Here For You: The Erin Contreras Story

 


“Growing up, I had a really rough childhood, the type that comes up in the news,” Erin Contreras said. “I mean, I went to 23 different elementary schools, so there was no stability or time to go to church.”

Even with so many variables in her life, Erin always felt the presence of someone there for her. She believed in God even though no one in her family was guiding her.

“[He was] who I called out to in my times of need,” Erin said.

When Erin met her husband, Eli, her thoughts of God faded into the background. Although Eli grew up with a really religious background, Erin didn’t have a foundation that stuck. In 2007, a coworker invited Erin and Eli to attend Clear Creek Community Church. Eli, with his strict traditional religious background, was skeptical upon seeing “a bunch of hippies” in jeans and flip flops, but ultimately they decided to regularly attend Sunday morning services.

“We didn’t have any community,” Erin said about their early experience at Clear Creek. “It was a very transactional relationship. We went, we punched our card, and we left.”

Just before the Conteras’ second son was born, Erin was involved in a traumatic home invasion where the intruder tried to kill her and kidnap her oldest son while she was nearly 9 months pregnant. The only reason she was able to escape at the time was because the intruder thought she was dead already.

“It just left me so broken… with such bad PTSD,” Erin said. “I had Max two weeks later and, after that incident, our marriage just fell apart.”

With the ensuing depression Erin experienced, the foundation she and Eli had as a married couple crumbled. On top of that, Eli lost his job.

“The depression cut me so deep. I lost sense of reality. I lost sense of who I was,” Erin said. “We stopped going to church because… I just felt abandoned [by God].”

After the incident, Erin sought relief from her trauma and depression through medication and therapy, but she often felt alone. It seemed impossible to find other people who could identify with what she had been through.

“There weren’t any support groups for ‘Housewives of PTSD’” Erin recalled. “Either you’re a soldier [struggling with PTSD] or you don’t have it.” She had no one else in her circles who could relate to her experience. As a couple, Erin and Eli were never comfortable talking about Erin’s feelings or how her therapy was going.

“All Eli ever wanted to know was how I was doing because he just loved me so much,” Erin said. “But I could not talk about it at all. I would become too emotional, and it was too much for me… I just held it all in, and it was like a cancer.”

No longer trusting God, Erin isolated with her kids, wrapping them up in her self-protective armor. But, Eli’s response to the home invasion was the complete opposite.

“My husband, in that tragedy, found faith and I lost it,” Erin said. “He saw that somebody was there – somebody kept me alive.”

Erin and Eli continued to struggle, leading them to separate and no longer communicate with one another. They were headed towards divorce at full speed.

“We didn’t have family support. We weren’t in a small group. So that was just the path we were going down,” Erin said. “But my husband, out of desperation, started going to church again because he didn’t know what else to do.”

This time, Eli took a step in faith and joined a men’s small group. When the men would pray at the end of every group, Eli would ask for prayer for his marriage and prayer for his wife.

“At that time, I wanted nothing to do with him,” Erin said. “But Eli kept going to small group and prayed for us.” Erin freely admits that it would have been easier for Eli to just leave her completely. But Eli’s small group encouraged him to love his wife, even at her worst. Toward the end of the life cycle of the small group, Eli was ready to get baptized.

Erin finally agreed, and at Eli’s baptism, she met his small group.

“I saw that they were all married men,” Erin said. “And it broke my heart because I saw how happy all those married couples were, and I knew that they knew my story. I knew they knew what I was going through.”

Shortly after Eli’s baptism, he asked Erin, “What do you think about maybe coming to church with me on Sunday?”

Despite her fears of something happening her kids, she took a step.

About a month later the Contreras were still going to church together every Sunday. Erin and Eli had talked about moving back in together, and six months later, they were living together again. When another GroupLink happened, Eli suggested they join a small group for married couples.

“I was like, ‘I do not want to be in a married group. First of all, we’re barely married at this point. We just started living together and… the last thing I want is some hypocritical Christian telling me what I should be doing in my marriage.”

But Erin eventually agreed because she wanted to find some sort of hobby to do with her husband, though they drove separately to group each week.

