Trying to Be a Man

Griffin Harrel

Who Am I? Trying to be a man:

I spent most of my childhood and adolescence with no idea of who I was. I had no idea what it meant to be a man. I thought, you’re a man if you can fight, if you can get women and if you can hold your own.

I had those thoughts because my dad was abusive, on drugs and unfaithful to my mom throughout my youth. He stayed home all day while my mom worked three jobs to put food on the table and provide for me and my two older brothers. My dad, even though he was “home” with us, was never really around. He was in the garage on drugs, acted super erratic and was basically just absent a lot, even for days at a time. When I was 11, he was imprisoned for child abuse.

Consequently, I grew up not knowing who to trust, and not wanting to be friendly with anyone. I built walls to keep people out. Those walls made me a fighter, a drug user and seller, a vandal, a partier and a drop-out. By 16 I smoked weed, drank and partied every day - that was the “man” I chose to be.

Right before I turned 17 I got into a big brawl. A bunch of my friends got together to fight some others guys, some being significantly older than us. I had a bat with me, and hit a 26-year-old in the legs with it. When the cops showed, everyone scattered, leaving me and the guy I hit. He lied and said I hit him over the head with it, and I suffered some pretty serious, trumped-up charges. Inaccuracies were reported, I was not read my miranda rights, the whole thing was a nightmare.

I essentially took the fall for everyone and was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

A New Book and A New Birthday

And so, on the heels of my 17th birthday, I found myself in a less than spacious concrete cell at juvenile hall. I was in the maximum security part of the facility, where guys in cells next to me were convicted murderers. During a physical, the nurse looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s your birthday.” I see it now as a beautiful moment because I was at the lowest point of my life and yet I was making a pivotal realization: I thought, “Ok, so this is what my life is going to be like, a series of incarcerations. I’m going to be just like my dad,” the very person I who I now realized was not atll a positive male role model. .

Around this time, my grandma, the sweetest lady in the world, had sent me a letter explaining what a disappointment I was. And so, it seemed that sitting there with that nurse, on the cusp of manhood, I knew who I was going to be: a failure, following in the footsteps of his father.

But God showed up, in a book. I had only been in juvenile hall for a few days when I was told I could pick two books to read and a Bible. The guard started getting in my face about taking too long making my selection. Not wanting anything to do with the Bible I randomly grabbed Robinson Crusoe. That seemingly arbitrary choice was providence.

Robinson Crusoe is the story of a man who thinks he knows what masculinity is, runs away, and finds himself stranded on an island with only God to turn to. Of course, God was using this classic novel to reveal and draw analogies in my own life. I thought I knew what manliness was; I ran from opening up to people and fought them instead so I ended up in this “island” of a jail cell, isolated from everything and everyone but God and this book.

I stayed up reading it all night. It was really my first encounter with the Gospel. No one had ever shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with me before, probably because I was too “scary,” or too “hard”. But that night reading Robinson Crusoe, I knew, just like the main character, that I had no choice but to trust God. A staff member at the juvenile hall gave me another book, a philosophy anthology, and I came across a quote that really struck me: “Change only comes through suffering” - Rollo May.

I thought to myself, God can use this time in jail to change my life.

And he did. A few days after my birthday was Easter Sunday. I attended a service in jail that is put on by Harvest Church. I heard about how Jesus died for me, even me, and all I knew was, I want to love God for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be who I am. How could I say no to Jesus? He saw who I am and he died for me anyways. I can’t say no to him. Easter Sunday really became my new birthday: the day I really began to learn who I was and what it means to be a man.

Around this same time my mom hired a private attorney because my public defender was just terrible. I had to pay my mom back, but my new attorney was able to get me out of juvenile hall in one month. Although my time of suffering in jail was only a month, it felt like years, and it definitely changed me.

Learning to Walk Like a New Man

I had no friends to turn to when I got out of juvenile hall, but again, God in his goodness provided a perfect opportunity for me. I was pretty hungry when I left juvenile hall, so my mom took me to get some groceries. She’s so awesome, God bless her. She told me to pick whatever I wanted and then as we were putting the bags in the car she asked me to put the cart back where it belongs.

As I walked up to the store again, I saw a girl I had liked in middle school, (and who had liked me back), but I hadn’t been very nice to then. I really wanted to avoid her and I was going to just leave the cart out in the parking lot, but my mom put her foot down and made me return it. So, I had to face this girl to whom I had been a complete jerk. We had an awkward conversation, but I walked away with her phone number, and later called her up. We talked and I explained what had been going on in my life, and how I no longer had any good friends. She told me she was a believer, too; I had struck gold.

We started dating, and about a year into our relationship we started attending Sandals Church. For the first time, I felt like the pastor was talking right to me. I learned I could be open, honest, and real about who I was and where I’d been and it was okay.

As this point, even though I was trying to follow Jesus, I had no fluency in manhood. But some really good guys at Sandals Church started mentoring me, and now I can at least speak in complete sentences. One of these guys heard my whole story and let me start working with Pipeline kids. It blew me away. I still work with the Pipeline kids, and am actually on Pipeline staff at Sandals Church. I try to tell my kids about how no one shared the Gospel with me when I was their age, and how maybe if I had heard sooner, I could have suffered less as a kid and teenager. I see now, too, this hole in a lot of young guys. They don’t have positive male role models; they don’t have a clue what biblical manhood looks like, just like I didn’t. So now I’m trying to mentor these young kids. It’s powerful to know that even with my past, Sandals Church accepts me and let’s me be a part of this ministry.

I know now that God was always there for me. He was there when I was a kid and went to bed hungry. He was there when I did drugs for the first time. He was there when I was trying to fall asleep, thinking of how to hurt people.

I think, at least being in America, that a lot of people think they’re pretty good, that they’re not at all a bad person, that maybe they don’t really need God to redeem them, save them, die for them. But, my greatest blessing is knowing nothing I did was good enough for God. Yet he loved me anyway. How could I walk away from that? I couldn’t. I can never walk away.

Now I know who I am. I’m learning what it really means to be a man. I don’t have to be something I’m not, like a fighter, a tough guy who doesn’t let anyone in. Sometimes I officiate weddings, and I like to look at Ephesians 5 with the bride and groom, which tells husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the church - he died for her because He loved her so much. I married that girl I reconnected with in the Stater Brothers parking lot when my mom made me put the cart away. It’s another one of those moments that shows me God’s providence. So now, I try my best to self-sacrifice for my wife. I want to be invested, not separated like my dad. I have to be patient and loving even when I want to respond wrathfully. I’ve learned to be ok with not caring what other people think about me. And, I think that’s a huge thing for guys to learn when trying to become a godly man. All that really matters is what God thinks of me, and how he sees me.

When I think back on my story, from juvenile hall and Robinson Crusoe to meeting my wife in a grocery store parking lot, God’s sovereignty is like one big exclamation mark. And learning to be real and be a man at Sandals Church is a huge part of that!