as told to Ron Bolt
My dad and his brother grew up taking turns as their mom’s punching bag. Grandpa took a beating as well, but rather than hitting back, he hit the bottle—hard.
Both boys took on the worst characteristics of their parents and became violent alcoholics. I saw my uncle only a few times but remember him as a rough, mean drunk who beat his wife nearly to death. The generational curse passed onto my dad and he also became a product of his family system.
I Never Had a Childhood
I lived with my family on a small farm my mother’s parents bought for us. Dad couldn’t work because of a heart condition, so he spent most of his time at home. He drank and abused Mom and us five children. He thought play was silly and forced us to work all the time. Holidays were non-events–just another work day.
“You speak only when spoken to!” Dad drilled into us kids. Any deviation resulted in punishment by hand, fist or strap. Orders, even for dangerous tasks, needed to be obeyed immediately. Dad ordered me to check the current on electric fences by touching them with a metal butter knife. I complied as I feared the shock less than a beating.
Terror was my overriding childhood emotion. I feared not only for myself, but for my brothers, sister and mother. I remember waking up nights to the sounds of Dad beating Mom. I lay in bed praying to God, “Please stop it! Please stop it!” I expected my dad to kill one or all of us.
He also piled on verbal abuse. Each child acquired derogatory nicknames. Dad called me “Birdbrain.” He put us down constantly telling us, “You’ll never amount to anything,” and the credible threat, “You’ll never live to see your eighteenth birthday.”
We never got anything we needed from him emotionally: never an “I’m proud of you,” or “I love you.” He neither held nor hugged us, even when we were small.
My friends spoke of their dads taking them fishing or out to play ball. I longed for my dad to show an interest in me other than whipping, threatening or giving orders.
A Different Way
When I was seven, a van picked up us kids and took us to church. It was a radical change of environment for us. Adults spoke nicely and treated us with kindness. We heard God mentioned for the first time other than a swear word. Sunday School teachers made us feel loved and told us Jesus loved us too. They taught us right from wrong and how to make important decisions.
The van continued to pick us up week after week, year after year. The church included us in special events and even paid our way to summer camp. They backed up what they taught with their lives. All of this captured my attention.
When I was 12, my mother followed the advice of her family and filed for divorce. Although Dad neither loved nor wanted us, he fought for and won custody of us. He must have wanted us only to exert control and to inflict more pain on Mom. I’m not sure why the court gave us to him. Maybe it was because Mom worked and Dad would be home with us.
As the beatings continued, people noticed. Within three weeks, the court realized they made a mistake so Dad took us to a mutual friend’s house and disappeared from our lives. Mom picked us up and gained legal custody.
One Night Watching the News
As an eighth-grader, I watched the news on television. One night the headline story told of a man shooting a sheriff responding to a domestic violence report. As pictures popped on the screen, I realized, I know that guy. He finally did it! My dad had a new wife and son to beat. The sheriff survived but Dad headed to prison for a number of years.
After Dad served his time, he moved back with his wife and son. Police again responded to domestic assault complaints and found weapons in the home, a parole violation. They returned him to prison.
A year after my dad’s second arrest, Mom remarried and her mom’s parents bought us a house. The new man didn’t beat any of us but tore us down with verbal abuse. I think he must have married to get sex, a house, property and a means of satisfying his taste for man toys: big pickup, motorcycle, and a trailer for camping. At one point, Mom learned of his two-year affair with another woman. My step-dad departed but left us with sufficient debt to lose our home and everything else.
In my early teens, I decided I wanted something better in life. I didn’t want to repeat my family patterns. I compared how other families lived to how we lived. People considered us “white trash” and didn’t expect anything out of us. I was ashamed of my dad and step-dad and I wanted people to respect me, like me and associate with me.
I had seen a taste of the good life with my church friends’ families. At my best friend’s house, I observed his dad playing with his children and responding to them with love and respect.
I’d become aware of this better life my Heavenly Father had for me—a much better life than my biological father’s legacy. I rejected my old life, symbolized by my dad and aimed toward a new life of freedom, hope and possibilities. I chose life over death. I chose a future over pain, misery and despair.