“I didn’t want to go there to make friends,” Erin said. “I [didn’t] need churchy people in my life.” Within the first few meetings, the group members were already sharing their backgrounds and stories, and when it came time for Erin to speak, she was frank.

“I was like, ‘Basically, I’m not here for you guys. I don’t want any part of this. I’m just here for [Eli].”

Erin calls it “probably the worst introduction that anybody’s ever had,” but she didn’t think her life and marriage were anybody else’s business. But, she found that the group members were willing to receive her exactly where she was at.

After a while, Erin and Eli started riding to small group in a car together, which turned out to be catalytic for their marriage.

“I never thought the car ride would be the biggest thing, but it’s really where he and I became husband and wife again.”

They would talk about their thoughts on the current small group study, and it was the first chance in a long time to connect with one another about something deep. In those moments, without their kids and without distractions, Erin and Eli began to develop a friendship again.

“It just opened up a narrative… where we couldn’t before talk about how we were doing,” Erin said. “It got to the point where we’d get home, and we wouldn’t get out of the car. We’d just sit in the car and talk more for another 15 or 20 minutes. And so, I really think that those car rides were the most special time we’ve ever had.”

After going to small group for about a year-and-a-half, Erin got severely sick one summer and had to endure seven surgeries within a single summer. It was during this time that Erin’s perception of small group took a dramatic shift.

“They just really poured into my family,” Erin said about her group members. “They brought us meals. They checked on me daily. They would check in after every surgery asking, ‘Do you need help with this? Do you need us just to run to the grocery store?  What can we do for you?’”

The Contreras’ small group community intimately entered their lives during one of the most critical times for their family.

“I had never experienced anything like this,” she said. “Even when I had both of my kids, it was just me… alone. There was nobody who came over. There was nobody who brought meals… It was a shift. I belonged.”

Something about this love in action softened her heart. Air rushed back into her lungs. She still wouldn’t describe herself as a believer at that time but just going with the flow. Then one day, something that Eli and her Navigator had both said just clicked.

If God wasn’t there, then why are you angry at him?

“I was angry because I felt abandoned,” Erin said. “Eli had tried to tell me this many times. He would say, ‘Well, how can you feel abandoned by somebody that was never there to begin with?’

It finally made sense to Erin. You can’t be mad at somebody who isn’t there.

“I mean, if I’m angry at somebody then obviously there’s somebody in my heart that’s always been there… that’s when I really started believing.”

Erin got baptized in March 2018.

“[My baptism] was just another moment where I was like, ‘I’m still doing life with these people. These people are still pouring into me. They’re still here for my children. For my husband. And it was a really beautiful thing to have my community with me.”

Another part of her recovery has to do with her current job opportunity where she teaches music at a Classical School. She has the privilege of talking about God’s beauty every day.

“My whole job is to point out what is true, good, and beautiful in this world and how that all points back to God,” Erin said. “And not being a believer, I wouldn’t have the job that I have. I wouldn’t be able to form these little lives or these connections with these kids.”

Three months after Erin’s baptism, she took a huge next step by starting to serve in the music ministry at Clear Creek. Once someone who slipped in under the balcony and out before the end of the last song, Erin now uses her gifts to play the keyboard and sing on stage.

“You have to be so vulnerable to be on stage worshiping because you’re not just putting on a show for everybody. You’re worshipping withthem.” And each time she serves, she thinks about the people who might be sitting under the balcony.

“Music is one of those things that engages everybody,” Erin said. “So I always pray before I go on stage, Use our music to touch somebodyOpen somebody up.”

Erin found, and continues to find, places where her true passion and talent can encourage others to align their hearts in worship, no matter what their own circumstances might be.

7 Keys to Developing Authentic Community

(adapted from Repent & Believe: Relying on God’s Power)

People experience community around shared values. That’s why there are book clubs, internet forums, and fantasy football leagues. But you don’t have to share multiple common interests to experience Christian commu­nity with people. Rather, Christians have a unique opportunity for commu­nity because we share our deepest value and highest treasure, Jesus Christ. We can experience Christian community when we connect with others who worship and follow Jesus. But we must do more than simply attend church services together to develop community.

