After years of substance abuse, drug dealing and incarceration, a son of hopelessness encounters the God of hope.
SOULFIRES | IGNITING MINISTRY
In our Soulfires series, we share the stories of people who have encountered God in powerful ways and responded by initiating significant ministry projects.
Thirteen-year-old Tim Neisler was behind the wheel of his dad’s ’76 Chevy Monza watching the scam go down with false calm. His dad’s junkie friend, Ricky, was in the passenger seat leaning out the window and holding what was supposed to look like a wad of twenties, but was actually 20 one-dollar bills wrapped in one 20-dollar bill. The target was Rafa, the heroin lord, sitting in the driver’s side of his brand new white Trans Am, his girlfriend next to him. Rafa was supposed to think he was receiving $240—something he got many times a day, thus the new white Trans Am.
Tim’s knee bounced like a piston as he watched the deal go down with one eye while he scanned the perimeter with the other. Just then, Rafa took the wad of money and handed the heroin to Ricky.
“Go,” Ricky said under his breath.
Tim gave the car enough gas so as not to appear like he was actually trying to get away with something. So with a slow but deliberate push, Tim moved the Monza onto the street and started a forceful ramble, gaining speed with every foot he drove.
“How we doin’?” Ricky frantically asked Tim, whose eyes were locked on Rafa in the rearview mirror.
“Good, so far. Good,” Tim said nervously.
Just then, Tim saw Rafa’s Trans Am smoke his way into a screaming U-turn.
“Oh crap!” Tim yelled as he floored his rattletrap. “Here he comes!”
Rafa raced up to Tim and began to punch the Monza’s back bumper with his front fender. Finally, Rafa passed Tim and screeched to a stop in front of him, cutting him off. He kicked open his door and as he did, the 10-inch blade in his right hand flashed into view.
“Give it back to him! Give it back!” Tim yelled to Ricky as he feared for his life. Rafa’s girlfriend, scared by the car chase and knife, was screaming hysterically. Ricky saw that Rafa was headed toward Tim with murder in his eyes. “Please, Ricky. Give it back!” Tim yelled again. Ricky, in a panic, threw the foil of heroin toward Rafa’s girlfriend—and Rafa saw it sail through the air. But only Tim seemed to notice that the foil landed right in her hand. She was nearly hyperventilating and in her panic, threw the foil back at Ricky, landing in Tim’s backseat. And Rafa did not see that.
Tim backed the car away in a hurry and flew down the road. Less than a half mile later, a siren was heard and police lights flashed. When the cops pulled Tim over and told him that they had received reports of an altercation between a Monza and a white Trans Am, Tim said he knew nothing of it. He then gave the cop a cockamamie story about having to drive his dad’s drunk friend home to keep him safe. The cop, looking straight into Tim’s 13-year-old eyes, let him go—even without a license.
As Tim pulled into the driveway, his dad was nervously pacing on the porch. A feeling of excitement coursed through Tim because he knew this was his crowning achievement—he would surely win his dad’s affection now. After all, he had raced through the streets at age 13, ripped off the notorious Rafa, had a knife pulled on him and had even slipped the police. Plus, he had arrived with the crown jewel: a dirty, wadded up foil of heroin sitting on the backseat of his dad’s trashy Chevy.
But this was no crowning achievement. There was no hug. No, Attaboy. No, I love you, Son. Tim’s dad ran up to him and yelled, “Where’s my dope, boy?”
Tim’s heart sank. “It’s in the backseat. Go get it, you junkie.”
Working Dad’s Addiction
Ever since Tim could remember, he worked his dad’s addiction. He was 7 years old the first time his dad grabbed him and said they were going on a “run.” He acted as his dad’s lookout and cover as they traveled from store to store, shoplifting items, running through parking lots and making countless trips down to Mexico. That’s where young Tim would be told by his dad, who had difficulty walking due to ghastly, infected needle wounds up and down his legs, to walk the streets in search of someone who would pay top dollar for the stolen merchandise.
Once the cash was in hand, Tim’s dad would drive to a dilapidated house, make Tim stay in the car while he went inside, and then 40 minutes later, would reappear with heavy eyelids and a sick smile.
Even though Tim hated seeing his dad dope-sick and riddled with pain, or jabbing a needle into his arm just to keep alive, he loved him. And if this is what he had to do to be there for him, then that’s what he was going to do. Besides, he knew his dad loved and appreciated him too.
