Stephen, you’ve been here at the Mission for almost a year now and I know very little about you. Can you tell me a bit more about yourself?
My father was a Methodist Minister, he attended Emory University. I was born in Union, SC. in 1957. We were country people. My Dad came from the wrong side of the tracks. My Mama and her family grew up on a farm. We moved to Wahalla, Williston, and from there we went to Beaufort, SC. That’s where I grew up with my brother’s, Bobby and Tim, and my sister Ann.
Did your father serve churches in those towns?
Yes, and there were several others. He had five that he served in Walhalla while he was attending Emory University. He’d preach at three one Sunday and two the next. He was a circuit pastor. Then he went to Landrum, then to Williston, then to Beaufort. Beaufort is where my story really begins.
Tell me about growing up in Beaufort.
When I was in high school I was a big fish in a small pond. My biggest worry in life was not hurting some-body’s feelings by not having time to spend with them. I was captain of the football team, president of the church youth group, president of the student body at my high school, and best all around in my senior class. My first job out of high school was to work in a clerical position for the FBI. I was going to USC (University of South Carolina) and you had to have either a law degree or an accounting degree to become an FBI agent. I was really good in math so I was studying to become an accountant, get my CPA, and go to work for the FBI. I did that for two and a half years but I fell in love with a little gal from Winthrop and the books went down the drain. When I broke up with my girlfriend I went to Spartanburg Methodist College. Later on I transferred to Winthrop College and majored in accounting. It’s there that I got involved in drugs. When I left college, I went to work for my uncle Jack in his restaurant in Spartanburg and fell in love with it.
So you didn’t finish your degree, but began to work in restaurants. Where did that lead you?
I was making a lot of money and I was selling drugs on the side. Cocaine and marijuana mainly. It was very lucrative. I ended up running the #1 Del Taco in the country. Then I went to Myrtle Beach where I ran the Dockside restaurant for a year. From there I became the door man at Sandpipers in Murrells Inlet. I was still involved selling in drugs.
Were you using drugs or just dealing drugs?
Both, but I was fairly conservative, because I didn’t like anybody to see me messed up. I would drink and snort cocaine, I called it stayin’ balanced?
Where did you go from there?
Well, I met the girl who became my wife. We were living the high life; it was all about drugs, sex and money. When she got pregnant, my Dad, the Methodist Minister, insisted that I marry her. So I did the right thing, I married her. Seven months into the pregnancy we lost the baby which was a very sad day. I’d often make trips to Mexico and bring back a hundred pounds of marijuana at a time. Then one day in February I got caught. I ended up getting a ten year sentence. But thanks to my sister’s boyfriend who was the #2 man in the State Corrections Department and who pulled some strings, by July 4th I was out of prison and walking on the beach with my wife.
Yes. that’s when my faith started. Believe me, I did a lot of praying!
Your faith started when you were in prison?
Yes, I had to straighten up and fly right. I put all of that behind me. I needed help. I was way out there and had taken a big tumble. With a lot of financial help from my parents and in-laws, I ended up owning my own restaurant. I made money from the first day I opened. The restaurant was Shabby’s in Pauley’s Island. It was extremely successful. Built me a beautiful home there, had boats, cars, and all the things money can buy.
How long were you a restaurateur at Shabby’s?
For eight years. Then I left.
Why did you leave?
Because I started doing drugs again. My wife was going out every night with her entourage, dancing and this and that and I didn’t care to do that. I was sitting at home by myself all the time. Then a guy I used to do business with came by one night. He needed some money. Well, I knew some very prominent people who I knew had the cash to buy drugs and they were very discrete. So I decided to make a little extra money and have a little fun on my own. So I’d sit there and party by myself. She’d come home at 4 or 5 in the morning. We were never in love, so it was doomed from the beginning. The only church I was involved with then was St. Paul’s Methodist. I loved the pastor there, he was a great friend of mine. I kept feeling God pulling at me and I knew He had something for me to do, I’ve always known that. My father had been called to the ministry. My brother had been called to the ministry. I was waiting on a calling. One night I just dropped on my knees and said, God, Your Son said: “I am the way the truth and the life.” If you know the truth it’s go-ing to set you free. So I prayed for truth. Well the journey to truth is NOT an easy one. After divorcing my wife I had to get away, so I moved to Mexico.
To Mexico? Then what did you do?
I met this guy who spoke English, he was a waiter at a restaurant in one of the most exclusive resorts in Cabos San Lucas. He and his brother invited me into their home. I loved it there. I had a free place to live. I stayed there for two years, rent free. I even went to work in the ice factory. I met a friend named Pava, who was building a hotel. He offered me a place to stay and his daughter and son in law offered me a job where I worked nine hours a day, seven days a week.
What did the job entail?