Small groups are one strategy for developing Christian community. We hope that everyone who attends a small group experiences the wonder­ful benefits and joys of Christian community, but they might not. It takes time to develop community, and it takes more than just time to deepen community.

Here are some keys to develop and deepen community:

  1. Keep Showing Up

Community requires time. The number one reason people give for not being in a small group is the same reason given for not exercising: they don’t have time. When someone does determine to make time for small group, they sometimes have expectations that they are going to “get something out of it” every time they show up. But like exercise, the only way you get something out of it is when you make time for it and keep showing up. And yet just showing up regularly is just the beginning.

  1. Take Risks

Relationships include risks. Committing to show up at someone’s house feels like a risk. Getting together with new people, answering questions about what you think, and telling people what you believe are all risks. Disagreeing with someone is a risk. Sharing a prayer request is a risk. Pray­ing out loud with others for the first time feels like a risk. There are risks in every relationship where there is love, respect, mutuality, and service. But these risks have rewards. Over time, trust deepens and opens the door to the biggest risk.

  1. Be Known

All people want to be fully known and fully loved. We want people to know our names, our stories, our hopes, our thoughts, our feelings – our innermost selves. But because we have been hurt before, some of us are not transparent enough to be known. Like Adam and Eve, we cover up our nakedness with fig leaves of image management. Thus, we don’t feel loved, because we have to be known to feel loved. Otherwise, when some­one shows love toward us, we might think, “But if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me.” Developing and deepening Christian community includes the process of becoming known over time. Ultimately, when you are known and loved, you become the person God intended you to be all along. We tend to take this process of being known very slowly, until a catalyst accelerates the process.

  1. Run to the Train Wreck

A train wreck might be suffering, marital stress, a health crisis, a wayward teenager, or any number of other things. When a train wreck comes in a small group, it often helps the group get honest. But in the midst of strug­gle, the sense of community in the group grows deeper, faster. We might say that groups just meet together until the first train wreck in someone’s life, then they come together to experience real community. We are more likely to stop managing our image. Everyone gets real. The key seems to be that when the train wreck comes, the people in the group run to the train wreck. They don’t avoid it or throw platitudes at those suffering, because they know, love, and serve one another.

  1. Gospel First

In Christian community, instead of giving one another good advice in the midst of a struggle or personal challenge, we bring the gospel first. The first step to bring the gospel is reminding one another of how God longs to meet us in our sin and suffering with mercy and grace. So we turn to God in prayer as a group. We seek his wisdom in Scripture. We remind each other of promises from God.

  1. Serve One Another

When we experience Christian community in a small group, we grow in our ability to serve one another. In community, it’s not all about us. At times, our sole purpose is to serve one another. According to Hebrews 10:19-25, we continue meeting together so that we can stimulate one another to love and good works and encourage one another. When our group demonstrates the commitment to truly serve one another in a way that we are all growing closer, deeper, and stronger in our love for God and others, we get to experience the rare and beautiful gift of community in the way God intended it.

  1. Have Faith

We must believe what God says about community. The church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5). He is in the midst of his people (Luke 17:20-21). Where two, or more, are gathered in his name, he is with us (Matthew 18:20). We believe together, grow together, and endure together. And if we believe that Christian community is a vital part of worshiping and following Jesus, we will rearrange our lives in order to experience it.

My prayer for you is that you experience the kind of Christian community described above. As community deepens and ages, it becomes one of the greatest gifts we receive in this life. While it’s a gift from God, we contribute to the development of this community too by the way we treat one another.


 

Go & Multiply: Sharing the Gospel in Word and Deed

This book is Book 4 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key beliefs and practices every disciple of Jesus needs for going and multiplying.

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004: The Power of Small Group: The Stories of Karl Garcia, John Amato, and Matt Jones

In this episode, Karl Garcia shares his story about connecting with a Clear Creek small group and the role it played in his faith journey. Karl also sits down with two entrepreneurs, John Amato (on location at John’s restaurant) and Matt Jones, about their stories when it comes to the importance of small group in their lives.

 

Love & Serve: Living Interdependently

This book is Book 3 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key the belief and practice every disciple of Jesus needs of loving and serving.

