who helped change Justin’s image of Christians and God.
“I always got the impression,” Justin said, “that Christians were really conservative, rude people. They were boots and wranglers and I was skinny jeans and skateboards, and so I couldn’t relate to them and couldn’t do anything they would agree with.
“But when Chris walked out of the sanctuary and smacked me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey man, how ‘ya doin’?’ I was blown away. He was talking to me, hanging out with me, shooting me texts, wanting to know if I wanted to hang out and stuff, and it was super cool.”
Little by little God began to reveal to Justin that it wasn’t just Chris who liked him. It really hit home when they were in Chalmette — outside in 100-degree heat, canvassing neighborhoods, working to exhaustion.
“I felt so happy in spite of the conditions,” Justin said. “The thing that kept sticking out to me was that God loves me and I couldn’t wait to talk about Him some more. Realizing God loves me was something that really pulled me towards salvation.”
God continued to work in Justin’s life at the youth camp at Pineywoods and there some of his past began to make sense.
“I realized that God is very intentional in everything He does and nothing He does is an accident. He didn’t step in and prevent me from seeing the things I saw, not because He didn’t love me, but because He did and He wanted me to grow close to Him, and He wanted to use me with other kids that have problems. It was great seeing that God had a plan for me even though I didn’t love Him at the time,” Justin said.
As Justin finished talking, his little brother came in and plopped down on the sofa beside him. Justin has five adopted siblings in total, ages 8 and under; there is no other male adult in the home.
“I’m an absolute role model for them, and that’s pretty cool to me,” Justin said.
Since that fateful day in Chalmette, Justin said, “I’ve become more patient and less angry. I’m more friendly and can actually talk to people.”
Before his conversion, meeting new people or new situations caused him to stutter, but God has given him fluency now.
Justin feels God calling him into urban ministry long-term, maybe with homeless people or low-income kids. He and Chris are brainstorming about what a skate ministry might look like as well.
He plans to get baptized with his cousin Whitney and studies Scripture with a small group from church and with Chris, who has become a mentor. Chris is teaching him to play guitar and he’s teaching Chris to ride a long board.
Justin’s prayer requests often center on his family. His sister is close by but still struggles with issues from childhood. He has just discovered another biological sister and is hoping to meet.
He is asking God to soften his biological mother’s heart and cause them to be reunited because he just wants to know her.
His father has had multiple strokes and is permanently disabled. Justin visits with him and has forgiven him. Even though he is mentally impaired, the times together have helped Justin heal.
“For the first time, we’ve been able to have a conversation. It gives me something to remember about him that’s not terrible,” he said.
Justin is grateful for his adopted mother and the stable home he has. He admires her love and sacrifice for him.
Now that he knows God and knows he is loved, Justin is full of hope for the future.
“My problems don’t seem like big problems anymore,” he said.