Let’s start at the beginning. My entry into the world didn’t occur under the best of circumstances. My mother, Myra Wattinger, was a hospice-style practical nurse. The alcoholic son of an elderly man forced himself on her, and I was conceived. At age 40, it was her first pregnancy—and she was devastated. She sought an abortion in Houston. Believing that life is precious, her doctor refused. Myra reconsidered and on October 9, 1943, she gave birth to a little boy she named James. Because she was financially strapped, she placed an ad in the paper asking for a loving couple to care for her son.
Rev. and Mrs. H.D. Hale of Memorial Baptist Church in Pasadena, a suburb of Houston, Texas, responded. Thinking they would be able to adopt me, they kept me for five years. At that age, I experienced one of the most traumatic events one might ever imagine when my mother came to take me back. As though it happened yesterday, I can still feel my fingernails dragging across the hardwood floor as she pulled me out from under the bed where I was hiding. While Rev. and Mrs. Hale wept convulsively, my mother and I left the house and literally hitchhiked 175 miles from Houston to Austin. I carried a small cardboard suitcase, which still sits in my office. I will never forget that journey I was about to begin, nor will I forget the incredible supernatural journey I was to travel.
For 10 years, I lived with my mother in poverty and extreme conditions. During that decade, including those times when we would stay with others, we moved 12 to 15 times. Many of the houses my mother was able to rent did not face a street—they faced an alley, dump or dirty river. We would get our mail at someone else’s house. I was a very lonely little boy, but I learned to make the best of it. I had no confidence, and I was very shy. Somewhere deep down inside, there was a determination that anything was possible. I grew up with no resentment toward people who had things I did not have. Somehow, I saw my trials as opportunities, and I actually went to work at age 12. I was so effective and diligent that I was placed over several areas of managerial oversight in the grocery store where I worked. The manager said, “You’re the best worker I’ve ever had. When you grow up, you can probably manage this store.” But my 12-year-old mind said, “When I grow up, I can own this store.”
What has happened to that kind of thought process in American youth? I didn’t have a father. I had challenging circumstances, but thank God I was never taught to depend on any form of a false god or pharaoh. I did not grow up with animosity or hostility toward anyone. I never understood why there was racial tension in the impoverished areas where I lived.
From age 6 to 10, my Aunt “Berta” (Roberta Robison, my birth father’s sister) took me to the Christian Scientist church. They told me I needed to know the truth. Whenever I told them I had a headache, they would respond, “You need to know the truth. You are well; you don’t have a headache.” I would answer as a young boy, “Well, the truth is, I have a headache.” I did not meet Jesus in the Christian Scientist church.
During that time, my mother took me to an Episcopal church, where I was christened. I can tell you point-blank, I did not have a spiritual conversion. I experienced a religious ritual. The only thing that impressed me during this time was the stained-glass windows. I remember very specifically one picture of Jesus knocking at the door. Somehow, I had heard He knocks at the door of our heart. I also saw a picture of Jesus holding a little lamb in His arms. It moved me as a young boy. I saw Jesus as compassionate, and I wondered if He would hold me. Those are impressions that last a lifetime and often affect us for eternity.
I also remember picking up a classic comic on the life of Christ at the grocery store where I worked. It contained a picture of Jesus being baptized by John. When He came up out of the water, there was a voice out of heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” I remember standing there in that public place with tears welling up in my eyes. I thought, That would be wonderful if God would be pleased with me. I had never had a father tell me, “That’s good, son. Way to go!” I had never heard, “Good hit! Good catch! Good run!” But oh, how my heart longed to hear it!
My mother had been hurt many times—her parents died when she was age 9 and 11. She married very young, but the marriage was not pleasant. Now she had her own son, born of her body. Even in difficult circumstances, she wanted with all her heart to have the love of her little boy—and she did. In an attempt to keep my love, she cut me off from Rev. and Mrs. Hale because she couldn’t provide nice things for me that they could. When they sent birthday and Christmas presents, she would return them without letting me know they were ever sent. (I didn’t know that until years later, but I can tell you with deep gratitude, I did not become bitter. Forgiveness is indeed liberating.) Somehow, God gave me understanding. Here was a woman who needed love, and I poured it out on her. In the best way she could, she did likewise—even with all the mistakes she made.
When I became a teenager, she surprised me one day. She said, “How would you like to call Rev. and Mrs. Hale and tell them you can visit them for a week?” I couldn’t believe it. Then I wondered, Will they want to see me? I had not heard from them. I honestly thought they had forgotten the little boy who had called them “Mommy” and “Daddy.” When I called and told them I could come see them, they wept so freely they could barely speak. They said they would be there early the next morning to pick me up, and they were. I went for a one-week visit. On Sunday night, a miracle occurred. Mrs. Hale had quietly asked the entire church to pray for the boy they had raised for the first five years. They prayed that on this Sunday night I would meet Jesus.
That night, Pastor Hale did not preach. He asked teenagers to stand and share what Jesus meant to them. Thank God, many of them had a real testimony. I was moved deeply as I listened. When the pastor gave the invitation and said, “Would you come forward and publicly commit your life to Christ?” I wanted to go…but I gripped the chair in front of me. Suddenly, I was aware of a hand on my shoulder, and I looked up into the eyes of Mrs. Hale. Her tears flowed so freely that her glasses had become dislodged. As she held them in place, she said, “James, don’t you want to go to Jesus?” I said, “Yes, ma’am, but I’m afraid.” She said, “I’ll go with you.” Thank God she did. I walked down that aisle and publicly and openly put my hand in the pastor’s, but I put my life in the Master’s.
Thus began the very personal journey following Jesus.
Next week, I’ll share with you about life-changing events that came next: a traumatic encounter with my alcoholic father who choked my mother and threatened to kill me and the subsequent decision to live once again with Rev. and Mrs. Hale. As a result of this move, I met the love of my life, Betty Freeman, and experienced a call no one thought possible.