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Listen & Obey: Hearing God’s Voice

This book is Book 2 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key the belief and practice every disciple of Jesus needs of listening and obeying.

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Repent & Believe: Relying on God’s Power

This book is Book 1 to the multi-book study “Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups.” You will discover key the belief and practice every disciple of Jesus needs of repenting and believing.

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An Introduction to Gospel-Centered Discipleship

This book is an introduction to the multi-book study Devoted: Discipleship Training for Small Groups. You will discover key beliefs and practices every disciple of Jesus needs. You will be introduced to the Spiritual Growth Grid and how three critical gospel storylines within it tie to our growth as disciples of Jesus. You will also learn key concepts about gospel-centered growth in order to make the most of this discipleship training series.

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Gospel-Centered Life: A Study of Galatians (Study Guide)

Surely you’ve seen it or maybe even experienced it yourself. People become followers of Jesus, immediately they get excited about God, and initially their lives experience much joy, peace, and power. But then, over time, those lives seem powerless again as they drift back into old ways of thinking and behaving. What happened? Could it be that they began to drift away from the truths about Christ and his work that are so critical in experiencing the life God desires for his people? How would a person know if that was the case? What truths about Jesus and his work must we always keep before us? In The Gospel-Centered Life: A Study of Galatians, Drs. Bruce Wesley and Yancey Arrington will guide you through the book of Galatians to help answer those questions and discover the key to a vibrant, lasting, and growing relationship with God – it’s the gospel-centered life! This small group study guide will lead participants to both study the book of Galatians and prepare them for discussion that intersects with The Gospel-Centered Life DVD. Each session is strategically structured to help develop good Bible study habits by intentionally following a three-step pattern: 1) Observation (WHAT does this passage say?) 2) Interpretation (WHAT does this passage mean?) 3) Application (HOW do I apply this passage to my life?) PLEASE NOTE: Study guide to be used with The Gospel-Centered Life: A Study of Galatians DVD and Leader Guide (each sold separately).

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Buy the leader’s guide on Amazon

Buy the DVD on Amazon

War: The David Frazier Story

David Frazier walked his wife to the open door of an old brick building on the East side of Los Angeles. Two nuns greeted them and were waiting to take Mrs. Frazier inside.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” David asked, peering into the doorway. A bright light beamed from somewhere just inside the doors that made him shield his eyes.

“This is something I have to do,” Mrs. Frazier said. Dave lowered his hand. Her eyes were piercing as they stared at him. She turned and went with the nuns who ushered her through the open doors. David watched her go and then began to walk down the street.

Buildings surrounded him, shrouded in shadows on either side of the street. It was getting dark, and David began to walk faster. He saw a few other people hurrying by on the sidewalk and a single car whisked lazily by. The air was cool, and a light breeze brushed his cheek as he walked. He turned to look back at the building with the bright light. He couldn’t see it.

David stopped walking and focused his vision down the street. He could see the skyscrapers in the heart of downtown, looming in the waning sunlight.

Suddenly, he couldn’t remember if that was even the way he had come from. He was running now – desperate to find the building with the bright light. But it was nowhere in sight. He turned at the next intersection, but nothing looked familiar. He could feel his breath becoming more sporadic as his mind began to panic. He looked left. There was a street with more unfamiliar buildings. He looked right. Nothing. His head was spinning. His vision started to blur – his heart pounding. He couldn’t walk in a straight line. He stumbled and caught himself from falling on the wall of a nearby building. He heard the clink of glass and saw a large green bottle on its side on the sidewalk in front of him. He looked up, but his sight was darkening. All went black.

* * *

David opened his eyes and lunged forward, gasping for breath. He surveyed his surroundings and quickly calmed down.

He was in his house, in his own bed. Toni, his wife, was lying next to him still asleep.

He tried to stifle a soft chuckle, and grinned as his panic subsided. He felt relief wash over him and settled his head back against his pillow.

The past was where it belonged once again.

 

BATTLEGROUND

David Frazier grew up just over an hour from downtown Los Angeles in Woodland Hills in the 50s and 60s with his mother, his aunt and his grandmother. His father had passed away just weeks after Dave’s birth in 1949.

