“How you feelin’, Mike?”
Grandma asked me this question every time we were alone in her car. My behavior had grown increasingly dark, and she was convinced it was only a matter of time before I hurt myself or maybe someone else.
“It ain’t good to keep all those emotions bottled up inside you,” she’d warn.
But even if I’d wanted to answer her, I couldn’t. I didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t always that way. As a kid, I’d had lots of emotions…but few felt good. So I stuffed them deep inside and kept going.
My mom was 15 when she gave birth to me. She was young, single, poor, and severely addicted to crack cocaine. Our home was chaotic, and I didn’t have a safe space to express how I felt. Mom wasn’t emotionally, mentally, or physically able to hear me, much less help me sort through my pain.
If I told anyone else how I felt, I’d have to reveal the root of the problem, and that would break an unwritten code between Mom and me. Whatever happened in our house, stayed in our house.
Mom’s addiction and our life in the projects exposed me to many evils. Our neighborhood was full of evil, drugs, and crime. When I was five years old, I witnessed a drive-by shooting. Not long after, my best friend was shot and killed. Those traumatic experiences hurt my young heart. Mom ran with a tough crowd, and sometimes terrible things happened to her.
I was the most afraid and vulnerable at night. I would lie on my bed and listen to the noises from the street, neighboring apartments, and sometimes, my own home. Yelling. Screaming. Gunfire.
When Mom gave birth to my sister, I was the one who changed my sister’s diapers, warmed her bottle, and fed her in the middle of the night because Mom was incapacitated. And I was only seven years old.
Eventually, Mom moved us from the projects of Virginia to North Carolina to be near family. But her addiction and poverty moved with us.
Please understand: I love my mother. Today she is free from her addiction, and we have a good relationship. I share these details only to lay the foundation for my story and to testify to the goodness of God. He rescued my grandmother, mother, and me from destructive generational patterns and choices. But we went through a lot to get there.
With time, fear and loneliness turned into disappointment. Every time Mom chose crack over me, I felt let down. Her addiction resulted in countless broken promises and a lack of basic necessities. Disappointment eventually turned to resentment.
I was angry with Mom for not providing for us. I resented her because I had to care for my siblings, even though I loved them. While that responsibility probably saved my life by keeping me busy and off the streets, at the time, it felt my childhood had been stolen from me.
Mom’s addiction and eventual incarceration meant my siblings and I were bounced around between relatives in North and South Carolina. I’m thankful for the intervening love and security Grandma and her sister, Aunt Sarah, gave us, but moving meant new neighborhoods and schools. It seemed I was always the new kid and people were always sizing me up. My self-esteem was almost nonexistent. Mostly, I stayed to myself and kept my mouth closed.
Going from Mom’s house, where there were no rules, to Aunt Sarah’s, where there were rules and consequences, was not easy. I didn’t like being told what to do and became rebellious. My new elementary school had to develop an in-school suspension program just for me.
About that time, movies glorifying gang life became popular. Suddenly, my life experiences were right there on the big screen, and I realized how much power someone from the hood—like me—could have over others. Dark thoughts and ideas swirled through my head as I imagined what it’d be like to be a killer. Maybe I’d be a hitman.
By seventh grade, I was carrying knives, threatening classmates, and smoking weed. I liked being high. I owned my first handgun by eighth grade, and in ninth, I swung a machete at a man’s head. In my defense, he was trying to sexually assault me, but it’s only by God’s grace that I didn’t kill him or hurt others.
On a positive note, I joined the football team in junior high. I’d always been athletic but had never played organized sports because of my responsibilities at home. I did well, and the coach told me if I worked hard, I could attend college on a football scholarship. That was a foreign concept to me; I’d never considered the idea of me having a future.
It felt great to be a part of an organized team and to be good at something, but it was short-lived. Mom made me a grand promise of a summer vacation that turned into my having to care for my siblings long-term. Football practice was off the table. I resented her even more.
In eleventh grade, I moved to a relative’s house in Kinston, North Carolina, and made the football team. Amazingly, I was soon ranked number two in the state for sacks. I went from being a nobody to a somebody. The local “big homie” bought me expensive shoes; girls chased me; and people I didn’t even know talked to me.
I made plans to attend NC State University and crushed the football camp—but my confidence quickly became embarrassment when my grades didn’t make the cut. I walked on at Fayetteville State University instead. Still, I played well and worked hard, and the coach said I had what it took to make it to the pros.
I hadn’t been at school one month when my girlfriend told me she was pregnant. I didn’t take it well. I’d just gotten free from raising my siblings, and now I was supposed to raise another child? No.
