Find Fulfillment in Starting Over
I was raised in a lower middle class neighborhood, with my mom, dad, and two brothers. I was in the middle. My parents believed in a higher being but hadn’t experienced fulfillment in Christ or His divinity. They were kind people who treated everyone the same.
Because my parents didn’t have any real conviction about their faith, I was allowed to go to church with whoever asked me. I sat through services at Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran churches, as well as a variety of small, non-denominational ones. I had an idea of what God was about, but I never experienced fulfillment in Him. Sometimes I would sit there and think, “What are they talking about?” Other times I felt total joy. Looking back, I know the Holy Spirit was tugging at my heart.
At fourteen, I went to a small Baptist church and gave my heart to Jesus, but I quickly lost sight of Him. Because my inner circle consisted of nonbelievers and my knowledge of God and His Word was limited, I fell away.
Studying the Bible wasn’t something I was drawn to do. I have poor vision, and reading has always been hard for me. I wore glasses, but my condition was not correctable. I was a slow reader, and it was assumed I had some learning disability.
It wasn’t until I was 30 that I discovered I could read well if the material was in large print. I also discovered I was just as smart as my neighbors, but by then, the damage to my confidence had been done. I spent many years struggling to improve my self-esteem. I didn’t yet know that self-worth comes through a relationship with God, made possible through His Son, Jesus Christ.
My adult life consisted of church hopping, raising kids, and fighting with the world about who I was. Was I a mom first? A wife first? Should I work and make a name for myself?
My husband was a nonbeliever. He was a workaholic on top of being an alcoholic. Our marriage was rocky. We fought a lot. I was not used to that—my parents had never fought in front of us. I didn’t know how to handle it. The strain and pressure in our marriage increased.
In my search to find fulfillment, I never asked God. I turned to self-help books instead and tried all the “imagine yourself this way” ideas. I wrote a few children’s stories. I even started a fabric giftwrap business, but it failed.
Then, in 2000, we moved from Chicago to Jackson, Michigan, to be closer to my family. I hoped that being nearer to them would bring me fulfillment.
In 2002, I got pregnant with our fifth child. I thought I was going into menopause. Nope! I was overwhelmed, wondering how on earth I was going to do this.
Our daughter was born beautiful and healthy, and things were okay for a while. Then, my father went blind. So that he could manage better, my parents gave up their home in Michigan and moved to Florida. Life changed for us all.
Suddenly, I was in Michigan without family. Two of our children, now grown, had returned to Chicago. Money was tight, and I couldn’t run to Mom’s anymore when things got tough.
I started going to a small congregational church nearby; my husband even went for a while. There, I gained faith and fulfillment as I learned who God is and who I am in Him. The three children who were still at home went to church with me.
When money got tight, life got worse. I took odd jobs and waitressed, but few opportunities were available.
Somewhere around 2011, a friend gave me a box filled with slips of paper with encouraging statements on them. I told her that we should make and sell them. I scraped together some money, borrowed a bit from my mom, and that friend and I set up a business called Slips of Faith.
We designed the papers, filled the tins, and set up a website. Then my friend decided to leave the business. I began attending business-to-business marketing classes to salvage what we had started. One day, I walked into a meeting carrying a tin, and a woman asked what it was. I told her, and she asked if I would make her a prison tin.
She explained that she offered historic prison tours at the former state prison nearby, now transformed into a lively community of small apartments and artist’s workshops.
Her tours were popular, and she was looking for souvenirs to sell. She invited me to come on a tour. There I learned of the great influence the prison had had on the development of my hometown. I took a tin mug, put an 1800s mugshot on it, and wrote “40 Reasons Not to Have Your Mug in This Place.” They sold well.
After a while, she asked if I would join her as a tour guide. I did, and eventually we extended the tours to include the active Jackson Correctional Facility.
The place overwhelmed me at first. I felt sick. The cellblock was four stories high and contained 515 cells. Cages. I remember wondering how someone gets over living that way. God pricked my heart in unexpected ways in that prison.
