Within every issue, we are honored to bring you stories that display God’s miracle-working power. Sometimes, His miracles are immediate, in the blink of an eye. Other times, His miracles are in the making … over the years. Miracles taking place over the years? What does that mean? How is that possible?
What is a Miracle?
- a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.
This summer while curating the content for the issue you’re reading, “Miracles Still Happen” was one of our last pieces we hadn’t secured. Stacy and I had identified a few of God’s miracles we wanted to highlight, but our inquiries received no responses. Our deadline was quickly approaching. I said to Stacy, “Maybe we won’t include a miracle this time.” Adamantly, she disagreed. One request after another, still no response.
One Sunday in August, I had the pleasure of serving on the Elevation Church production team. On this particular Sunday, our campus pastor acknowledged a young man with a troubled past who, while incarcerated, had an encounter with God through a message from Pastor Steven Furtick. I immediately felt a nudge on my heart, which I now know was the Holy Spirit, who said, “That’s your miracle.” This young man was different from our other miracles, or so I thought, but that feeling was all too familiar. After a few more rejections later from other efforts already in the works, I took the plunge and started trying to find out who he was.
On my next Sunday to serve, two weeks later, I asked one person in leadership about him. That one person sent one text. Thirty minutes later I had his name, phone number, and a confirmation that he would love to talk to share his story and to please call him the next day after 5 p.m. Ummmm … can we say God’s timing is unmatched!?
As I mentioned earlier, how is it that a miracle can take place over years? The miracle God will reveal has an even greater impact when you realize how God has followed you, how He’s kept you, and how He’s preserved you through personal choices. Especially when you absorb the fact that those same choices have killed others. Brandon Stephenson is that miracle. But, he didn’t know it for years … BUT GOD!
Born and raised, until age 13, in Richmond, Virginia, Brandon was a typical boy. All his friends were there. He loved sports. Though his first sport was baseball, it was football that grabbed his heart. He got pretty good, too. Football was his happy place. A place where he felt he belonged. Yet, at home, that same feeling didn’t resonate. Though he loved his older brother, Allen, Brandon began to feel early on as if their parents, Rodney and Mary, did not treat his brother and him the same.
Growing up, Rodney was very strict, more strict with him than with his Allen. “My dad is a retired Navy vet. So me and my brother grew up knowing you’re going to walk the line. It’s going to be a thin line, a tight line, that was our upbringing.” Though Brandon’s dad was strict, he says, “We didn’t want for anything.” But even so, Brandon began to feel levels of rejection. Allen toed the line while Brandon wanted to fit in with the crowd. That crowd movement didn’t fare well for Brandon. “I was the menace between me and my brother. I was the class clown. He was praised, I was not. I was told I wasn’t going to be anything and my brother was never told that. I felt like I was the black sheep of the family. I felt like I was the ‘less-than child.’ There were a lot of times, with my dad, whether he felt it or not, I had a lot of feelings like I was a mistake. There were times where I would go to bed when I was young and wish that I was not here. I wished that I wouldn’t wake up. Sometimes I would think, maybe my parents, especially my dad, wished I wasn’t their kid, and if they could have another kid they would love that kid more than me.” Brandon is the baby, two years younger than Allen. Rodney was strict, but Mary had Brandon wrapped around her finger. “She took up for me,” he says. Brandon recalls that, as a little boy, his mom would always read the Bible to him. She told him she would leave the Bible open to Psalm 23 and put it under his pillow. This verse would come to be the turning point later in his life.
Just like most kids with siblings, you expect friends to come over, stay the night, and hang out. Your families get to know each other, and everyone is treated as such, like family. There was never any reason to believe any differently at the Stephenson household. Yet, on too many occasions, too many children share a dark truth. Brandon, unfortunately, was unable to escape that same truth. He recalls a time when he was nearly 10 years old, when one of his brother’s friends was over. At his age, “I had not had the birds and the bees talk with my family yet, so I had no idea what it was.” This friend, who was over for the night, touched Brandon in an inappropriate sexual manner. “He told me that it was okay, that that’s what friends did to seal their pact with each other, but I couldn’t tell nobody because it was our secret.” This abuse continued until the family moved to North Carolina. By this time, Brandon was 13, had been sexually abused by his brother’s friend for years, and felt consistently rejected and unwanted by his parents; he perceived that they continued to treat his brother and him differently. These beliefs were the catalyst that led to Brandon getting into a lot of trouble.