At age 12, David became enamored with surfing. He spent as many hours as he could in the Pacific Ocean and embraced the life of a “California surfer boy.”

When the time came for the United States Army to draft soldiers into the Vietnam War, many of the surfers and other young men that David knew refused to go. Many of them became known as “draft dodgers,” known to have fled to Mexico or Canada, or even faked an illness or injury to avoid service. But Dave, despite being inexperienced and full of uncertainty, stepped forward willingly.

“I had never shot anything bigger than a Red Rider Daisy BB gun,” Dave said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to volunteer to go over to Vietnam. But, if I got drafted I wasn’t going to run away from it.”

So in 1969, at 20 years old, Dave was drafted into the United States Army. After completing basic training and advanced infantry training in Augusta, Georgia, Dave received orders from his captain: he was headed to Vietnam.

Dave landed in Duc Pho, Vietnam in 1970 where his primary duty was driving a supply truck from the landing zone to various bases, a nearby radio outpost, and the U.S. headquarters. If he couldn’t make it by truck, Dave and the other men in his crew would load the supplies into a helicopter and deliver them through the air. Every day, Dave would drive through the villages on his way to deliver supplies and came to know many of the locals.

“The Vietnamese people in the villages were just sweet, beautiful people,” Dave says looking back. “Even though they lived in villages and they were rice farmers and stuff, they were intelligent. They were smart people. They would always tease me, and I’d tease them. But, I saw a lot of the Americans treat the village people like dirt. I’m sitting there thinking: We’re over here to give these people freedom and take care of them. You can’t treat human beings like that.

But seeing the way the villagers were wrongly treated wasn’t the only thing that left its mark on him.

“That was a whole different world,” Dave says. “That was war.”

Dave has countless stories about the things he saw and experienced in Vietnam. He could talk about the places he got to see on the other side of the globe (surfing in Australia on a short-term leave from the war), or the people he got to meet, or the camaraderie he had with his fellow soldiers. But many stories contain the things he’d rather forget: gruesome injuries, unspeakable acts of violence, gore, death.

It didn’t take long for it all to begin to take its toll on Dave’s mind. Dealing with the harsh realities of war became a struggle, one in which Dave was not alone.

Alcohol was readily available and even more readily used. Drugs were commonplace.

But quickly Dave found that, as it was with most of the other soldiers, no substance could completely numb him to the horrors of war.

“At headquarters we had guys that had been in-country for three to seven years that I worked with,” Dave recounts. “One of the guys names was Brian. He came up to me one day and said, ‘I got orders to go home. They’re making me go home. They said I’ve been here too long.’ And I said, ‘Well Brian, I think they’re right.’ And he says, ‘No, David. This is my home now.’ Brian disappeared in Danang.

“There were a lot of guys that never came home.”

 

AWOL

After serving in Vietnam for a year, Dave was given orders to return home in 1971. He stepped off of the plane in the state of Washington thinking his war was over. But his welcome-home greeting made him realize the fight was far from finished.

“The protestors and the hippies were there throwing rocks and bottles at us, calling us, ‘baby killers,’ and spitting on us,” Dave remembers. “That devastated me.”

Dave returned to California where he tried to acclimate once again to civilian life. He began dating a girl he had known before the war. They soon married, and Dave landed a job through his in-laws, working in construction.

But despite the fact that the world was moving forward, Dave could not. Traumatized, Dave struggled to recapture the spirit of that 12-year-old surfer he once knew so well. Everything wouldn’t just go back to way things were before the war. His friends stopped hanging around saying that Dave was “different.”

He continued to drink.

Dave stopped coming home every night. His wife worried. He would be at a bar or at someone’s house, looking for his next drink. He started coming to work hung over. Dave began to realize that he was losing control.

“There were times that I would reach out and say, ‘I think I’ve got a problem.’ But [my wife’s] dad, who I worked for, would always say, ‘Dave, you don’t have a problem. Just don’t drink as much.”

Dave continued to have nightmares of Vietnam and the war. He would drink to try to forget. But then, unable to sleep, he would drink until he could do nothing but dream.