I began meeting people who were involved with the prison art programs. I realized that art was a form of redemption for many; in fact, it actually saved people from total devastation.
One day I was speaking with a friend about the amazing art I had seen, and he said, “Have I ever shown you the butterflies I made?” He brought out the most beautiful little butterflies I had ever seen. They were made of toilet paper and glue for the bodies, bread ties for the legs and antennas. He had cut the wings from paper with his toenail clippers then carefully painted them. I was blown away.
First off, I’d had no idea he had been in prison; neither had I known how talented he was. I told him I could sell his butterflies on the tours, so he gave me some and when I told his story, people went nuts for them. I came back to tell him how popular they were and that I needed more to sell.
He looked at me and said, “I don’t have time to sit around and make tiny butterflies now.” He wasn’t in prison anymore. He needed real money, had to go to AA meetings, pay fines, meet with probation officers, and try to find work. Wow—I had never thought about the obstacles to reentry that people faced when released from prison. I learned there are many.
Eventually, I decided it was time to leave the tour business, but I couldn’t leave the idea of helping artists sell their work as a means of supporting themselves after their release. So I started a new business called Cellblock Creations.
No longer being involved with prison tours, however, made it difficult to sell the items. I no longer had access to the gift shop. Further, without the tours, I was barely staying afloat. I needed another job plus more!
God provided a job for me at a chocolate shop, but I couldn’t abandon the artists I’d promised to help. Many people wanted to help me promote them, but the necessary finances didn’t come in. Happily, I did get a lot donated in services, like a website and volunteers.
Even as I struggled to keep Cellblock Creations afloat, my home life was suffering too. We were going under, and I couldn’t see any way to help.
I pleaded with God for direction, but life got harder. Stress was at an all-time high. My husband was sick and using alcohol to self-medicate, but refused to admit it.
My faith was on a roller coaster. One minute I believed God, the next I couldn’t see how He could fix my situation. I became self-destructive myself—overeating, drinking, and sleeping—all in an effort to avoid dealing with the real issue of my heart. I was a mess.
I thought of quitting Cellblock Creations. Yet every time I said that, God placed someone in my path who needed hope. He also sent people to encourage me and spur me on.
He introduced me to Tamra Comstock, a Christian entertainer who changed my thinking about how God works. She introduced me to ACT International (Artists in Christian Testimony) and suggested I should organize as a nonprofit ministry. She drove me from Michigan to Tennessee, where I presented my vision to ACT. They agreed that Cellblock Creations was a ministry. I was surprised. That just was not how I saw Cellblock Creations…or myself. Surely ministries were run by ordained ministers, not a working mom with no degree.
I was still looking at myself through the world’s eyes and not God’s. How many other things was I confused about? I began seeking the Lord and His truth more. I learned to trust Him, even when the path He was leading me on made no sense.
Life hasn’t gotten easier. In the last four years, I’ve lost my home, my mom, and had to move from Michigan to Florida to help my 94-year-old blind father. But God has remained faithful to our family and to the ministry He’s called me to. He is healing us day by day. My husband has stopped drinking and is here in Florida with me and our youngest daughter.
These changed have required huge adjustments, but God has kept us afloat. In the process, my faith has grown stronger than ever. I thought moving to Florida might mean the end of Cellblock Creations, but it has grown with many new possibilities. Many are finding support and purpose for their new lives through my organization.
When I finally opened my hand to the Lord and said, “Lead me,” He has done so, each step of the way. I no longer care what others think of my decisions—as long as I know I am doing His will, I am at rest. I have learned it’s what makes no sense to the world that works in God’s kingdom.
Walking with Jesus has given me so much—even with all the losses I’ve experienced. When I follow Him and do what He instructs, everything works out for His glory. It’s not always easy, but it’s so worthwhile, because every step I take with Him leads further into a place of fulfillment.
About the author
Lynn Brown’s organization, Cellblock Creations, provides opportunities and promotes the art of starting over for those reentering the mainstream population. Visit cellblockcreations.org for more information.