Moving to a new state proved difficult; he and his family knew absolutely no one, and Brandon and Allen were teased a lot. They got into fights and had to defend themselves often. People tried to steal their shoes, they were bullied … It was truly a rough transition. With everything Brandon had been through, he says, “Um, I became the bully. I became that aggressor because I thought that that’s what would make me a part of something. I thought that was the problem this whole time. I thought the problem was me. I was too soft. I was a pushover. So I became that aggressor. I became the guy that would beat you up if you looked at me wrong. I was in middle school, my eighth grade year.” Can you imagine dealing with all of this in middle school? During this conversation, all I could do was think about my own son who just entered high school. I can’t even imagine.
More often than not, people are quietly struggling with atrocities they’ve survived or possibly still experiencing. While in eighth grade, Brandon encountered the event that changed his life, but yet again, not for the better. Brandon shares, “A guy walks up to me and he’s like, man, you’re so like, mean and intense. I got something that’ll help you relax, bro. And I said, oh yeah, what’s that? He handed me this thing that honestly looked like paper rolled up. And that’s when I tried my first joint, and it took off from there.”
We always hear about these gateway drugs. To be totally transparent, I never believed marijuana was a gateway drug. I smoked it for years and it never progressed any further. I rationalized it. It had no physically addictive properties, so I thought, it calms you down … what was the actual problem? How can it lead to other things? This was my narrow, not-as-traumatized life experience talking, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I had been through some things, but not to this extent. It was at this moment, even with some of our similarities, that I realized how polarizing something I considered so harmless could become; to Brandon, marijuana became the literal novacane he needed to dull the pain he was quietly facing every day.
Through the summer and into high school, Brandon continued to smoke. Smoking weed gave him the confidence he needed. He felt really good, he started making new friends, and he thought this was the life God intended him to have. All the feelings he’d had, all the stuff that happened to him, began to go away with the help of all the weed he was smoking. “It’s like, none of that mattered anymore. I thought I was cured. I thought I found the cure for everything I went through as a child. I thought I found the magic potion for it.” At that moment, I felt like a thin sheet of fabric had been removed from the eyes of my understanding. My heart sunk deep into my chest as I continued to listen to his story. The more we talked, the more he remembered different times of his childhood. As we talked about different scenarios, one question would jog a new thought, like darts to his memory. I stopped Brandon as he began to talk about how he hadn’t been a stranger to God.
“I was introduced to God at a very young age,” he shares. “I’m that Southern Pentecostal kid. That’s how I grew up.” His dad was involved in ministry, as was his grandfather within the Pentacostal church. I wanted to know how his early introduction to God’s character, coupled with the conflicting nature of how his parents were treating him, had shaped his thoughts of God. He recalls, “So my introduction to God was, you know, God is above all, He’s the creator of the earth. He is a loving God. He’s compassionate. He shows mercy. I grew up as a kid idolizing God … I couldn’t see God physically, I couldn’t physically reach out and touch God, but I heard so much about Him as a kid, that this God person is somebody. It sounded like everything He did was just good and awesome. Now, let’s go to the feelings that I had in a realistic sense. Those thoughts fought each other.” In other words, Brandon indicated that his thoughts toward God at this point began to be in question. It’s not that he didn’t believe that the characteristics of God were true, but his traumatized and youthful mind became confused. “God does all of this? He gives us parents to love and nurture and take care of us, but God, what did you do when you gave me mine? I thought, God, what were you doing when you put me here? I got mad at God. I remember one day I went and sat in the woods and I said, ‘God, you are a liar! Because, because you said that I’m supposed to love my parents because they love me. But my parents, I don’t feel like my parents love me. So you’re a liar.’ I said those words because that’s the feelings I was subjected to.” As adults, we have conflicting circumstances we face daily. Even as adults, we struggle with what we see, what we feel, and how we should respond. Do we respond with logic, with feelings, or with responsibility? All the things Brandon had seen in church — miracles, praise and worship, people being set free — was in such conflict with his life experience. When Brandon recalls how his mom used to place the Bible opened to Psalm 23 under his pillow, he also remembers his really bad nightmares. And like a nightmare, his life in middle school wasn’t lining up with this Psalm. “There was one night I got mad and I slammed my Bible shut and I threw it. I said, ‘This whole book is nothing but a bunch of scripted fairy tales just to make a bunch of money. These people (referring to the people in his childhood church) get up here and preach about it, but they’re preaching lies. God doesn’t lay me down in green pastures. This God isn’t what this verse says He is, this is a lie!’” Brandon says his heart grew cold to Scripture, and he didn’t want anything to do with God. In his mind, God was a liar. When he attended a Christian camp one summer, a youth leader recalls Brandon not participating in any of the faith-building exercises, but he was fully active in the fun events like swimming, arts and crafts, etc. When asked why, Brandon said, “I cannot fake a front. And I cannot go in there and act like I’m in love with somebody who I despise.”
