Reconnecting the Pieces to Peace

For most of Matthew’s 26 years, he’s been looking for the missing pieces of his life.

Conceived as a twin, his sister was delivered stillborn a few weeks before he was discovered in his mother’s womb. “No one knew my mom was still pregnant,” he says. Born prematurely on a Friday the 13th, Matthew often has wondered why he survived when his sister didn’t.

But “no matter how much happens in my life, I’m here. And it has to be for a bigger reason.”

Matthew grew up without his father, and his loving single mother determined to do the best she could for her kids. He was 5 when they moved to the less idyllic side of San Diego. Life was rough, money was tight, and his mom’s health was sometimes seriously challenged. “It wasn’t easy for my mother, having to take care of five kids by herself. Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. My mom is my hero because I’ve seen her overcome every single obstacle that life has to throw at her. I feel like she’s the reason why I’m as strong as I am today.”

The family was forced to move often and at least once lived in a Christian facility. Growing up, faith was a part of his life, and Matthew, the middle child of his family, was a good kid early on, he says. But he often felt the sting of stigmas of fatherlessness, poverty, and hopelessness. By the time he reached high school, Matthew tried focusing on joining the Marines and making music, but his life also took a dark turn. “I just started doing drugs to do drugs, I guess it was just something I was curious about, a cool thing to do.” But looking back now, he realizes the truth: “I was trying to fill a void,” and “I became addicted to all different types of drugs,” especially opiates.

Before the pandemic, Matthew and his then-fiancée moved to Virginia to build a new life together. He was several months sober when they arrived in Norfolk, and he found work quickly. “I got my stuff together,” but once he and his fiancée got an apartment together, their opiate addictions caught up with them again. “A couple months in, I was hanging out in the bad part of town, and I started doing drugs again—massively!”

“…I got really messed up for a long time,” Matthew laments.

Life got even more messed up when his drug use led to a mix-up in an armed robbery. He had no part in the crime and didn’t fit any description of the suspects, but one night while he was high, he was jumped on the streets and told to take the fall. Matthew was beaten with a baseball bat, and ended up with a purple, softball-sized lump on the side of my head, a scar above his eye, a concussion, and a few broken ribs. But “coming from where I come from, you don’t talk to cops.”

When police arrived to arrest him, he says he was on enough narcotics to have overdosed. But even then, he realized he didn’t want to continue living that way. Though he was innocent, Matthew admitted to the charges in a desperate attempt to get clean. “I’m hooked and I need help,” he reasoned. “If I do go to jail, I’ll only do [a couple] years and I’ll be sober and in better shape when I get out.”

But while locked up, Matthew found he was facing a sentence of 43 years for seven felonies including gun charges. He saw his best buddy die in jail. He discovered that his fiancée had cheated on him. Most traumatic of all, he found that his mother in California had been diagnosed with cancer again on top of her multiple sclerosis. It pained him that his imprisonment made it impossible for him to help her. Matthew says he spent a lot of time in solitary confinement for acting out. “I was losing my mind!”

“I never thought I’d beat that case! I thought I would be put away for a long time, or even die in there!”

Matthew wasn’t sure he’d ever see his family again. But eventually he was offered a decent plea deal without any gun charges, which he accepted.

Once he was released, Matthew lived on the streets of Norfolk for a few days. “I was out here alone. I had no wallet, no ID. They threw away my birth certificate, my Social Security card. I had nothing to my name but a big bag of all my paperwork and my jail clothes!” Strangers he met were kind to him, he says, and made sure he had enough to eat.

And “I don’t know why, but I did get blessed with helpful probation officer,” he said. Matthew had hoped to get into a halfway house to continue his sober living, but he didn’t qualify. Instead, she referred him to The Union Mission.

When he first arrived on campus, intake hours were past, but the Men’s Shelter Manager on duty told Matthew to be here by 7 a.m. the next day and that he would be sure to get a bed. The next morning he showed up at 5.

“If anybody’s going to get into that shelter today, it’s going to be me!”

Entering our David Development Program, Matthew met with Lamont Harris, who quickly earned his trust. “I was never raised with a father, so I have authority issues. It’s very hard for me to have another man in my life who’s telling me what to do. But with Mr. Harris, I knew that all he wanted was for me to do better.” Harris became a trusted mentor for Matthew.