It didn’t take long for his wife to come to resent him. She asked him to leave her and their daughter Shannon.

“Things just kept getting worse and worse, and my wife divorced me,” Dave says. “I hung around for a while and things didn’t get any better and then I just disappeared. I don’t know where I was, or where I went. I can’t remember… nobody wanted anything to do with me.”

The downward spiral persisted, and Dave took to the streets of L.A.

Ten years had passed since Dave had returned from Vietnam. Since that time he had been in and out of VA hospitals all around L.A. with medical issues related to his drinking problem. But whenever he was allowed to leave, he would go right back into his usual methods.

“I intensely tried to kill myself,” Dave said. “I did not like guns, so I wasn’t going to blow my brains out, but I knew that alcohol would do it… I never liked alcohol. I just drank it for the effects.”

While he was in one of the VA hospitals, Dave met another veteran who became one of his few friends. The veteran knew he was going to be in the hospital for a long time and so he asked Dave to housesit for him.

One day, during Dave’s stay at the house, he opened up a closet door and found several cases of alcohol.

“The neighbors found me. And the ambulance came. I don’t know. Somehow I just woke up in the hospital,” Dave says. “So I remember it kind of like I was dreaming. The nurse was freaking out. I remember this alarm going off. I woke up on that gurney, and I remember the doctor saying, ‘This is a miracle, because you’re dead.’”

Dave doesn’t remember how long he stayed in the hospital that time. It could’ve been a few days or a few weeks, but when he was allowed to leave, something propelled him in a new direction.

“I just walked out, and kept walking,” Dave says. “I ended up in East L.A. in a mission.”

Dave lived there in order to receive meals and a place to live, but was required to attend daily sermons in order to receive the services of the shelter.

During one of the sermons, the preacher asked, “Do any of you want to be forgiven of your sins?”

Dave sat among the other homeless people with no place to go and no one out looking for him. The world had struck him down. But the question pierced his heart.

“I’m sitting there thinking, You know David, you have nothing to lose. And so I got up, and some other guy got up, and we walked up there to the front. And I got on my knees and I said, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do this anymore.’ I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

Dave arose a changed man. He still had a drinking problem. He still carried around anger and guilt. He was still homeless. But now he had hope. He was forgiven.

 

THE RETURN

Dave left the mission and quickly found his way to Simi Valley where he had a place to stay with another veteran. Across the street from the house, there was a man who happened to be going through the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The man became David’s AA sponsor and David began to feel some progress towards being free of his addiction to alcohol. But Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t the only thing that Dave found in Simi Valley.

“I walked into a Great Western Savings [bank] with a bunch of change. I had to pay an electric bill or something,” Dave recalls. “I had found all of this change in the house, so I took it over to the bank to get cash for it and I said, ‘Can I cash this? I’m, sorry I didn’t count it.’ And I looked up and there she was and I just went, ‘Wow.’ I fell in love right there.”

A young woman named Antoinette was behind the counter that day.

“I worked with my best friend and she said, ‘Oh I know that guy. Stay away from him. He’s on drugs,’” Antoinette, who goes by Toni, says with a laugh about the first time she met Dave. “[My friend] had just gotten sober and so she was at her AA meetings and [Dave] was at the same ones. He was sober and he wasn’t on drugs. But Dave’s a fun-loving guy, and I think she interpreted that as him being on drugs. So it kind of turned out to be a joke later on.”

After their initial meeting, Dave didn’t see Toni for several months, but fate intervened. Toni’s sister happened to live a few houses down from where Dave was staying. Toni was having car trouble one day, and Dave happened to be out in his yard. He said he would look at the car for her.

10982184_593953024080254_7512788353665011475_o(From left to right) Paula, Toni, Dave

Upon inspection, Dave informed Toni that there was little hope for the car, but offered her consolation in the form of a date.

“We went on a date, and then the second time he asked if my kids could go with us,” Toni says. “That was the first time that anybody had asked me that. That impacted me more than anything, because I was divorced.”

The two began regularly seeing each other and quickly realized that their future was together.

