Led Home by Grace
As a young altar boy growing up in Camden, N.J., Brian Shields was introduced to alcohol by a Catholic priest.
“We would drink the altar wine,” Brian recalls. “That’s what he would do; ply me with alcohol. I remember being drunk and the room spinning. That was my first taste of alcohol. I was also sexually abused for years.
“I grew up in an alcoholic family and it wasn’t frowned upon, so by the time I was in the 7th grade, I was drinking and smoking pot. One thing led to another and I ended up doing all the drugs.”
Brian grew up in the same neighborhood where the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center now stands in Camden. Today, Brian commonly uses the word grace as he retells his journey from addiction to incarceration to recovery to being named the corps sergeant major (local leader or deacon) at the Kroc Center.
“It’s just an awesome life God has provided me through His grace and His mercy,” Brian says. “He has forgiven me for all those things I did.”
Time behind bars
Brian was in and out of rehabs from the time he was 21. In 2007, he relocated to Florida to get clean from a heroin addiction but ended up getting charged with attempted murder for an incident during a drunken blackout.
“I don’t remember exactly what I did,” he said. “I beat somebody almost to death. I wound up in serious trouble down there.
“I did something horrible. Through the grace of God, He was faithful, and He got me out of it. I did a lot of praying. I said, ‘God if you could just get me out of it, I’ll never touch alcohol again.’”
Brian served three years and nine months in prison and 10 years of supervised release. But the first place he went when he got released was to a liquor store.
“I went back to drinking right after coming out of prison,” he says. “I swore I would never drink again, but as soon as I got out, I went right back to the bottle. It was a vicious cycle of alcoholism my entire life.”
Brian had nowhere else to turn and moved back to Camden to live with his father, who he described as a violent alcoholic. Brian’s grandfather and great–grandfather also struggled with alcohol.
“He took me in or I would have been homeless,” Brian says of his father.
The reunion didn’t last long and ended on Brian’s 50th birthday when he came home to find his father dead.
“He collapsed on the floor and he had an open beer next to him,” Brian says. “I came home from work and that’s the way I found him. I said, ‘I’m not going to die like this.’ The next thing I know, I’m drinking hard liquor, not beer anymore, but hard liquor.
“When my father passed away, I went into a pretty bad state of depression and I almost drank myself to death.”
Brian, while in a drunken stupor, wandered out of his house one day in the winter before passing out.
“They found me wearing just a T–shirt and a pair of shorts on a pile of snow,” Brian says. “I was having a nervous breakdown.”
Brian, suffering from alcohol withdrawal, spent 31 days on suicide watch in a psych ward before the staff told him about The Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) program.
“I told them I had faith in God, I just didn’t know anything really about it,” Brian says.
Christ becomes real
Brian got a bus ticket to the Trenton, N.J., ARC, where he showed up in February 2014.
“I had about 11 cents to my name,” he says. “When I checked in, my possession sheet listed nothing. All I had was the pair of shorts and T–shirt they found me in. They clothed me because I had no clothes. I basically had nothing, but it was at that point that I found I had a relationship with God.
“I got saved there. I found God there and got introduced to the Bible and bible studies. They put me to work. They gave me my identity back. They have classes and programs. I got an AA sponsor for the first time in my life. I did everything and I made a promise to God I would do everything I could to stay sober this time. I had enough after 50 years like that.”
Brian graduated in October and was proud he had finally accomplished something.
“When I graduated from the ARC, I held up my graduation certificate,” he said. “I didn’t even graduate high school. I got a GED. I’ve completed nothing in my life, but through the strength of God, He got me through, and I completed it.
“There were times I wanted to leave, but I was convicted by the Holy Spirit and I stuck it out. It was a great, great feeling.”
Finding a new family
Upon graduation, Brian was hired as the residential supervisor. However, after hurting his back, the ARC had to let him go and he was on his way back to Camden.
“I was struggling with what I was going to do,” Brian recalls. “God had this plan to get me back to Camden. I didn’t know the Trenton area. I was afraid to hang around up there. I got on a bus and headed to Camden and I was planning on being homeless.”
