The year of Israel’s “Six-Day War,” the first Super Bowl, and the Apollo 1 disaster. Overshadowing everything was the continuing and escalating hostilities in Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands died in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Death, destruction, and devastation were the center of consciousness. War has no favorites or exceptions. Everyone pays the price—especially the children. Siblings are shot; parents die; orphans fight to survive. Whatever “normal family life” might be, it is nowhere in view. One survivor of 1967 could describe his childhood in similar terms. At 9 years old, he was awakened by gun shots outside his home to find his sister murdered. Some five months later, his mother died from cancer.This boy’s overwhelmed father, caught in the vortex of grief and disillusionment, withdrew into alcoholism—just trying to survive. The loss, the abandonment, and the mental agony were not planned; they just happened.
The youngest of eight children, this little boy was born of an unanticipated pregnancy nearly 10 years removed from his closest of seven siblings—and now she had been killed. Another shattered family. Another child left on mercy’s doorstep. “Normal” was nowhere in sight; neither was hope. He was just another child in 1967, but he was not living among the hostilities of Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia. Even though he was not caught in a geopolitical conflict, this 9-year-old was caught in the hostilities of life beyond his control. He was living in Charlotte, North Carolina—a world away from Southeast Asia—yet these two worlds were destined to meet decades later.
Left much on his own by his reclusive, grieving, alcoholic father, Fred learned to share life and drugs with other children of common brokenness who became his “family” (which we call “gangs”). Drugs and gangs offered security, identity, and acceptance. His drug usage began in 1967 with a single cigarette; then came alcohol at age 11. Sniffing glue at 12 became smoking marijuana by age 13. The next year, Fred started using LSD, followed by heroin at age 15. But this was not the introduction to hallucination for this child; life had done this to him. And he had lost the hope of ever awakening from it. Following his third arrest at age 15, Fred was expelled from his high school and from his home state for one year. He was allowed to return a year later at age 16. Concerned authorities had hoped rehabilitation had occurred to some degree, but their hopes were disappointed. However, change was in the air. Fred became enamored with a young lady at high school. She was an all-conference basketball player who refused his overtures again and again. She finally agreed to one date, but she would choose the destination. He agreed. He was to accompany her to church.
On Sunday, January 20, 1974, dressed in disheveled clothes, with long hair, a pierced ear, and a strange attitude, he walked hesitantly into a Church of God worship service in Kannapolis, North Carolina. As the service began, something started to happen inside him. Acceptance . . . identity . . . hope . . . release . . . love . . . family. All these and more seemed to descend on him like a waterfall. This was not a hallucination, but could it possibly be reality? It seemed more real than anything he had ever encountered in his 16 years of chaos. So, Fred invited Jesus Christ into his life as his Savior and Lord. That day, the hiss of Satan was crushed under the foot of the Redeemer, who became Fred’s closest friend and brother. Jesus would never leave or forsake him. With the fervency of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Fred went home and discarded nearly every evidence of the identity and acceptance he had worked so hard to gain. By that evening, the long hair, the earring, and the tattered clothing had been abandoned. All these were instantly recognized as counterfeit substitutes for what he now held in his heart. They were no longer necessary.
That night Fred returned to church. He looked so different that no one recognized him. It wasn’t until midway into the service that the pastor, Don Anderson, realized who he was.] “Young man, stand and testify,” was the pastor’s call. Fred got up, walked to the front of the church, and stood behind the pulpit. As he began to tell his story, something incredible happened.
From the ashes
of a chaotic life,
THE HAND OF GOD
back the forces
for a little boy
As the first words came from his lips, it was as if something of a different world entered the moment and altered the atmosphere. This too was no hallucination. Little did Fred know this would be the first of thousands of times he would declare the wonders of the Gospel before a listening audience—the good news that hope is available to all, no matter how messed up their life may be. The good news that a seed of potential lies buried within each of us.
Eighteen months later, Fred became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. With the assistance of a high-school guidance counselor, he enrolled in community college. What seemed to be serendipitous events led him to Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee. With no financial aid or assistance, working three jobs, he would graduatedebt-free, earning a bachelor’s degree in Biblical education.
From that point, a Christian marriage, many years of pastoral ministry, and two children filled his life with great grace. Yet, something else seemed to beckon. The potential lying hidden within just needed a little sunshine and rain. A friend and nearby pastor provided the inspiration that ignited a further educational journey spanning more than a decade of his life. He earned a master of divinity degree and then a doctor of philosophy in organizational leadership, all while continuing his 33 years of pastoral ministry. Fred’s first international ministry trip took him to Nicaragua, connecting him with friends, colleagues, and a mentor who introduced him and his heart to the missional world. Several years later, his love for missions would lead him to become the executive director of People for Care and Learning (PCL) and the superintendent of Southeast Asia for the Church of God.
After a decade of ministry in Southeast Asia, Fred felt called to take his life’s experiences and education to create a leadership development program. The “Ten Essential Skills of Executive Leadership” and “LeaderLabs 2.0” has trained thousands. The little boy who was sabotaged to fail found grace enough to succeed in Jesus Christ. Clearly someone had prayed for him. Perhaps it was his dying mother who understood Psalm 27:10: “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me” (NKJV). From the ashes of a chaotic life, the hand of God moved, pushing back the forces of destruction for a little boy from Charlotte. The story is not over. Dr. Fred Garmon is still at it—training ministers and faith-based leaders all over the world.
It’s no surprise to those who know his story that the orphan would grow to support so many other orphans and, in addition, use all he learned to help himself to help others.
Tom Sterbens is lead pastor of New Hope Church of God in Kodak, Tennessee.