“We just knew that we belonged together,” Toni said. “He brought me home one night shortly after we started seeing each other, and we sat out in the car in the rain and he said, ‘We ought to just get married.’ And that’s what we did. We’d known each other for three months and we got married. My mother thought I was crazy, and she was right! But we’ve been married ever since.”

The couple married in 1982, and Dave found work as a welder. But Dave discovered his true gifts as a craftsman when he tried his hand at carpentry when he did some contract work for a business owner who wanted to save money buying display cases. Several years later, Dave would be hired to work for Schlitterbahn Waterparks as a Master Carpenter.

11537977_593953437413546_7960888123916044664_oDave and Paula

In 2005, Toni and Dave moved to League City, Texas to be closer to their grandchildren. But while Toni was ecstatic to be closer to family, Dave struggled with flashbacks.

“The heat and humidity took me back to Southeast Asia,” Dave said. “I mean it’s the same exact humidity.”

Though Dave had come through many of the trials he had faced when he first came back from Vietnam, the experiences he’d had during the war hadn’t left him. After discussing it with Toni, Dave moved back to California for a time just to be away from an all-too-familiar climate.

“He was jittery and jumpy,” Toni says about Dave’s continual battle with his past. “He thought he heard helicopters. It was just sights and sounds for him. It felt like he was back over there… Because being around a lot of people has been so difficult for him over the years, it kind of limits where you go and what plans you make. So we had to kind of alter our lives to be sensitive to that.”

After a stint back in California, Dave realized that despite the climate and his struggle with the past, he needed to be near his wife and the rest of his family. So he packed up the few possessions he had taken with him in his truck and drove back to Texas.

 

REASSIGNMENT

The Fraziers started attending Clear Creek Community Church in 2012 after being invited by Toni’s daughter, Paula. Both Dave and Toni had grown up attending church, but after going through difficult patches in their respective young adult lives, neither had ever recommitted to attending church regularly.

“I had wanted to go to church again for a long time. I actually drove past Clear Creek many times,” Toni recounts. “So we started attending with [Paula] regularly, and just felt like we belonged there from the very beginning.”

Dave and Toni quickly got involved by joining the small group that Paula was already in. But while Toni began to engage with the group, Dave still struggled to reconcile his past.

“[Dave’s] not a shy guy,” Dave and Toni’s small group leader, Chuck Fulcher said. “At that time it was a fairly large group, you know, and he was very content to just kind of sit on sort of the periphery and just listen to what was going on. Every once in a while he might make a comment, but in general… he didn’t open up a whole bunch.”

Around this time, Dave started seeing a counselor named Jerry Clark who specialized in family counseling but had an especially soft spot in his heart for veterans.

“He came in one day and he said, ‘David, I’ve got your whole scenario right here.” and he sat down and he said, “What happened over there wasn’t your fault.’” Dave says with tears in his eyes. “It was like all these bricks fell off my shoulders. I’d carried all that guilt around for all of those years. And then he invited me to his group and that was when I found out he had been a Marine in Vietnam.”

Jerry had also gone through the horrors of war and a similarly difficult transition back into civilian life.

“I was anxious and angry, and I didn’t know it,” Jerry said about returning from Vietnam. “It cost me a marriage. An old man I knew, who was a deep believer in Christ, just asked me one day… if I was in Vietnam. And I said, ‘Yeah. How come you ask?’ And he said, ‘I don’t think you’ve come home yet.’ And that was the beginning. It was probably 10 or 12 years after I came back that it dawned on me that I was still fighting the battle.”

10619910_661819440626945_4089849331283753518_oThe Fraziers and their small group.

It was Jerry’s own experience that had given him the desire and the necessary experience to help other veterans truly come home from war. Eventually he started the group Transition Plus to give organization and community to veterans in analogous situations to those that he, Dave, and many others have faced.
Jerry helped Dave come to grips with his guilt and Dave’s life dramatically changed. Soon he was speaking up during the group discussions at his church small group and he began to open up about the things he had been through.

“He was realizing that there is now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus and the whole guilt thing,” Chuck said. “I felt like the light bulb was going on in his brain. And he was being released from a lifetime of guilty feelings… you just started seeing him being less burdened.”

