"The church is equipped like no one else to minister in ways that others aren’t, to make a real difference in people’s lives."
Rob Parker grew up in an abusive home and was headed for a life of ongoing generational dysfunction and abuse. Through the unconditional love of his two great aunts and the Spirit of God working through relationships and community, his life has instead become a message of hope, experiencing reconciliation in relationships, restoration in his heart and transformation in his life!
Growing up in an abusive home
Rob recounts his childhood as a typical example of cyclical, generational abuse. His father learned it from his father and his father learned it from his father. Although his dad was charismatic and funny when he wanted to be—which is how Rob believes his mother was deceived into thinking his father was “normal,” he became a different person when he drank alcohol. The drinking led to drugs and the abuse became more common. Rob remembers being a five-year-old trying to stick up for his mom, as well as having to lie about bumps and bruises himself. “It was the classic ‘tell them you fell down the steps’ or ‘just say you ran into a door’ that an abuser wants you to say,” says Rob.
Child abuse was viewed differently in the 80s when Rob was a child. “There were people who knew what was going on, even in the church,” he says. He remembers hearing the stories about Jesus, then seeing how his dad acted and wondering “Why does no one intervene?”
His two great aunts, Mildred and Vi, were bright spots in his life, however. Never married and strong in their faith and unconditional love, they would come to stay the night periodically, which Rob liked because he knew that for at least that night, he, his sister and his mom would be okay. He would also go visit his great aunts, which was good because it provided an escape from the everyday issues he faced at home.
Going from abused child to angry teen
As a child, Rob was mild-mannered and quiet, because he felt that it was safer that way. “If I can stay under my dad’s radar, I’d be okay,” he thought. During his teen years, however, things began to change. His parents split up, eventually divorcing. His dad disappeared from their lives, but then would reappear—it was a roller coaster wondering if his dad would ever show up or not. He started acting out, thinking that nobody understood what it was like to be in his family.
“I’d see people at church and there were all these neat, clean families, and I thought, ‘We’re a mess—nobody can relate and nobody understands. Why can’t I have a dad that cares?’” Rob also began to internalize the negativity from the abuse of his childhood, thinking “How bad must I be if my own dad doesn’t want anything to do with me?”
During his teenage rebellious years, Rob did all the typical things: smoking, drinking, girls, fights—he went from placement to placement and was in and out of jail several times. “I pursued the things that were bad for me because I didn’t know how to deal with any of it.” His heart continued to grow harder, and he started to believe that he was “bad”—so he built the reputation for himself that he was dangerous to keep people away. “I thought, ‘If I can’t be good, I can be good at being bad,’” he says.
He continued his life of danger and was in and out of prison. He had a daughter by then as well. Through it all, his great aunts continued to show him unconditional love, and came to visit him every two weeks when he was in jail. Prior to his last jail sentence, he met a girl who was different than other girls he’d been with, but the relationship fizzled somewhat when he had to serve a prison sentence.
By this time, he was tired of prison. His heart hadn’t changed, but he didn’t want to do prison any more. He decided to take advantage of the opportunities for getting an education while he was in prison and ended up getting both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree, one in behavioral science the other in organizational leadership. “I had spent seven or eight years in prison, but my heart didn’t feel any different. I had two degrees and ten felonies, so I thought maybe something would work out.”
Although he wanted something different for his life, Rob never felt remorse for where he was and what his life had become. “I never grieved what my life was, because my attitude was ‘it is was it is.’ I didn’t have any hope and often felt like I didn’t have any options. I thought Jesus only cared about the nice, shiny people. So I grieved the life that never was; but I didn’t feel bad for what it had become.”
When he got out of prison, he ran into the girl, Sierra, again and they began to have a relationship, including moving in together. She had two kids of her own and Rob and Sierra decided that they wanted their kids to go to church. Rob called his great aunts, who were happy to take the kids, although at first, Rob and Sierra did not go themselves. “We were eventually invited to a Bible School program, and that’s where I met the man who became my mentor and eventually led me to Christ.” People started getting involved in Rob and Sierra’s lives, and that’s when real change began to happen.
While at the Bible School program, Rob met the pastor, who invited him to have breakfast sometime. Rob took the man’s business card and stuck it to his fridge. At the time, Rob was using drugs again; one day he was hungry and decided he could stand to listen to the man’s spiel for a free breakfast. That first breakfast led to a more consistent relationship—“It was an easy relationship; he was after heart change, not behavior modification,” says Rob. Eventually, Rob began to wonder if what Troy (the pastor) said was legit and he blurted, out of nowhere it seemed, that he needed to get right with the Lord.