But as the years went by, Tim saw more and more signs to indicate that the love he believed was there, was really just a ghost. Like the time his dad picked him up after school and made him hit a store where Tim knew all his friends would be. But he was so dope-sick that Tim’s pleading with him to avoid that store didn’t matter. After being caught by the manager and running out of the store for all the customers to see, he offered not even the slightest of apologies for the embarrassment. Tim was devastated.
Then there was the time Tim’s brother saw that Tim had some money of his own and told their dad. When Tim’s dad asked if he could borrow the money, Tim knew he would never see it again and said no. He got a backhand to the face.
With his dad’s desperation for the next fix reaching greater levels as the years passed, Tim’s belief that his dad loved him began to turn into something more closely resembling a desperate hope.
That is why, six years later, on the night Tim and Ricky stole Rafa’s dope, all of Tim’s hope was dashed for good. As much as he wanted to believe his dad loved him, he simply couldn’t anymore.
A year later, Tim’s dad took him on a road trip to go see a cousin in Chicago. They hit stores in every town all the way from California to Texas and then through the Midwest. But a remarkable thing happened. In every single drug deal, Tim’s dad either got bad dope or no dope at all as he was ripped off again and again. By the time they reached Chicago, Tim’s dad hadn’t gotten high on heroin in four weeks. He had already gone through the withdrawal stage and was looking pretty good.
Life in the Shadows
But it was late December and Tim wondered out loud when they could go back home to the climate they were used to. Tim’s dad bought him a ticket and took him to the station. Before getting on the bus, he turned to Tim.
“I’m not going back,” he said. “I’m never going back. You know that, don’t you?”
“To California? You’re not coming?” His dad shook his head with resolve.
“OK,” Tim said. “I’ll go home and go to school and then in the summer, I’ll come back here. I’ll live with you. OK?” Seeing that his dad was clean, Tim was trying to revive any flickering embers of hope.
When Christmas came, the phone rang and it was Dad calling to say Merry Christmas to everyone. After Tim spoke to his dad, he somehow knew by the sound of his heroin-riddled slur, a sound that made his heart hurt, that he would never hear from him again. And he never did. He died of an overdose not long after that phone call.
It left Tim feeling like the emptiest, most unloved person on the planet. He filled his pain with what he knew best—drugs and the drug life. In the years that followed, his meth addiction and business sent him to jail so many times that he even stopped wondering how he was going to fool the system. He merely accepted that this was his life, the meaning of his existence. Life in the shadows and on the run was the only thing he knew how to do.
Besides, when he was behind bars, he was with likeminded people who shared a painful part of his life. Prisons are a collection of wayward souls who don’t have dads. They are men who have their hearts cut out.
A Voice in the Dark
Fourteen years later, on parole from prison, Tim had stopped checking in with his parole officer and knew that it was just a matter of time before he’d be caught again. He was high, standing in a garage before a large table covered in meth paraphernalia of every kind—pipes, torches, spoons—and he just began to think about his dad, about his mother who had just passed away from her own meth addiction, about his own miserable life where he couldn’t stay clean for even one day, and about his brand new baby daughter.
And he started weeping uncontrollably. It was as if the pain of his entire 26 years came crushing down on him all at once. He fell to the floor and felt that his head might explode. Suddenly, a very large presence of something powerful entered the room. It was then that he heard a voice. “One day, you’re going to live for me,” it said. Tim was filled with an overwhelming sensation that he was not alone in this garage, or this life.
Two years later, after another prison stint and once more on the run from the law for violating parole, he checked himself into a sober living home to try to avoid going back to prison. He began the lonely existence of being away from the life he knew on the streets, away from the life he knew on the inside of prison walls, and he was gritting his teeth through every day of having to stay clean. He was an emotional wreck. He knew something had to change.
A Father’s Love
On Easter Sunday, Tim went to a nearby church to see if God could do something to save him. It was there that he heard about a Billy Graham Crusade that was coming to town. He felt compelled to volunteer at the event, and signed up to become a greeter.
As he stood there and listened to Billy Graham’s invitation for all to come down from where they sat and receive the love of their father in heaven, Tim was overcome. “Father,” he said to himself. “I can have a father who loves me?” He cried again without restraint. And that was when, just like that day in the garage, he heard a voice. “Tim, this is nothing. I have so much more for you to do.”
“What?” Tim asked through his tears. “How can you use someone like me?”
“You don’t have to understand. All you have to do is have faith in me,” the voice said. For this father, Tim’s crowning achievement was simply to believe.
POSTSCRIPT: For the past 10 years, Tim Neisler has served as a pastor, using his story to bring hope to the broken and hopeless. He also leads Prisoners of Hope, an international prison ministry of San Diego’s Rock Church.