But his church small group wasn’t the only place that Dave was starting to speak up about what God was doing in his life. Jerry had invited Dave to commit to start regularly attending Transition Plus where Dave would have the opportunity to share his experiences and influence a new generation of veterans.

“[Jerry] calls me his ‘right-hand man,’” Dave says. “He says I see things in people that other people don’t see. He says that we’ll be in group and I’ll see pain in someone’s eyes – one of the vets – and I’ll call him out. I’ll say, ‘What’s going on?’ And they’ll start talking, and I’ll say, ‘Come on let it out.’ And the tears start flowing, and the horror stories start coming out.”

It was shortly after Dave started attending Transition Plus that Clear Creek Community Church had a large outdoor baptism. On the evening of October 5, 2014 several hundred people came out to support the dozens who were getting baptized – one of which was Toni Frazier.
After returning to church, getting involved in small group and recommitting her life to Jesus, Toni wanted to take the next step by professing her faith through baptism.

Among those in the crowd were many familiar faces of people from her small group, her kids, Paula and Rick who had both been baptized, and her two granddaughters Cameron and Lily. But none seemed to be more impacted by her declaration than her husband.

Dave and Chuck started talking about Dave getting baptized at the outdoor baptism. But Dave had one stipulation: it had to be in the ocean.

“I’ve been surfing since I was 12 years old. I would go out and catch waves and talk to God out there. I’ve always done that,” Dave says. “I’d paddle out and I’d be sitting there waiting for a nice wave and I would just talk to God. I feel like I belong there.”

So on a sunny Saturday, in mid-October 2014 Chuck and Dave marched out into the Gulf of Mexico from the beach of Galveston with their small group and the Frazier family watching.

“When he got baptized is when I really realized that he got it,” Toni says. “I just witnessed what it means, that God loves us no matter what, and that since Jesus died for our sins we can continue to live our lives glorifying him. You can just do so much more in your life knowing that you are loved that much… It’s the story of redemption. I almost want to say survival. But it’s obviously more than just survival. This is the story of Dave gaining his freedom.”

* * *

Today, if you met Dave, now 67, you might not know all that he has been through. He’s a fun-loving, hard-working, humble man who loves to laugh and make others smile. Dave still attends Transition Plus with Jerry Clark who says that Dave hasn’t missed a meeting in over two years for any other reason than a prior commitment to his family. Dave serves as a part of the First Impressions team at Clear Creek Community Church and still attends the same small group. He and Toni own their own house now. He goes by “Grampi Dave” there, courtesy of his 5-year-old granddaughter, Lily.

His days of wandering around drunk in the streets of L.A. are far behind him.

But don’t think that everything is easy now that Dave goes to church and has a relationship with Jesus. He’ll be the first to tell you that it’s anything but easy. Though he is far removed from the destruction of his past, he still has to face the ramifications of it. Aside from health issues resulting from years of alcohol abuse, and the effects of PTSD, Dave is also trying to rectify his relationship with Shannon, his daughter from his first marriage. After finding a letter from Shannon written decades ago, Dave wrote back. But the damage of having an absent father and separated parents has seemingly left its mark. Dave hopes, and continues to pray, for healing in Shannon who is now 43 and has a family of her own.

The Dave she used to know isn’t the same man anymore.

“There are things he can do that I could never approach,” Chuck Fulcher said. “Dave can pray with conviction about someone who has PTSD or someone who’s on the verge of suicide or something, because he’s been there. He knows exactly what it is and he can relate to that person with compassion. He can talk to these people and they’ll listen to him. They might be polite and listen to me, but I’ve never blown anything up or shot anything. I don’t even own a gun! You can’t change the past. But God’s allowed him to go through things, and God is using those experiences.”

Yes, life has left David Frazier battle-scarred and close to death on multiple occasions. But he continues to fight, it just looks a little different than it used to. Instead of fighting for his own survival, he fights to help lead his fellow veterans into the freedom in Christ he has come to know. Instead of fighting against his guilt and his past, he fights to be the best husband, father, grandfather, church member, friend, mentor, and Christ-follower he can be. He fights because he’s a soldier. He just follows the orders of a different leader now.