It all started with bottled water and a prayer. A prayer uttered in the midst of a bustling downtown for a heart of grace and eyes of compassion. The Brooklyn House Church frequented the streets of Dayton handing out bottles of water to people they encountered, trying to tangibly share a little of the love God had lavished on them.
One evening after walking through a steady stream of people and passing several gay bars, Casey Steckling paused to pray with his house church, asking for the ability to recognize and care for those most in need of help. How God would answer that prayer began to play out just a few weeks later in an unexpected opportunity.
Rick Gray had become acquainted with Casey through the recovery meetings they both frequented. While their interactions were limited, these two men had more in common than mere attendance. They were familiar with the void of addiction and knew the unrelenting emptiness of it; the cycle of trying to fill a gaping maw of a hole only to realize there was still an unsatisfied, lifeless vacancy that remained. It was this recognition that prompted Rick to ask Casey to be his sponsor. Casey was initially hesitant as he had been a sponsor before and it had not worked out well. However, Rick proved to be different. He wanted a new life, not just a better one. He was tired of trying to fill the emptiness he knew with things that didn't last, but couldn't conquer it alone. So Casey agreed. Soon after the sponsorship began, Rick told Casey that he was gay. A single word that could change the relationship and change whether Casey would still be willing to help him work toward sobriety. Even so, this concern was met with understanding. Casey simply said it wasn't about being gay. It was about alcohol. They shared a commonality in pain and struggle. Over those worn paths, love could travel as well.
Rick was not a particularly religious or spiritual individual. In all the solemnity of a morning shower this began to change when an unexpected thought took hold: "Maybe it would help if you believed in something.” Not only did the sheer foreignness of the idea make it noteworthy, but there was substance to it; a palpable truth. Sobriety left time in its wake and renewed Rick’s awareness of the emptiness he harbored. Hours that once passed quickly with a few drinks now crawled by under the weight of their vacuity. Christmas was on the horizon and Casey suggested Rick try praying to fill this new abundance of time. All the while, Brooklyn House Church was praying for Rick. Later, Casey invited Rick to attend the Christmas Eve service with him at Apex. Rick was wary at best of Christianity and the church. Despite his initial fears, he agreed to join Casey.
As they walked through the church doors that Christmas Eve, Rick did not burst into flames as he suspected he might, but was instead welcomed with kind words and extended hands. There was a peace that hung in the air and Rick learned that God was about love. Rick returned to Apex the following Sunday. And the next. That morning it was particularly cold in the sanctuary. Coats were left on to combat the chill well into the gathering. At the end of the sermon an invitation was extended to those wrestling through dark times for prayer. Rick stood. He knew darkness well. People sitting nearby laid their hands on his shoulders and back. As they prayed over him, a warmth grew in his chest and spread through every bone, muscle and tendon overtaking the coldness within. Strange and wonderful, Rick mulled over the sudden change.
Later that week Rick joined Casey at house church. Before that evening, Rick spent some time reading over the White Papers on Apex's website. He wanted to know more about what the church believed and its values. As he read, the phrase, "eternal life without Jesus was hell" caught his attention. He realized his whole life had been hell and that was not something he wanted to endure forever. He needed Jesus. He wanted Jesus. More than anything. On a Thursday night at Brooklyn House Church, Rick came to know Jesus as his Savior and Lord. There was a time he thought giving up alcohol was the best thing he could do for himself. Since then, Rick recognized the best thing he could truly do was leave everything he knew for a God who loved him unconditionally, who could fill the void Rick had tried to satisfy on his own.
Because of Jesus' willingness to suffer and die so Rick might live, he left the gay lifestyle he knew, committed to celibacy and found his identity in being a disciple of Christ. For the family Rick would never have, God gave him the family he needed through his house church. Many looked to Rick as a father and he loved them like his children. In the sunshine of a June day exactly six months after Rick felt the warmth of the Spirit on a cold January morning he stood chest deep in the currents of Mad River. Surrounded by his house church and the unconditional love of his Savior, Rick was baptized. As one, they celebrated the miracle of God's redemption at work and the amazing grace that had brought them all together.
Author: Robin Zastrow
Photographer: Amber Wing