Troy immediately challenged Rob that if he wanted to get right with God, he and Sierra either needed to get married or break up, because they were living together. Rob got angry and left, but on the way home, he realized that Troy was probably right. When he got home, he asked Sierra if she wanted to get married (which they had already planned to do in a few months, as she reminded him). He suggested they get married sooner, like that week. And she agreed.
The importance of community
Getting married didn’t automatically solve any issues for Rob and Sierra. “We didn’t know how to do any of it—relationship, resolve conflict, raise kids,” Rob says. But their church community continued to come around them to help teach them both what biblical marriage looks like. “I got a job with a hog farmer, and he and his sons poured into me; other women poured into Sierra. It was a lot of people doing different pieces.” Rob admits that for some, their issues were quick ministry fixes; but some things need long-term commitment and for that, they had a core group of people who invested in them to create a strong foundation.
Even though the changes in his life were positive, Rob says that he wasn’t always grateful for the people in his life. “Sometimes I wondered why are they up in my business?” But he had a good group of guys that were good at pounding though when he needed community and accountability. “I didn’t want to need them, to be vulnerable, because vulnerability, especially with other men, had not been safe in my life. Bottom line, I was scared.” The beautiful thing is, they understood and didn’t give up.
Being a cycle breaker
Those changes began a process of hope and reconciliation for Rob and his family, and the reconciliation began in his personal life. “My dad had come back into my life and he was sick,” says Rob. He had a lot of bitterness and unforgiveness toward his dad, but realized that if he didn’t do something, that spirit of unforgiveness and bitterness would eventually seep into his kids. It was hard and uncomfortable, but Rob didn’t want to pass that along to his children.
So Rob worked through the hardness of the past with his dad and they reconciled. In fact, his father ended up moving in with them, and Rob was able to disciple him and lead him to a relationship with the Lord before he passed away. “There was complete restoration of a broken and dead relationship with my dad,” says Rob. He also has a great relationship with his mom as well, even though they do not live close to each other.
Rob’s ministry to others
In becoming a cycle-breaker, Rob felt strongly that it was important to go back and share hope and the grace of Christ with those who were like he had been and also to have a ministry to others. “The Jesus I’ve come to know has told me to act,” he says.
“When my wife and I were new converts, God impressed two things very heavily on our hearts. One, that he was calling us to share the hope of the gospel and the love of Jesus with people who were coming out of some of the same brokenness and spiritual darkness that He saved us from. And two, that we would have the opportunity to challenge, inspire, and equip this Church that we love to do the same.”
Rob is the program manager for LARC (Linking to Attain Responsibility in Community) at Gateway Woods. The LARC initiative is all about reaching kids and families who aren’t supported, who are broken and abandoned and getting them connected with those who can mentor and counsel them through biblical discipleship to make the name of Christ known. The program serves young people who are aging out of foster care and many other unsupported people.
Rob acts as a conduit between these hurting, broken people and the resources and relationships they desperately need to discover the masterpiece God meant for them to be. “The church is equipped like no one else to minister in ways that others aren’t, to make a real difference in people’s lives,” says Rob. “God is able to use a lot of things that we would never imagine to accomplish great things for his kingdom.”
Others can get involved in LARC in key places such as being mentors or the support system that fills the gaps. They need business partners, church partners, “anyone who has a heart o love on these kids,” says Rob. “Our mission at Gateway Woods is to honor and obey God to help hurting kids, who then bless others. When we help someone get out of the cycle, when we love them recklessly, they can be game changers.”
Call to the church
We have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the lost and broken, the marginalized, and share the truth with then that they have intrinsic value just because they’re created in God’s image and therefore, we want to be in relationship and love you. And these meaningful relationships are going to disrupt our lives, because people are messy. Find ways to get involved through relationship, because when this life is over, we want to be able to say that, through these heart-to-heart connections, we left it all on the field…and we can change the world.
“I was once so spiritually dead that most would say I was hopeless. The Spirit of God set me free and shattered my heart of stone,” says Rob. One of the avenues God chose to accomplish this was through the love and support of Christian mentors and relationships that wouldn’t give up and were willing to get messy.
RESOURCES FROM TODAY’S SHOW
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Meet Our Guest
Rob Parker is the LARC program manager at Gateway Woods, a residential facility for troubled youth. He and his wife Sierra have four children and live in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
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