I Can do Whatever I Pursue
Even through the painful years, I had an awareness God was with me. I understood God would help me through everything. People entered my life and encouraged me to move in positive directions: a Boy Scout leader and his family, people at church and a pastor and his wife who took us kids under their wings and pushed us forward.
Art Carlson mentored and encouraged kids at church, including me. His positive spirit rubbed off on me. He always made me feel welcome by asking “How are you doing?” It seemed like a simple question, but it made me think someone cared.
In high school, I worked hard and earned high grades. I made positive friends and solicited guidance from successful people who believed in me. Irene Conory, one of my teachers, reached out to guide and support me. We talked about foreign exchange students and I told her I had wanted to be one since an Iranian exchange student spoke to my third grade class. She asked if I would like to become one.
I told her, “Yes.” She asked where in all the world I would like to go, and I said, “Australia.”
“You can do it,” she assured me. Mrs. Conory tutored me in three courses one summer to help me become eligible for the program.
I focused on completing the coursework and raising money. I spent a year as an exchange student on the Sunshine Coast in sub-tropical Queensland. I gained a lot of confidence that year as I traveled, made friends and functioned independently in a foreign culture. I came back from Australia with the belief I could do whatever I pursued. I knew I could achieve my goals and become successful.
Serving God became my life’s desire. Someone from church anonymously donated a large sum of money to get me started at a Christian college. I secured many scholarships, some grants along with a few loans and my dream began to take shape.
During college, I worked 30 hours a week to fill out the money I needed. After four years, I became the first college graduate in my family’s history. I followed college with seminary and became the first pastor in my family line. No family attended my ordination, but Art Carlson came.
I’m not tormented by memories of my traumatic childhood although it took a lot of time and work to get over them. As an adult I remember receiving a lone phone call from my dad telling me, “Your grandpa died. You don’t need to come to the funeral. There’s nothing there for you.” We grandchildren were to inherit 10 acres each of Grandpa’s valuable timberland. However, Dad persuaded him to rewrite the will giving it all to him and his brother. They took the entire estate and ended up losing every bit of it.
Old feelings of rejection and life not being fair began to resurface but I reminded myself Focus on what’s working in my life. Count my blessings.
I resolved to leave the pain of victimhood behind and move my life forward. I asked God to make me forget. Sometimes the memories start to creep back and I have a choice to dwell on them or to focus on my future.
Most of my childhood memories are vague. I will call up my beatings and beratings if it serves a purpose to help someone, but much of my childhood I honestly don’t remember.
Some people wonder why I never married. Growing up with two failed marriages, I could see it must take a lot of time and effort to make it work. I didn’t think I would make a good husband because I focus my energy on ministry. Marriage just hasn’t been a priority for me and I never thought that’s what it would take to make me happy. Jesus never married—not that I compare myself to him. Many people throughout history who made a significant difference for Christ never married. People at church serve as my family. I love and care for them and they love and care for me.
After all I’ve been through, I understand that God is good. He rights all the wrongs which have taken place. I believe my call in life is to love God. Jesus said, “I am come so you may have life and have it more abundantly.”
Stewart’s Advice for Young People
●Keep trusting God for strength to get through tough times.
●Find and stay close to people who believe in you.
●If you are being physically abused, you must get help for yourself and get out of that situation.
Stewart’s Advice for Adults
●Realize we live in a broken world. The Bible tells us, “All have sinned.” We are all broken people but God’s grace can mend
●Get professional and spiritual help. Allow those helpers to hold you accountable.
●Stop the curse of self-destructive attitudes and behaviors. If you don’t, they will ruin your life and the lives of those who love
●Tell yourself, “I’m going to be happy today.” Do it again tomorrow.
●Conduct a symbolic funeral event. Bury your pain and bitterness and don’t dig them up again.
●Give yourself the attitude of a victor instead of a victim.
●Forget the past, move on in the present, look forward to the future.
●Life is short. Begin your healing right now.
Stewart Fowler serves a pastor of Calapooia Free Methodist Church.
Sutherlin, Oregon named him “Man of the Year” for 2014.
Although he neither married nor sired children, he ministers as a spiritual father to many people.