As Brandon moved through middle school and then into high school, he consumed any drug that was available. He progressively became more and more out of control. He distributed drugs to support his own habit. Listening to Brandon, you can tell he has an infectious personality. He loves to talk. He seems like he was the life of any party. But, as he admits earlier, he was a bully and earned respect for all the wrong reasons. He attempted to bring that disrespectful nature to his home. He abused curfews and disrespected the boundaries set at home. But, Rodney was still a military man and still carried out disciplinary actions at home. Brandon had no idea of the worry and concern Rodney and Mary were actually feeling night after night when he didn’t come home. Nights would turn into days, days into weeks. Mary never stopped praying for her son. Brandon’s disrespectful nature eventually morphed into entitlement. He wrecked the car his dad had given him and then insisted he replace it. The disrespect and entitlement eventually led to Brandon no longer being welcomed at home.
Brandon’s entitled mindset even extended to God. Despite his progressively worsening behavior, he graduated from high school … barely. Out of 500 students, he was 497. He recalls how, on the night of graduation, a friend of his who was high on the same substances he was consuming fell over a balcony and died. “That didn’t stop me. If anything, as twisted as this sounds, Denise, it added more fuel to the fire because I remember I looked up and I said, ‘God, I don’t know if you’re there or not, but what happened to them will never happen to me.’”
Over the next several years, more and more people died around Brandon. If you’ve lived long enough, you may have known someone who’s overdosed, purposely or accidentally. Some lived and some did not. Regardless, I cannot recall a time that I didn’t feel sadness for that person, for what they had endured, or for empathy for their loved one. However, after nearly two hours talking to Brandon, I wasn’t prepared for my next set of feelings as he shared his overdose story with me.
“I had a total of 10 overdoses. Um, and on the tenth overdose, I was dead. They said my body started changing color. My lips were turning white. My body was starting to stiffen up. I was turning, not cold, but a little chilled. And they said, all of a sudden color came back in my face and I just went (gasps for air), and I was fine. But in that moment, it’s what I believe still to this day, that God exposed me to what He was. He was unveiling it to me as a second experience, because it’s where I went.” I had to stop him and ask for further explanation in regard to “because it’s where I went.” Brandon continues, “I had no recollection on how long I was out. I do remember where I went. It was very dark. It was very hot. I heard screaming. I heard demonic laughter, and I saw claws coming for me. Smoke came out of nowhere. And I saw the most horrific demonic faces that I can’t describe to you if I tried. And the only thing that I can [descriptively] remember is this thing spoke and said, ‘We have you now, welcome home.’ And I heard women screaming. I heard kids crying. I heard whips or what sounded like whips. I heard chains. I was hot. I could not stop getting hot. I got hotter and hotter. It was dark. It was, uh, it was, it bothers me to talk about it, but I have to talk about it because I’ve stuffed it for so long. So I was there. And all of a sudden, I remember gasping for air, but when I gasped for air, I had this warmth come over my body.
And I immediately got up.” During this time, Brandon has been missing from his home for over a month. He was staying with people nearly two hours away. At this point, he had enough. The tenth overdose did it for him. He had nothing. Two cars had been repossessed, his girlfriend cheated on him and left him, the home they were staying in was gone. He had nothing. Even in all his running, running from his problems, running to drugs to camouflage the pain, running to people who didn’t have his best in mind, at the end of all this he realized, “You can’t outrun God, you cannot,” Brandon says.
