“It was a challenge,” Stewart recalls now, in a lunchtime conversation at a pizza restaurant in Jasper. “The community was Hispanic, and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, so I struggled. But God was doing great things anyway, and our congregation had grown to about 300. That was before the storm.”
The storm was historic Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and it devastated the church and many surrounding homes. By this time, Stewart had a wife and son. After Isabel, his choices were to either stay and continue trying to rebuild the church, or to move on. He picked the latter, and till this day regrets it.
”I’ve always been a runner by nature,” he says, with a grim smile. “When I have a problem, my impulse is to run from it.” He phoned his church administration’s overseers in California and asked about a new posting on the West Coast. But the nearest church seeking a pastor was in Nevada — a town called Stagecoach, best known as a site where parts of the blockbuster 1960s TV show “Bonanza” were filmed.
But the fresh start and idyllic setting didn’t produce the outcome that Stewart was hoping for: “I made some very poor choices, and relapsed into a drug habit that I’d had before. I started using again, and it caused a chain reaction of emotional downfalls.” The tailspin started quickly. A week after his family arrived in Stagecoach, he had just finished his morning sermon when he was involved in a drug deal that went wrong and was shot in the head with a handgun, while his young son watched. “The shooting messed me up mentally as well as physically,” he remembers, “not to mention the embarrassment. The bottom line was that I had no desire to pastor any more, so I walked away from my ministry. My wife left me, so I lost my son.
“Overnight, it was like my mental capacities were gone. I was addicted to opiates for nearly the next eight years. Just trying to kill that pain. I was a deadbeat father, focused completely on myself.”
Homeless, on the road
Ironically, his addiction odyssey took him to more different cities than his ministry had. “I was traveling all over the country,” he says. “Many of the things that I went through, I don’t even have a recollection of. You can imagine the ways I had to get my money. All I know for sure is that I spent seven of those years homeless, out of contact with my family. “I had built my whole life around a desire to make a difference in other people’s lives, and now I couldn’t even make a difference in my own. I lost all hope.”
Then in January 2013 Stewart hit what he calls “probably the lowest point of all.” He had no job, no money, and was living in a friend’s car in the dead of winter. He says he’s always loved poetry, and when his life looked darkest he started keeping a notebook. One poem from that time begins, “I’m on the run / It’s time to go / The more I knew / The less I know...”
The only bright spot on the horizon was a girl he had met. “She meant the world to me, and actually started changing my life,” he says. “She told me, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do these things. There’s a better life out there but it’s not going to happen overnight. Let’s lean on each other, and we can do this.’
“And pretty soon I didn’t have the desire to do the drugs any more. That’s when I realized that what I’d been searching for, through the drugs, was love. And now that I had it, I didn’t need the drugs. There’s the old saying, ‘You have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired,’ and that was true for me.”
He started job-hunting, and along the way met Darren Hicks, owner of Johnny Brusco’s Pizza on Highway 78 East. “At first there was no job open,” says Stewart. “Because there’s not a lot of turnover there, and it feels more like a family. But I told him about my past and my situation, and I told him if he gave me a chance I’d be the best worker he ever had.”
Eventually a job became available, and Stewart remembers the day he moved from his car into a motel and set about “making it work, staying sober day by day. Because I knew I didn’t have it in me, to go through living my past again.”
His girlfriend was working full-time and living with a relative, but several months later they were able to pool their resources and find a house. Along the way, a strange thing happened: “Little by little, some happiness began to appear,” he says. “I was able to work and take care of myself and my family, which at this point consists of my dog and the woman I love.”
The joy of sleep
One of the payoffs of returning to a stable and productive life, he says, is the joy of a simple night’s sleep. “It’s a relief knowing I don’t have any enemies,” he says. “I live a very private life, because it helps me stay out of trouble. And I remember all those years that I wasn’t able to sleep in peace because I was haunted by my guilt and my addiction.
“Looking back to when I was shot, I don’t know why I didn’t die that day. But I’m still here. And I realize I may never have a pulpit to minister from again, but this place is my platform — to listen to people who come through, who might have family problems or be in a financial bind, or have kids who are on drugs and are feeling hopeless.
“Drug addiction used to be an epidemic, but now it’s a terminal illness. It’s a cancer that’s eating away at all of us. People who don’t know any better say, ‘Just get a grip on yourself and change.’ But it’s not nearly that easy. It’s a sickness. You need somebody to love you and guide you through it, because I know I could never have gotten sober on my own.”
Along the way, he’s found that sudden avenues of happiness keep appearing in his new life, some of them unexpected. Two months ago, on his 18th birthday, Jonathan’s son Matthew phoned him from Tucson and told him he’d like to get better acquainted. Come springtime, Jonathan will be watching his mailbox for a ticket to Matthew’s graduation ceremony.
After relating this news, Stewart goes silent for a second. “I think the hardest part of coming back from those years was taking responsibility for the damage I’d done, for all the people I hurt. My church, my family. And I can never make it up to those people. All I can do is try to pay it forward by helping somebody else. I want to be an encouragement to people who might be going through what I’ve been through. To let them know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Suddenly he starts rolling up his shirtsleeve. “I don’t believe in tattoos. I don’t like ‘em. But I had my son’s name tattooed on my arms.” On the left forearm, in crisp Old English characters, is the word MATTHEW. On the right is STEWART. “Getting to this place has taken many, many, many years,” Stewart says, his voice at the edge of breaking. “But God knows what he’s doing.”
For that reason, he says, he has a third tattoo on his back. It’s a single word: FORGIVENESS.
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)