However, Major Brian Peabody of the Trenton Corps, where Brian sometimes attended, called Majors Bill and Sue Dunigan and told them about Brian’s situation. The Dunigans, who were doing urban outreach work in Camden at the time, took Brian into their home from March 2015 until June 2016.
“I got off the bus and the next thing I knew the Dunigans pulled up and I’m standing there with my three bags,” Brian says. “They took me in, sight unseen. I could hardly walk.”
The first time he met Major Sue, she told him, “God has a plan for you. You don’t just end up back in Camden for no reason.”
Finding his niche
Brian says he would see Major Sue sit in a chair each morning and read her Bible and journal. Her devotion had a profound impact on Brian, who started doing the same.
“That’s what I do. I devote my day to God,” Brian says. “If I try to start my day without it, sometime during the day it starts to go haywire.”
Brian said he drops to his knees in prayer at the beginning and end of each day.
“I thank God for today because it’s not very hard for me to remember where my life was,” he said. “It’s not very hard for me to be grateful on any given day.”
While living with the Dunigans, Brian also started working and volunteering at the Kroc Center after his back surgery in October 2015.
“The Dunigans nursed me through my surgery and I got back on my feet,” Brian said. “I continued on the road and stayed involved in The Salvation Army. I felt like God had used The Salvation Army to save my life and I wanted to give back to them.”
Brian also began working with the Dunigans in urban ministry and found he had a kinship with people on the street.
“He would pray with these guys and he knew the lingo and related to them,” Major Sue said. “He had been in their shoes and could speak to their needs. He was out there every week showing compassion and having integral conversations with people.”
A new creation
Meanwhile, Major Bill discipled Brian and the Dunigans watched him grow in his Christian faith.
“I have seen miraculous transformation in Brian’s life,” Major Sue said. “I saw him come to us as a hurt, broken, physically and emotionally damaged man.
“Brian has a big heart. Now that heart was hurt and angry and broken through years of abuse. He still had a lot of anger inside about his past that he had to deal with. He was on his knees every morning doing his devotions. Now he’s on his knees praying for the people in his corps.”
Major Bill said Brian had an immature relationship with God when he first arrived, but he is now a “great man of God” and a trophy of grace.
“Brian’s story is one of the power of God and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit,” Major Bill said. “He just grew leaps and bounds and he continues to grow. Then God started putting his life back together. Anyone who doesn’t believe that God can transform a life should meet Brian Shields.”
Brian said the Dunigans remain his “best friends” all these years later.
“They showed me what a Christ–like person does and how they live,” Brian said. “It almost brings tears to my eyes what those people did for me.
“I didn’t have my own mother and Major Sue became like my mother. They got me through a lot of tough things. God used them in a big, big way. They didn’t know me from anything. I don’t know where I’d be today without them picking me up at that train station.”
The abundant life
Now 57, Brian is married and has improved his relationships with siblings, his son, and grandson. He and his wife, Denise Shields, were even married in the Kroc Center by Major Bill.
“I didn’t think anyone would want anything to do with me six years ago,” Brian said of his marriage.
Brian also has reconciled with his mother, with whom he previously had no relationship. She donated to The Salvation Army and prayed for him long before her son ended up there.
“She said God answered her prayers when she found out I was in the ARC program,” he said. “I now have a wonderful relationship with her.
“There are so many things God has restored. He rescued me, He restored me, and provided and sustained me. I have a relationship with all my family. I had no one six years ago. I had no one to call and nowhere to go. Here I am in Camden after all these years and my life couldn’t be better through the grace of God. We’re one big happy family today.”
Brian, who now teaches Bible studies and is involved in men’s ministries, was asked to be the CSM and the role gives him the ministry outlet he always wanted.
“If I were to sit down and write what I would dream of or what I would want my life to be at 57 years old, I wouldn’t have written it with this ending,” Brian says. “It is life beyond anything I could have ever imagined with Christ. The joy and peace that I have in my life is beyond belief. It’s love I never knew. I never knew how to love anyone. God put all those things into my life.
“I didn’t know it could be this good. I would have had me having mansions and cars and beachfront homes. I never would have thought I would have a relationship with God and be a corps sergeant major, which just means the world to me. I love my church family. God knew what I needed in my life. He knew I needed The Salvation Army.”
by Robert Mitchell
Illustrations by Joe Marino