“I tried for years, Denise, to say, forget God. I tried to burn Bibles. I would laugh at preachers. I would mock people who spoke in tongues. I would make fun of them. I ran. But then as I got into this new life that I live now, I realized I was running a million miles an hour. But God was running a million and ten and catching me as fast as I could take a stride. So I called my mom and I said, ‘Mom, it’s me.’ And she choked up. And she said, ‘Brandon, is this really you?’ And I said, ‘Mom, I want to come home.’ I said, ‘I’m done.’ I said, ‘Seven years of this crap, I’m done.’ I said, ‘Please, you and Dad come get me. I can’t tell you where I’m at, but I’ll find a safe location. And, y’all meet me there.’ It normally takes two and a half hours to get down from Goldsboro, from my house. This is how I know my parents didn’t hate me.
They were there in an hour and a half. Dad looked at me, and for the first time my dad hugged me and he said, ‘Our baby’s okay.’” Brandon got choked up telling this part of his story. “Um, for the first time, at this point I was 25 years old, I looked at my dad and with a sincere heart I said, ‘I love you Dad.’ And he looked at me back and said, ‘Son, I love you more than you’ll ever know.’ And for the first time I felt a sense of a dad and a son.” When Brandon’s parents met him, to his account, he was about 120 pounds soaking wet on his 6-foot-four frame. He was severely dehydrated, and hadn’t urinated or slept in days. Upon being checked out by a doctor immediately, the amount of drugs in his system was off the charts! At this point, I had chills, tears, and all kinds of emotions as I listened to Brandon talk. How relatable is his story to our own. Exchange his challenges for yours. Exchange his motivations to run with yours. Yes, the circumstances may be very different. You may not have overdosed on drugs, but what have you overdosed on that almost killed you or may be killing you now? Where were you when you realized you CANNOT outrun God? More importantly, you cannot outrun God’s purpose for your life. Brandon asked for help. Rodney and Mary got him into a treatment center in Monroe, North Carolina. It was there that Brandon’s road to recovery began. For eight grueling days, his body detoxed, and his mind became more clear. He was on the road to physically healing. But, the consequences of his many actions were still left to be revealed.
While in rehab, Brandon learned that he had accumulated 31 warrants for his arrest [28 charges of identity theft, one charge for conspiracy after breaking and entering, and two 1st degree burglary charges]. Upon his release from rehab, he was going to be arrested. Two weeks after his release he went to jail.
Here’s where Brandon says God really showed up in his story. I laugh at him and say, “Given all you’ve been through, I believe He’s been here all along.” We both laugh as he continues. He paints a picture of the county jail, jammed packed, and the pod they put him in is filled with gang members. But, these gang members were actively facilitating a Bible study. He shares, “I am not okay with this and start screaming for the guard to change my cell.” To no avail, he had to stay. He had no choice but to listen. Eventually, he joined in the conversations. It seems the guys started talking as if they knew one another. He recalls being asked, “Was your life really that bad? Or did you just shelf the One that could have made your life so great this whole time? Did you just shelf God when the going got bad and never go back and tap into the real answers?” The more the guy spoke, the more angry Brandon became. But, he had to admit, “He was hitting on the truth. And so he started reading scriptures to me. And it’s no coincidence, the first one he came to was Psalm 23. The one that my mom read to me as a baby in her arms and prayed over me. At this point, Superman lost his Cape, because for the first time I can’t remember how long I cried. And I said, ‘I want to know more about this, this, this real God.’”
From this point, Brandon was all in. The jailhouse ministry brought in DVDs with sermons from pastors like Ron Carpenter and Jensen Franklin. Brandon remembers, one day they brought a DVD from a guy whose last name was Furtick. He started laughing and joking, “What kind of name is Furtick?” But, once that sermon started, it proved to be a name he would never forget. In excitement, Brandon recalls, “He [Furtick] talked about being lost and finding your way back. And I was like, this guy knows me from somewhere, this guy knows me!” We both bust out in laughter and I share that we all feel that way, as if he has our phones tapped! He continues, “But this guy’s also crazy. Like he claps his hands in the middle of preaching and he gets really wound up. And I’m like, this dude needs Ritalin. He is hyperactive. But little did I know that, that message, while in an orange jumpsuit, at the end of it, I would end up going into the jail house ministry, praying to start a relationship with God.”
While in county jail, Brandon had multiple hearings to address his 31 charges. He was facing 23 to 30 times two in prison. The judge told him in court that she was going to make an example out of him. Brandon was deflated and thought, “I’m sitting here like, yeah, that’s it. God, I had one good encounter with You and You’re throwing me away. That’s it? My life is over.” But, man’s period is often God’s comma.
