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Testimony of the Month

Don Johnson 1

When I first walked past the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake eight months ago, I was completely broken. I was plotting my second suicide attempt when I happened to look up and see a sign that said “Jesus Saves” hanging over the Rescue Mission’s door. Something caused me to walk inside, and within 45 minutes I was a volunteer in the Mission’s New Life Program.

Soon I was a full New Life Program member and last month I  began an internship with the Rescue Mission that will hopefully lead me to obtain a job at one of the many faith-based homeless missions across the nation that are part of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

Today, I have lost my anger and mistrust of God. Those feelings have been replaced by trust and faith in Jesus Christ. This shift, along with the ability the Rescue Mission gave me to verbalize many of the feelings that I had bottled up inside, changed me.

At age 61, I now feel like I have my whole life in front of me.

Was It Random Chance?

It was really three “coincidences” that made me put my trust in God again. Today, I realize these apparent coincidences were actually just God’s plan playing out in my life.

The first happened eight months ago when I decided to kill myself. I was living in Ogden and was so broken from a life of pain, loss and alcoholism, that the pain of life seemed worse than the pain of death.

The downward spiral of my life began from an abusive childhood where I learned to use alcohol to numb pain. I was chubby and a slow learner. Kids at school made fun of me and my dad fat-shamed me at home. I was so desperate to have friends that one night, when I was 13, I crashed a party that I knew my two brothers and some other “cool” kids were attending. Before I went, I was able to convince an airman (we lived in Arizona near a military base) to buy me some beer and liquor. I showed up at the party, got drunk and supplied many other kids there with alcohol.

That’s about all I remember. But the significance of that night came the next day when two kids from the party, a boy and a girl (who would later become my first girlfriend), showed up at my house. This was the first time that anybody had asked me to hang out. They told me that they had never met a funnier kid than me. I realized then that alcohol could turn me into a different, more popular person. For the next 48 years, I never had more than 60 days of sobriety at a time.

The Night My Son Died

My life’s great pain came in 1988 when my first son, Joshua, died in my arms on Christmas Eve. He had bronchitis, and earlier we had taken him to the hospital to be checked out. Later that night I started drinking. I was drunk and rocking him in a chair, trying to help him fall asleep. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I finally did get him to sleep sometime after midnight. I kept rocking him and finally put him to bed at about 4 a.m., after which I went to bed myself.

I woke up to my wife screaming and went into my son’s room. He was in the exact same position as he had been when I laid him down, and when I turned him over, his face was purple. The coroner said he died of bronchitis around 1:30 a.m. I realized I had probably rocked him for several hours after he had already died. It is hard to get over the feeling that if I hadn’t been so drunk, I would have noticed that he stopped breathing in my arms. Maybe if I was sober, I could have done something. Maybe I could have revived him and taken him to back to the hospital.

Since it was Christmas Eve when my son died, we had presents under the tree. When it was time for his burial, I went home and got one present. I took it to his gravesite and opened it.  It was a red Elmo doll that I had purchased for him. I unpackaged it and placed it in his grave.

My wife and I had two more kids, a son and a daughter, within the next two years, but I couldn’t get close to them because I felt like I would lose them. One day my wife left home with our kids and I didn’t see them again for 18 years. I was such a broken and depressed person, I couldn’t blame her for leaving.

All that pain boiled up one night in Ogden when I decided to take the last bit of money I had, buy a bottle of whisky and a 30-pack of beer, and walk to the freeway. My plan was to get so drunk that I would have the courage to walk out in front of an 18-wheeler. It was nighttime and I started drinking by the side of the road. I knew I only needed the courage to walk 10 steps into oncoming traffic.

I remember being very drunk and seeing a large truck approaching. I had the courage to do it. I stood up, walked a few feet and then I must have passed out. The next thing I remember is waking up at the McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden and spending seven days getting sober in the psychiatric ward of the hospital.

When I was released, I was able to get bus fare to Salt Lake. When I got off the bus, I started walking down the street, head down and miserable, contemplating where I could get some drugs or cash that I could use for my next suicide attempt.

The Red Elmo Doll

That’s when I happened to look up and see the Rescue Mission’s ‘Jesus Saves’ sign. When I walked in and started volunteering in the New Life Program, one of my first jobs was processing a large donation of clothing that had come in. But before I started the job, I talked to Cassie, one of the counselors, and told her how broken I was. Cassie told me to “go upstairs and ask God for healing.” I followed her advice and for the first time in a long time, I actually spoke with God. When I finished, I went to start sorting the clothes.

As I was working through this large donation, I came to a black garbage bag. I opened it and the first thing on top was a red Elmo doll, exactly like the one I had laid in my son’s grave. I believe this was a message from God, an answer to my prayer. He was letting me know that He was with me and that He was taking care of my son for me. He had a plan for my life and a plan for my son’s life, however short it may have been.

These three things—God preventing me from killing myself that night, God causing my face to look up and see the ‘Jesus Saves’ sign, and God showing me that red Elmo doll on the first day I came to the  Rescue Mission—proved to me that God was real.

I have now been sober for eight months, which is the longest period of sobriety I have had since I was 13 years old. I am excited that the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake has accepted me for an internship where I will learn more about helping the homeless and operating a full-service rescue mission. I know what it’s like to be drunk and homeless, and because of this experience, I can relate to the people we serve. I hope this internship will prepare me for full-time work at a rescue mission somewhere in the U.S.

Since coming to the Mission, I have met with my daughter, who is now an adult, and talked about my struggles and success at the Rescue Mission. She and her younger brother are angry at me because I was not there for them. This is true, and I can do nothing but apologize, plead for their forgiveness and pledge to do better. Ultimately, I am a drunk. And it’s hard to trust a drunk, especially when the drunk is your father. I know that. I am praying and trusting that God will keep me sober and that my kids will see a change in me and want to be part of my life. It’s in God’s hands and if He wants to reunite us, I know He will.

Thank you so much for supporting and praying for me. Without your support and God’s guidance, I would likely be dead today. As it is, I have a new life here on this Earth, and hope for everlasting life when I do leave this world one day. I could not be more grateful. 


To learn more about what is happening at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake in August, check out our monthly newsletter, The Rescuer:

pdfAugust 2016 Rescuer

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