One could say that life is made up of roads or, more specifically, the art of navigation. Each decision keeps us on one road while keeping us off another. Freeways of possibilities and side streets of consequence snake endlessly before us. Regardless of the road, no matter how it’s paved, it will always have direction. Regardless of direction, no matter where we are headed, we all seek one destination. We truck, speed or crawl in whatever direction we perceive home to be. It’s on these roads, along with everyone else, we find Shawn.
“Okay. Well, um. I really had a difficult upbringing as a child.”
Shawn’s childhood was a several-car-pileup of abuse, abandonment and hurt. He was born in the early 70s to an absent father and a disabled mother. Along with many emotional disabilities, Shawn’s mother was also blind. He doesn’t remember much about that time but he does, however, remember a fire. A fire that ended up destroying more than the apartment complex in which they were living. This fire came to be a significant fork in the road for Shawn, his baby brother and his mother. As the fire exposed the foundation of the complex, it also exposed the two young boys’ living conditions in the California social system.
“I was 3 when we were taken from my mother. My brother was like 6 months old, or something like that. We were taken from my mother by the social services department.
“I remember the fire happened at night. I remember spending the night in my social worker’s office, sleeping on the couch. And that is, like, my first recollection of all my abuse.”
Like brakes slamming on the highway, Shawn’s family came to a screeching halt. His mother’s condition functioned like a faulty seat belt, allowing Shawn to be ejected instead of anchored. Through the windshield and into the arms of a system as cold as the road he was now tethered to, Shawn sped away from everything he had ever known. The road forked again with Shawn’s induction into the foster system, leading into a steep decline filled with potholes and harsh turns.
“So at 5 or 6, I started showing emotional problems, which is about the time I started getting abused.
“I remember getting what was called ‘cold bath therapy.’ I would be grabbed, clothes and all, and dunked underwater. Or I would get beaten with a ruler. I went to school with visible injuries.”
Abuse was the toll one had to pay on this new road. This toll lacked reason and mercy. At an increasing rate, Shawn experienced abuse daily, like passing scenery on a long drive. Alongside the physical abuse came the mental. Shawn’s biological mother, who visited him regularly, died when he was 6, but Shawn wasn’t informed for at least another two years. Once Shawn discovered the truth, he decided to start skipping over the median and pursuing new roads on his own.
“That’s when my life started taking a drastic turn. At that point, I had nothing. I lost it. I started running away. I would go to school and then run out the doors. I would hang out all day on the streets.”
Shawn ended up threatening one foster parent’s life, and a week later he was taken back into the social care system. This is where the road forked yet again. What followed was a series of switchbacks. In and out of different facilities, wards and jails, Shawn’s life became a spider web of crisscrossing roads and destinations. Every destination came with an expiration date and a getaway route already mapped out. Down each road, Shawn waded through a sea of medication, always ready to run away.
As he was journeying down these winding roads early in life, Shawn picked up many a hitchhiker along the way. Anger was one of the first to occupy a seat in Shawn’s convoy. The teen lashed out against authority in the many group homes in which he lived, disobeying curfews and vandalizing the facilities. Self-harm was also offered a passenger seat in his life. He began cutting himself and stabbing staples into his arms. To this day, a freeway of scar tissue on his arms can be traced. These passengers gave Shawn directions, and he often listened to them. They led him to alcohol and violence. Two times they tried their best to guide him to suicide. Both times, however, he barely missed the exit.
“I just lost it. I went crazy. I pulled the toilet off the wall and broke it. I grabbed the porcelain of the toilet and, um, started slicing my arms open. I felt like I had nothing, and I just didn’t know what to do.”
Porcelain shards, like little white keys, pressed into his arms, hoping to unlock a better life. These roads, many times, were not fair. Shawn’s path was anything but fair. By the time he aged out of the system, Shawn had seen everyone from parents to judges abandon him. The scars on the outside of his body matched the ones inside. Shawn found himself living with a family with whom he had briefly lived before. This family introduced Shawn to a new road — a road going in a very different direction than the others.
“They took me back in. You know, they gave me responsibilities. Taught me how to work for stuff I wanted. I also started going to church with their neighbor, and that’s when my life started changing. And then, I started getting involved with the youth ministry there. Then my life started to really get better.”
Shawn began to follow this different road. It took him places like church, and volunteer work at church. Things started to level off, and for a brief time, Shawn’s life seemed to be set on cruise control along this new route.
