Coming up in Brownsville, it was very racial, and I look white. My mother was very strict. She would tell me, after school, if you don’t want me to whip your behind, be in the house before the street lights come on. I am who I am today because of her, and the mind has a way of going back.
I was raised in the church all my life from age of five. When I was five, we moved to New York City from North Carolina. The church my mother was affiliated with moved. That pastor—R.W. Shambach—had such a radio following that some people asked him why he didn’t have a location, and he started one on Willoughby Street. So, we traveled from Brownsville to Bedford-Stuyvesant just to go to church.
Pastor saw so many young folks, and church on the weekends was for adults. So on Saturday, he had children’s church, and let the kids lead. Someone to pray, to read, to preach.
He wanted me to be the preacher. Ever since, when other pastors had youth days, they would call my pastor and say, have Guy come around! My being a musician, too. An older gentleman, he brought a single snare drum to church, and let me play.
So at the age of 12, I preached my first sermon. From being in church since the age of 5, I saw how the preacher developed his sermon. I knew how to take a Biblical story and apply it to everyday life.
For example, I preached from Psalm 23: “We all know what a shepherd is. Wouldn’t a good shepherd leave 99 sheep and go after one? When I come home from school, dinner’s on the table. My mom feeds me. My mom washes my clothes. In a natural sense, my mother is my shepherd. But the Lord is our shepherd. He says you will not want. All he asks is that you acknowledge who he is and praise him for what he did. Before your cigarette, coffee, newspaper in the morning, acknowledge him.”
My mother was illiterate. She couldn’t read or write. She washed people’s houses, did mystic work to get me through school.
One time, I was cutting up in class, and my mom heard about it. She came to the school and, as she was walking along, she cut a switch—grabbed a stick from the side of the street and started cutting it! The teacher had to beg her not to beat me in class, because what would that look like, this black woman hitting this white kid!
My mom said, “You don’t know what I go through to get him an education, and he has the nerve to act up!” I didn’t cut up again.
When I was grown I started indulging in drugs, and I hit the bottom. I started with cocaine. Freebasing, crack.
Out of high school, I started working for the NYC Housing Preservation and Development office. I graduated at 19, worked at 21. As a maintenance worker, I was making good money. Out of mother’s wing, now I was an adult—after being a mama’s boy, a church boy.
At a co-worker’s social gathering—I can’t remember whether we were at an apartment or going out to dinner—he pulled out a dollar bill of cocaine. And I thought I could play both sides. There was no thought, I just wanted to belong. You look at them, and all you see is they’re getting jolly and you think, what the hell.
But if more people thought before they acted, life would be different.
I would stay clean, so I was my worst enemy. You have your talents always with you. God doesn’t give and then take back. But just ‘cause you’re getting by doesn’t mean you get away.
Back home, my mother was praying, “Don’t let him rest.” So in the midst of crack houses, someone would start talking about God!
At one place, while six of us were sitting around, there was one Muslim brother. I had a ham sandwich, and I offered to share it with him. And he said he doesn’t eat ham. And I thought, damn! I started ministering, saying, “God is looking at you! You won’t put this in your body, but you’re smoking crack?? God is looking at you!”
I was 29, homeless, slept on trains, slept in the park. I had a serious problem.
Eventually, I got locked up to rehab. When I listened to others’ stories, I realized that I was blessed. I walked out of that rehab and didn’t look back. God has brought me from that pit to this palace. Not one day do I not think about what he did for me.
There was one man—he was so manly, there was nothing gay about him. But addiction made him do things with other men that he never thought he’d do. To go beyond who and what you are for a three-minute high caused him to belittle himself and go to the lowest lows. That bothered him more than the drugs.
But I have never picked out of the garbage, because I knew how to work, to clean and mop restaurants. I would walk in and say, “I don’t want money, I just want food.”
When I was homeless, I was walking along 6th Avenue and 57th Street in May. I’m hungry and trying to decide where I’m going. There was a homeless guy, everyone thought he was crazy, but he had constructed a wooden cross and stuck it in his cart. He slept in front of a Catholic church. When I passed him, I looked up, and there was him and that cross.
I lost it, because even in my sin, the Spirit of God led me to the foot of the cross. I went up three steps and lay down and slept at the foot of the cross. I felt safe. The next day, a van pulled up and out came a group of people with the church who fed the homeless. They told me to go to 9th Avenue and 40th Street, to Open Door Shelter. There, they showed me how to go on public assistance with a roof over my head. I worked, sold newspapers, only three months. Then I was accepted into the shelter. I was paying rent, not wanting to be on public assistance.
Regaining my ministry
I began preaching again and doors opened. My mom’s favorite scripture is, “Acknowledge the Lord in all your ways and he will direct your path.” And song: “Let Jesus Lead You.”
Because I have been there, on the street, can’t nobody play me. When parents bring their kids to me: First I ask, what drug are you on? How long have you been doing this? Where do you stay? How long doing that? –Because they can stay in a shelter or on the street.
Second, I let him know he cannot play with me. I use my intel from streets as well as being led by God to know, what bait do I have to use? You cannot clean or cook a fish until you catch it.
Third, we self-acknowledge. I ask, what do you want to do with your life? If you just want to get through today, you know where the soup kitchen is. Sometimes having that to talk helps.
Then, I invite him to Sunday service worship. This invitation says: If you really want help, show me, make an effort, and show up. I don’t care how he smells, don’t care what he wears, so long as he answers my request. But when he refuses prayer, I know he comes in with wary motives.
Come in, sit through whole service, then I’ll adjust my sermon to address your problems. When I get done preaching, I ask, does anyone not understand? Raise your hand, and I’ll break it down. I’ll let my congregation know that when I say the benediction, my whole congregation will line up to shake his hand.
My main sermon is to keep hope, as Jesse Jackson would say, keep it, keep the faith because without faith no one can please God.
Photos and video by Pauline Dolle.