I ran. Dropped out of school, abandoned the gridiron, and moved back to Aunt Sarah’s in South Carolina. I needed space to figure things out and more drugs to silence the confusing voices screaming in my head.
I took a miserable job in masonry that paid a lousy wage. My coworkers sat around and smoked their crack pipes every day after work. Was this my future? It didn’t look much different from growing up, and I resented Mom even more. I was still holding her responsible for my wretched life.
Sure, Mom’s lifestyle had impacted me and my siblings, but what about the things I’d done? I’d wielded guns and knives and sold drugs. I’d rebelled against authority and planned robberies. I’d gotten my girlfriend pregnant and then abandoned her and a potential future in football. None of that was on Mom, but I was harboring hate and unforgiveness in my heart.
Hebrews 12:15 (NLT) says, “Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” For years, I had allowed a poisonous root of bitterness to grow unchecked in my heart and mind, and now, I was eating the fruit of it.
I soon left my brickmason job to be a drug dealer and bodyguard. I made $3,000 my first day and was hooked. But selling those drugs often filled me with guilt. I was destroying kids’ lives with the very drug that had destroyed my mother’s. It began to wear heavy on me.
There was a lot of tension between me and the guys who worked for my boss too. They had been with him longer than me, yet I was his righthand man.
I became so worried that someone would take me out that I actually had a nervous breakdown. I was at a bar doing a drug deal, and I started crying uncontrollably. I went to the bathroom to get myself together, but I couldn’t. So I called Grandma and told her what was happening.
“Mike, you need to get in church, and you need to see a mental health professional.” It was only the hundredth time she’d said it. Instead, I moved back to North Carolina. Grandma kept telling me to get help, but I wasn’t about to have my head examined by a doctor; I knew I had issues!
Finally, I decided I’d go to church, walk to the altar, and pretend to give my life to Jesus. I’d only have to go once, and then I could tell Grandma her plan didn’t work. Then I’d hit the streets with a vengeance. I’d learned much over the years; I was ready to run my own crew.
Sunday came, and I waited on the back pew for the pastor to do an altar call. I stepped into the aisle and took a step toward the front—but suddenly, tears flooded my eyes. The closer I got to the pastor, the harder I cried.
I had my plan. God had a different one.
After that day, I started going to church more consistently. It was the only place I could find peace from my dark thoughts. Sometimes, I’d walk out of church and light up a joint. The guys would tease me, “Mike, you ain’t even out of your suit, and you’re smoking weed!” I still had much to overcome, but I was headed in the right direction.
Since I was in North Carolina, I began spending more time with my son. I’d never experienced a healthy parent-child relationship myself, but I was trying. And God would use that kid to melt my hardened heart.
I’d take him to the park and tell him to go play while I sat in the car smoking weed. Over time, I noticed how other parents interacted with their kids. They played and talked with them. I wanted a relationship like that with my son. The day I saw some other kid’s father play with my son on the slide was the day I put out the weed and got out of the car. That was my son!
During this time, I was in and out of a relationship with his mother, Tanya. I ended up getting her pregnant again. I wish I could say I was trying to be good to her like I was our son, but I wasn’t. Seeing fear in her eyes gave me such a rush. It sickens me to think of the hell I put her through.
But when our daughter was stillborn, everything changed. The doctor said prenatal stress had caused her death. Tanya and I both knew I was the source of that stress. In her grief, she cut me out of her life, and I can’t blame her. I hated me too.
How ironic: for years I’d wanted to be a killer, and now I was one.
I’m grateful that God doesn’t waste anything, not even our sin. Through this experience, I came to a point of true surrender and got serious about my faith. I no longer attended church to feel better; I was there for God to teach, change, and use me.
Scripture began speaking directly to my heart, revealing the depths of God’s love for me (Ephesians 3:18) and declaring my identity as a child of God (1 John 3:1). It brought correction (2 Timothy 3:16–17) and showed me that to become a new person, I had to change the way I thought (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5, Colossians 3:1–3).
Retraining my thoughts was a full-time job. I had never thought of myself as anything more than a poor kid from the hood. An outcast. A son of a crack addict. A waster of talent. A destroyer of lives. But the Bible told me otherwise. In Christ, I was loved and accepted, and God had great plans for me.
Tanya noticed the change but didn’t believe it. Over time, however, she saw that it was real. We got back together, and I got her pregnant again. I hadn’t lined up my sex life with God’s Word yet.
After our son was born, Tanya gave her life to Jesus, and we were married. I worked as a janitor at a local church, served in the youth ministry, and tried to imitate the pastor—all the way down to his clothes! Tanya worked hard too.