At this point, Brandon had been sober for 90 days. An amazing accomplishment for someone who had been addicted and using drugs consistently for seven years. Brandon’s parents used their resources to hire the best attorney their money could afford. Brandon’s attorney brought Brandon’s sobriety key tags with him to court. The judge asked to speak to Rodney and Mary. Brandon, unsure of what was happening, sees and hears his mom break down into tears. This display of her emotion broke him. He then begins to cry as well. His mother’s emotion was in response to the judge lowering his bond from $75,000 to $10,000. At the time, Brandon didn’t know the full extent of how God had answered his parents’ prayers. “God knew exactly how much, to the penny, they had to spend to get me out. They had only $1,000 left to bail me out. They found a bail bondsman that paid $9,000 of my bail.” After two years in county jail, after countless hearings, Brandon was going home. Though charges were still pending, God still wasn’t finished.
Brandon’s attorney continued to fight on his behalf, all while Brandon stayed clean and continued to work his 12-step program while staying rooted in God’s Word. The judge ruled that she wanted to dismiss Brandon’s case. All he needed to do was pay $1,700 in restitution. Brandon can’t believe it and says, “God, me and You, we’re starting to kind of be cool a little bit. Like, You’re starting to kinda show me these miraculous works a little bit, you know, like I can deal with this, but we just got to keep taking it slow. Well, then God really busts the door down … the charges get dropped!” Nearly four months go by after the charges are dropped and Brandon and his family hear from the attorney for the first time since. At this time, the attorney reminds Rodney and Mary that they had paid him $500 too much at the beginning of Brandon’s situation. They both recall being told that, and they wondered what happened to the money. But because of all God had done, they hadn’t given it much thought. For the first time during our conversation, Brandon refers to the attorney by name, John. He said that John informed him and his parents that he used that $500 to have Brandon’s record expunged! As of today, Brandon Stephenson’s 31 felony charges no longer exist!
With audible emotion in his voice, Brandon reflects, “I found [Pastor] Stephen in jail, but who I really found in jail was God. Right? And this is what I want to tell anybody. There’s a story in the Bible of Paul and Silas, and it seemed so, so hopeless that they weren’t going to get out. They were bound. They were shackled by their feet. Their feet were [shackled] in a wall. I mean, let’s just be real. There was no way for them to get out. But the midnight hour, there is something about that hour. And honestly thinking back now, Denise, I was in my midnight hour for seven years. I was in my midnight hour the whole time I was in jail. I was in my midnight hour for the two years that I didn’t know if I was going to show up to court, and they tell the bailiff to take me back into custody. But, I’m telling you, praises and praise work because the whole time I was missing, the whole time I didn’t know that I had anybody back home praying for me. I didn’t know I had people praising God for the outcome that was going to happen. I had an army behind me that I didn’t even realize, Denise. I had an army that I could see, but I had another army who was 10 times stronger than the visible eye could ever imagine. So I’m sitting here and I’m thinking about the midnight hour, the midnight hour, and it made sense. One started praising and the other was praying. They would take turns. And before you know it, they’re both singing and praising and the jail falls apart and the guards run away.”
Brandon went on to share more of Paul and Silas’ story. He wants to encourage everyone, “The midnight hour is not one of doom, it’s an hour when joy comes. It’s an hour where breakthrough happens. It’s an hour where freedom comes.” He went on and on admonishing God’s miracle-working power in his life.
As I wrapped up my time with Brandon, he asked that I include this one last thing. “There is a lie that has been circulating for decades, and it’s about people in addiction. People like me, they say, once an addict, always an addict. That is a lie from the pit of hell! We do recover. We do recover because Jesus died for every addiction.” He continues to encourage, “Don’t disqualify yourself. God qualified you as soon as He placed you inside the womb of your mom.”
He and I talked longer, like friends who hadn’t spoken in years. I’m so thankful God whispered, “That’s your miracle.” Brandon’s story is a miracle. Your story is a miracle. Miracles Still Happen, immediately and in the blink of an eye, or over the years. “My friend,” as Brandon says quite often, The Midnight Hour is where joy, breakthrough, and freedom reside. Don’t give up, lean in, because God will meet you there.