I worked in the Taco Rio. I was the manager and the cashier. I also transported the food from the house where they prepared it. It was a great experience and it’s where I learned to speak Spanish. I did a lot of praying and a lot of soul searching. I did this for four years. That’s where one night I did cocaine again, and that was the last time I ever did it and that’s been twelve years ago. I said, this makes me not feel close to God, it feels like a barrier, like a wall goes up.
So what brought you back to the States?
I developed tendonitis in my feet; my feet hurt me so bad I couldn’t walk. One day I dropped to my knees. It felt like a rubber band popped in my arch. I told him I couldn’t work the next day. Besides that, the Federales had come looking for me because I didn’t have what was the equivalent to a green card here. The economy had gone south, people were being laid off in Mexico, the resorts were drying up. My sister called me on the phone and I told her my situation. She wired me $500 and told me that she and her husband and his partner wanted to open a restaurant and that she wanted me to come home. When I got back we started looking. We contacted a realtor who had the Lands End property listed in Georgetown; a beautiful restaurant. They bought it and I became the general manager.
How did that go for you?
My feet got so bad again that I ended up having to resign. I told the owners I’m just not physically able to do the job. When I left, I had saved some money. I got a job in Conway, SC at a restaurant but it only lasted one month. I had only $200 in my pocket, so I decided to go and see my brother in Summerville, but the last thing I wanted to do was to ask him for money. I had interviews with some good restaurants but I just couldn’t get hired.
So you went to Summerville.
When I ended up broke, I had to call my brother. It’s then that I looked on the internet and found the Star Gospel Mission. That was in early April of 2013. I went to the temp. service. I prayed for humility in my life, and guess what, God delivered it. I got a job on a trash truck. I’m still there and I’m very happy.
So you’re collecting trash?
Yes, but I’m serving. To serve is a privilege. To serve the Lord is the ultimate privilege. And the way you serve the Lord is by feeding His sheep.
How are you serving working on a trash truck?
When you’re taking away someone’s garbage, that’s a great service. You’re doing something they don’t want to do. I get thanked, I get tips, people come up and shake my hand (that’s why I always carry hand sanitizer with me).
Are you doing OK financially?
I make enough to pay my bills, but when you have to put tires on your car or pay other expenses, it’s going to hurt my budget.
You’re satisfied with your job, but are you looking for something else?
I’m not going to look too hard. I pray, Lord, I don’t care what I have to go through, I don’t care what kind of trials, tribulations, hurt, pain, physical, mental, whatever I have to go through to be drawn closer to You, bring it on. GOD’S WILL BE DONE IN MY LIFE! (each word spoken with great emphasis)
Do you have every confidence that He’s going to point you in the right direction?
Oh, yes I do, yes I do!
How is it that you have that confidence?
Because with all I’ve been through, it’s brought me so close to Him. I hear Him, He speaks to me. I’m closer to God than I ever imagined I would be. At times I think I might just be the most blessed man, outside of His Son, to ever walk the face of this earth. And I’ve got work to do and He’s going to lead and I’m going to follow. I KNOW WHO I BELONG TO!
You said to me a couple of weeks ago that you have an opportunity to witness while you’re on this job. Tell me a little bit about that.
What I’m telling you right now I would tell to anybody. I’m going to tell you that God loves you and I’m going to tell you that I love you. I’ve got a friend named Tommy, and He loves to ask people, “do you love the Lord?” People step back for a second, but most of the time they answer YES.
Having come to the Star Gospel Mission, do you see this place as a place where God has worked in your life, directed you, and helped you grow spiritually?
It’s a refuge. It’s a place where I have a lot of time. That’s why I like my job so much. I have a lot of time to pray on the back of that truck. I’m outside, I look at the beautiful yards, the gardens, the oak trees covered in Spanish moss, and the Ashley River, I go into neighborhoods where you look and you see God everywhere. And I say, Hi God, thank you, have I told You I loved You today, have I thanked You today… well, let me reiterate, I love You and thank You!
That’s a tremendous witness to the guys you’re riding on the back of the truck with.
They know what I believe. They hear me say it, and sing it. I love to sing, I’m always singing on the back of the truck. A guy asked me the other day, why haven’t you been singing lately? I told him that I’d been experiencing some pain in my feet and my knees. The worse thing about my job, I’m 57 years old, I jump off the back of that truck sometimes running 10 miles an hour. Well that’s not easy on your ankles and knees.
Tell me, where do you see God leading you; what’s your sense of God’s will for you right now?
I know that I’m going to serve Him the rest of my days, but I’m not exactly sure as to what form that will take. If He wants me to be a missionary, I’ll be a missionary. If He wants me to get in the pulpit, I’ll get in the pulpit. Whatever He has planned for me to do, I’m going to do it! I pray for His help constantly. I pray that everyone who reads this will know that there’s one thing in life that’s for certain… that God loves you and that you belong to Him.
Let me say AMEN to that.
An interview of Stephen Howell by Pastor Christian