On a ‘spiritual high’
Overcoming drug addiction led the Parkers to The Salvation Army and to helping others plagued with the same disease.
One night, James Parker prayed that God would send him a wife. The next day, while reading a pocket New Testament, he looked up from his Bible and saw Kimberly.
The Bible, as it turned out, was a harbinger of things to come in the couple’s marriage, but not before a long and twisted road of drugs, alcohol, and even jail time for James.
Today, clean of drugs and alcohol, James and Kimberly can often be found boldly sharing the Gospel on some of the meanest streets in North Philadelphia. The couple’s story is why Kimberly says she never gives up on the drug addicts she and her husband help.
“Don’t judge a book by the cover or read a chapter and think that’s it,” Kimberly says. “That’s just a chapter in your life. It’s not the end.
“As you keep going on, the story’s going to get better and greater if you allow God into the story. If you leave Him out of the story, then you can call it ‘the end.’ If you include Him, you’ll be used by God and you’re going to see miraculous and incredible things.”
The comeback by the Parkers, who Kimberly described as a “hot mess” just a few years ago, is nothing short of miraculous and incredible.
Kimberly, a child of alcoholics, grew up in foster homes and with relatives in North Philadelphia. She bought a Bible at age 18 because she wanted to “know God,” but that’s also about the time she was introduced to alcohol.
“I started drinking at first because I enjoyed it,” she recalls. “I didn’t consider myself an alcoholic then. It went from social drinking to a habit. It became something that I leaned on.
“I drank when I was happy. I drank when I was sad. It became a dependency to the point where I couldn’t stop. I needed to drink at all times—when I woke up in the morning, all during the day, and before I went to bed at night. That was my routine. I became a gung–ho, strung–out alcoholic by 25.”
James also grew up in North Philly, where he saw his uncles do heroin and his father “speedballs,” a mix of heroin and other drugs.
“I used to peep through the peephole and watch my father using drugs,” James says. “It was really depressing and sad. I didn’t really have a role model to look up to. I didn’t know God at that time.”
When he was a teenager, his mother sent him to a Christian camp in the Poconos. James found Christ there, but in later life, walked away.
When he was 18, James found a bag of cocaine while working as a security guard. He didn’t know what it was, but his life was about to spiral out of control.
“I ended up trying it that night,” he says. “I smoked it, I snorted it, and I guess that really got me addicted to cocaine at that time. That was really my drug of choice.”
Time for a change
The Parkers, who married in 1990 and have two children, today wear wedding rings that have replaced the originals.
“I kept pawning our rings to buy alcohol and drugs,” James said. “We ended up getting like three sets of rings.”
James once did nine months in jail for assault. A psychiatrist told him his problems could be hereditary. The comment bothered James because he thought it might be true.
“It wasn’t a good feeling being on drugs,” he says. “I really wanted to stop.”
In April 2014, after losing good jobs and places to live because of his addictions, James finally had enough. He was still doing cocaine when he said a heartfelt prayer while living in his mother’s basement.
“I got down on my knees and I said, ‘This is madness, Lord. Can you help me?’ My wife was there and kneeled down beside me. I prayed for God to help deliver me from this madness,” James said.
But the drug abuse was far from over. Just a month later, James sat in his car doing cocaine when he made a life–changing decision.
“I decided that was it,” he said. “I was done after I had spent all the money I had in my pocket on drugs.”
James said he confided in a friend, who urged him to meet Majors Dennis and Sharon Young at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Philadelphia. James attended a men’s breakfast the day before Father’s Day and was so impressed by Major Dennis that he wanted to hear the pastor deliver a full sermon. James returned the next day.
“I never left,” James says. “I just kept coming. I never did any more drugs and I just kept coming back to the Kroc Center.”
The power of prayer
Young’s sermon hammered home how much everyone needs Jesus. James thought Young was talking directly to him.
“That just stuck with me that I needed to have Jesus,” he said. “I just started relying on Jesus. I started reading my Word more, and I started praying more, and I just kept showing up. I believe just coming to the Kroc Center every week and not missing any days was huge.”
James asked Kimberly to accompany him. She put him off for a month, but finally started going as well.
Kimberly had stopped drinking in 2013 but was still smoking cigarettes and marijuana in 2015—even while reading her Bible. She felt convicted by the Holy Spirit and knew things had to change.
“I had to get on my knees and ask God to deliver me from all of that,” she said. “I called on God’s power and this is the longest I’ve been without a drink or drugs because I’m dependent on God’s power right now. His power is joyful.