A year later, Tanya and I had a daughter. Raising three kids was tough, but it got harder when family members descended on our home. Ten people were sharing a three-bedroom house with one bathroom!
I was about at my wit’s end when I heard a voice say, “Go to Rhema” (a Bible training college in Oklahoma). I was alone at work that day, and I knew it was the Lord speaking. I shared the experience with Tanya, and we obeyed God’s direction, even though everyone else thought we’d lost our minds.
God began a good work in us at Rhema that He continues to fulfill to this day (Philippians 1:6)—but I must admit, I often doubted Him.
Every week, I’d run to the altar and cry out to Him for provision. “Where are you God? Can’t You see our needs?” I’d make quite a scene praying, worshipping, dancing, and declaring His promises. I pointed out Mark 11:24 to Him so many times, but nothing got better. One day, I refused to go forward anymore.
“God, I’ve been ‘believing to receive’ for weeks. I’ve done everything I know to do, and it ain’t working! We obeyed You and came to Rhema, and now we’re about to be evicted from our home. We can’t even afford gas for our car.” I threw up my hands in the spiritual realm and told God if He wanted us to stay, then He would just have to provide. I was done worrying about it.
With the conclusion of those words, a rush of peace came over me. Turns out, my trust was all He wanted. God was calling me to believe, not perform; to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10). From that moment on, God has shown up in the most unbelievable ways; He hasn’t failed us yet.
At Rhema, I began a journey of unravelling the pain of my childhood. I learned about grace, and God helped me forgive both my mother and myself. He revealed how He’d always been there for me. Saving me. Protecting me. Guiding me. Drawing me to Himself.
My faith grew by leaps and bounds. We knew God was with us as we prepared for yet another child. We’d planned to move back to North Carolina immediately after graduation, but Tanya went into labor twelve weeks early.
Our son was born dead. I’ll never forget his blue face and the panic on the faces of the nurses. Thank God, he was resuscitated, but he would spend the next two months in an incubator.
Tanya and I visited him every day, as did prayer teams from Rhema. God answered our prayers and healed our son, but our bank account was depleted. This was a true test of faith, and I was failing.
By the time we got back to North Carolina, we were not only broke, we were in a deep financial hole. We had nothing to our name, and I felt like a failure as we moved in with Tanya’s mother.
No matter how hard I worked, we consistently fell short. Depression overtook me, and I considered returning to the streets. I knew how to make money there—I could get us out of this mess! My friend Travis talked me down. He and I had run together in junior high until he was sent to prison for robbery.
“Mike,” he said, “I’m doing enough time for the both of us. Get another job. Don’t go back to the streets.” Travis had always been there for me.
I took his advice and picked up extra jobs. I worked at Chick-fil-A, coached football, was a teacher’s assistant, and drove the bus. But we still struggled.
“Where are You, God?” He seemed lost. Or maybe I was lost or had missed some direction from Him.
At Rhema, I had learned that when you feel you’ve lost connection to God, think back to the spot you left Him. God doesn’t go anywhere; He doesn’t abandon His children (Deuteronomy 31:6).
The last time I’d heard clearly from God was when He told me to go to Rhema. I wondered if I’d made a mistake coming back here. Maybe we should go back to Oklahoma. I asked God to forgive me and to give me direction. Not long after, a friend told me about a local position at Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
“Man, they ain’t gonna hire someone like me.” I was a guy from the hood who knew nothing about nonprofits or raising financial support. I didn’t have connections with successful and respectable business leaders in the community. My only connections were on the street, and those guys weren’t looking for a tax write-off!
But God showed me that I only needed Him. I didn’t need connections or special qualifications; I just needed a willing heart. He blessed me with a position as the FCA area rep. Within two years, I was overseeing more than a thousand kids who were drawn to the authenticity of my message and could identify with my upbringing and experiences.
In 2022, the Lord allowed me to return to the gridiron at East Carolina University, not as a player, but as a character coach for the ECU football team under the umbrella of FCA. Today, I am connecting with young men who are looking for hope, stability, and a father figure, just as I was at their age. What a privilege I have, sharing what I’ve learned (and am still learning) as I help them navigate their emotions.
Right now, God is teaching me about humility and serving others. Before, I had freedom to do things my way. Now, I’m working under the authority of other coaches and leaders, and it’s a new experience. God is helping me lay down my pride.
A never-ending growth is part of the Christian journey. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but it’s worth it. If you’re willing to do the work with God, He will bless your life in ways you never dreamed (Ephesians 3:20).
You can’t change the past—no one can. But with God, you can change your future.
MIKE JENKINS is the FCA character coach at East Carolina University. He is passionate about helping young men find their identity in Christ.