“I mean, I accepted the Lord when I was 13, when I was incarcerated. This lady did Bible studies at the jail, so I went to them to get out of my room. Then I started going to church when I was out of the system, but my actions didn’t really change. I mean, I still wasn’t living for God.
“But, this time I was getting involved really heavily with the youth ministries and the men’s groups. I was invited to this young adults camp, and that’s where I met my future wife, Gail. We ended up driving together and we just hit it off. Come to find out later, she didn’t even want to go on the trip. But God had worked it out to where we would meet each other there. We instantly hit it off. After that trip, we talked on the phone constantly.”
The funny thing about roads is that they are rarely empty. In a beautiful way, our solid lines occasionally become broken and good things merge into our lanes. Gail was one such good thing that merged into Shawn’s life. For a brief moment, the conditions allowed for a joyride, hugging the curves of Shawn’s previously dreaded road. The two of them, as partners, explored the open road of life together. They cruised at a speed and direction that outlined the beautiful penmanship of the road’s perfect architect.
No matter how far you drive, however, you can’t escape the passengers you picked up along the way. Passengers plant thoughts and little thoughts become eighteen-wheelers, tearing through your mind and out into your actions. There is no road that can go two directions at once.
“We both worked with our youth groups. She was down in Riverside and I was up in the desert. We had so much in common when it came to the church. However, we weren’t following the Lord wholeheartedly. We decided that since we lived so far apart from each other, we would move in together in Riverside. This by no means solved anything, as our fighting began and my numerous problems brought on by my childhood surfaced. We lived together for four years and then had our first child together. We got married after that, thinking it would make things better.
“A lot of our issues had to do with me. In 2000, things got really bad and it felt like our relationship wasn’t going anywhere. I ended up in Tijuana, where I had an affair with a prostitute. Obviously that shattered my wife. It shattered me, too.”
If life is more about the way we navigate the roads we’re on and less about the roads themselves, one has to admit that sometimes we drive ourselves down certain roads we should clearly avoid. The signs and weather warnings are at the discretion of the driver. Sometimes that discretion is faulty — the driver perhaps falls asleep at the wheel and puts loved ones in dangerous crossroads. It’s at these crossroads that we find Gail and Shawn.
“The afternoon I got back to Riverside, she knew something was up. We were talking, and I couldn’t keep a straight answer. I was lying, and she didn’t believe me. So then I just told her. And, yeah, she was devastated.”
At that very moment, every single road Shawn had ever traveled had intersected. Every bruise, tear and frown he ever wore came together for a nuclear explosion of failure. In this moment, home was the furthest it had ever been. His trauma had been sitting drunk behind the wheel, mowing down every good thing he had tried to cultivate. All the way back to that apartment fire, and back again, the pain surged through his soul. In that moment, he was that 16-year-old boy again with a handful of porcelain shards and nothing else.
But, at precisely this time, Gail did something no one else had ever done for Shawn. She chose not to abandon him. She did what no judge, foster parent or biological parent did for Shawn. Gail chose to forgive him and stand by him. Gail showed Shawn God’s love.
Suddenly, the crowded intersections and the congested roads reformed themselves and all of Shawn’s scars became a road map, pointing to the God whose love transcends all pain and understanding. They showed the way to a God who tells direction which way it goes and levels mountains into pathways to bring his children home. Headlights illuminated a God who does not tire in his efforts to rescue us. He is home to the homeless, and rest to the restless. Every road Shawn went down, God was right behind him with a hand outstretched.
Every time Shawn’s heart was broken, so was God’s. Shawn saw a God who pursues us when we run from him. There is no pit into which He won’t follow us. There is no amount of dirt on our hands that He won’t wash off. Shawn’s life is proof of this. Shawn’s story is about a God who will navigate any road to reach us.
Shawn and Gail’s recovery wasn’t overnight, but they worked hard on it together. They reached out to an older couple in the church for mentoring. They sought God together and found healing in the church’s community. To this day, they continue to seek God together. Their marriage has been restored, and life is good. Again, the two find themselves together on a joyride. As they dip through the curves, top down in the car, letting the breeze whip and tease their hair, this time they follow a direction shown to them by a loving God. And this direction, because it is written by the great engineer himself, will lead them to a perfect home.
“So, yeah, by being able to trust God and hold on to his promises, I have found forgiveness. One of my favorite verses is Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through God who strengthens me, you know? And with that promise, my past mistakes cannot define me. He has shown me that my past doesn’t have to define my future. God has restored me.”