“It’s like you know He’s there and in your presence because you know how you were before. When a storm hit me back then, if I got depressed or sad, I’d pick up a bottle. Now if I’m alone and get depressed or sad, I know who comforts me. He’s my Comforter, my Counselor, and my Provider. He’s just everything to me.
“As long as I keep my eyes on Him, I don’t even have a desire for what I used to do. I feel higher now—a spiritual high—than I did when I was getting high back in the day. I wouldn’t trade this feeling for the world.”
Go and make disciples
The Parkers both credit the Youngs, who counseled them through marital problems and told them to keep showing up for church. If they did, the Youngs said, spiritual growth would follow.
“Just being in their presence helped us out a lot,” James says of the Youngs.
The Parkers soon took their spiritual life to another level when Keith and Joy Lawson, who also attend church at the Kroc Center, asked if they wanted to hit the streets for evangelism twice a week. The Parkers were immediately hooked.
“We just knew this is what God wanted us to do,” Kimberly said. “Once we went out there in the field and got our hands dirty, we just felt like it’s our calling. I really felt good doing it and I said, ‘I want that feeling again.’ I knew it was the Lord.”
During a recent evangelistic journey, the Parkers and Lawsons first visited a group of day laborers, passing out sandwiches, bottled water, and bananas.
The Lawsons and Parkers, who own a vending business, pay for the food themselves.
“God has blessed us financially since we got off drugs,” James says. “It’s all God’s money anyway. If I didn’t come to the Kroc center, I’d still probably be on drugs somewhere.”
They also visited a street corner and a park in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia, known for its “open–air” street track, where heroin, crack, and commercial sexual exploitation are prevalent.
On the front lines
The couples dive right in with no fear and engage everyone in sight.
“What you see with them is what you get. They are genuine,” Joy Lawson said of the Parkers.
In the park, discarded drug needles cover the ground and addicts sleep on benches or wander aimlessly. Police are nearby, but do little.
“Matt,” a heroin addict in the park, is one of the many people who thank the Parkers and Lawsons for their love.
“It means a lot to us for them to be out here,” Matt said. “We don’t have anything or anyone. I don’t have any family. I’m basically on my own. When people like them come out and just spend a couple of minutes with us, it turns a lonely day into a good day.”
The Parkers and Lawsons pray with several people and share the Gospel. One man accepts Christ.
Kimberly carries a notebook and takes down names to pray later. They also use their phones to “Google” the nearest Salvation Army when someone gives an address.
“If they really want a relationship with the Lord, I tell them to go to The Salvation Army,” James says. “They truly are God’s people.”
Kimberly says she initially questioned whether she was called to evangelize.
“I realized that God is with me,” she says. “He said, ‘I got you.’ So I stepped out in faith and I did it. It was like jumping in the pool and not being able to swim and He kept me afloat.
Tricks of the trade
“When I go out there, I don’t know what I’m going to say. I’m led by the Holy Spirit. It feels so good to connect with someone who is where I was. I can give them my testimony, and I sometimes don’t see them as they are; I see them as who God wants them to be and who they can become. I don’t count them out.
“I constantly tell them, ‘You are not forgotten. God knows your name. He loves you.’ We give them hope.”
James agreed, saying, “I tell them if he can deliver me, He can deliver anyone.”
The couple went to the Lay Leadership Summit (LEAD) this summer during the Old Orchard Beach Camp Meetings, where they learned several evangelism techniques.
When they are rejected while trying to share Christ, the Parkers said they realize they are fighting a spiritual battle. They ask the person if they can say a quick prayer and then they will leave. Most everyone agrees to accept the short prayer.
“Right after you pray with them, sometimes you can tell the technique worked because they’ll start crying,” James said. “We don’t know what happens after we evangelize them, but we can feel something. A lot of them cry because they really want help, but they don’t know how to get it.”
HArvest is plentiful
James said he wondered if the outreach was working early on, but he felt the Holy Spirit confirm that they should keep going.
“Sometimes it feels like it goes in one ear and out the other, but I feel like we are planting seeds with some people,” he said.
The Parkers have no plans to slow down.
“The more we do, the more we want to do because there’s so much more that needs to be done and so many more souls that need to be saved,” Kimberly said.
Majors Dennis and Sharon Young are now retired, but Major Dennis said the transformation of the Parkers included an enthusiasm for a better life and a passion to share Christ.
“I wish I could get all of my congregation to have that kind of enthusiasm in terms of the Gospel and wanting to share it with somebody else,” Young said.
“That’s part of what the Gospel should do. Not only does the Gospel change our lives, but we should want to share it with everybody. They want to share what God has done for them with everybody.”
by Robert Mitchell