“He didn’t have to do everything that he’s been doing for me. He doesn’t have to answer his phone in the middle of the night, or deal with my problems when I have my anger outbursts. But he does.”

Here at the Mission, the disordered pieces of Matthew’s life started to move into place. He secured new ID documents and was approved for Medicaid, his first insurance ever. Our Wellness Team found he was wearing hand-me-down bifocals in jail and got him new prescription eyeglasses to improve his failing vision. Sentara’s on-site clinic gave Matthew a full physical and mental health evaluation, as well as help adjusting his medications. The Mission also connected him to a personal counselor to work through his clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Matthew says she is the one who helped him realize he needed to redefine some relationships: “Right now I’m trying to do good. I can’t keep people around me anymore that aren’t benefiting me or don’t want me to actually succeed in life.”

And though Harris had told him to focus on his recovery instead of job searching, it wasn’t long before Matthew was working with his new best friend, David, at a good-paying position surveying the public on community issues like voting and education. It gave him a greater desire “to help out the world” as well as a paycheck. And though he’s never been good with his personal finances, Matthew admits that the program’s savings plan helped him learn the benefits of disciplined money management.

Most important, a few months after living at the Mission, “I gave my life to God again! I found my faith. I found my hope again!”

“I realized that if I get everything, all the money in the world and it’s taken away the next day, I know I’m going to be all right. I’m not going to have God by my side because I’m going to be by God’s side!”

Matthew was baptized again and at a Christian youth event at the oceanfront, a location where he’s always sensed God’s presence, he shared his testimony of grace, recovery, and redemption.

“We are all going to go through struggles, and I can help people with what I have to say. If someone can hear my story or my music, they can realize ‘If Matthew can do it, then I can do it!’”

Plus, with his mother’s help, Matthew found his father, who was glad to hear from him after so long. For nearly a year they have been building a healthy, strong relationship, and his dad is teaching Matthew about his Hispanic heritage. “I am blessed to be able to have his presence in my life now. If I’d gotten it when I was running the streets or doing bad stuff, I probably would have wanted to hurt him because he hurt me. I had to grow up.”

Matthew says he has no regrets for the negative events of his past, not even jail. “Situations will either make you or break you—and it’s up to you as a man to determine how that’s going to affect you or not, how you want to handle it. In the new slang, they talk about ‘taking an L,’ like taking a loss….

 “…Well, I don’t take any losses anymore. The only L I take is a lesson. I will always learn from every single thing I go through.”

“Everything that I went through made me the man that I am today.” But Matthew is also determined, with God’s help, not to make those same mistakes again. “No matter what I’ve been through, God has always been on my side. I just gave my life to God completely where I’m like, you know what? I’m with You. I’m all in. You’re going to use me for whatever You need me to use me for now.”

Now more than two years clean and sober, Matthew’s got a lot of passions he’d like to pursue: earning his welding and carpentry certifications, saving up enough money to go to medical school or law school to be an advocate for children fighting cancer or growing up in low-income housing. “I want to be able to show a little kid hope because I got shown hope.”

Matthew uses the tattoo on his hand as a reminder to work hard to change his life. “RMG means ‘Respect My Grind,’ what I’m doing every day to make sure I’m doing what I know to do. But it also means ‘Reach My Goals.’” He wants to be a person of purpose who helps others. “For the next six years [while I’m on probation,] I have to do what I have to do and stay out of the way and just focus on bettering myself and bettering the world.”

For now, he has found a career-path shipyard job, has moved into his own apartment, and has plugged into a local church. He’s also staying in touch with many of his Mission friends who encourage each other. “I’m so content with everything that’s going on in my life right now because I know I’m blessed!”

In his David Development Program Aftercare check-ins, he’s told Lamont Harris how grateful he is for his stay in our shelter.

“The Mission is the biggest thing I’m thankful for!”

“They didn’t have to do this for me, for any of us. There is no place like this place in the world—to go into a homeless shelter at the worst point in your life, and all these people want to help you get on your feet and succeed! I know I’m going to be all right!”

Thanks to you, Matthew found his missing pieces—and his peace—here at The Union Mission.

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