Rodney Murray had turned his life over to a gang. He was so immersed, in fact, that at one point, he’ll tell anyone who will listen, the gang became the most important part of his being, more vital than even his family.
Then two people came into his life, angels, he says, who helped him dig deep into his roots to find the faith instilled in him as a young boy and re-introduced him to God.
It wasn’t easy, Murray says today, but he found his way back to God and a way out of the gang. That, too, didn’t come without grave consequences, the kind that could have, quite literally, taken his life.
The Sampson County native, living in Baltimore, Maryland at the time, was shot five times. He was trying to withdraw from the gang, but members, he said, had other ideas, most of them focused solely on silencing him forever.
Murray was in a coma for six weeks, with doctors telling his mother that the time was drawing near to decide whether or not to take the young man off life support. ” But God, Murray says, wasn’t through with him yet.
“Look I chose the life I was leading. No one made me. And I was paying the consequences. I was given a second chance and I’ve learned from my mistakes. God brought me to my knees, then he lifted me up. Today, I choose God.”
And he’s hoping his testimony about his life experiences and his journey back to God can reach youth across Sampson County, preventing them from choosing roads that will, he attests, lead them to destruction and possible death.
“There’s a better way, and anything I can do to help young people see that there is, that’s what I believe I’m supposed to do,” Murray said during an interview Wednesday afternoon.
Out of the gang and in a right relationship with God, Murray began to look for ways to use his testimony to make a difference in the lives of others. He found it by offering to tell his story to all who will listen, parents and teens, alike, at myriad forums.
His decision led him back to Sampson County some 18 months ago and a chance meeting with Lawrence Riddles, a barber who, too, had found his way back to God and a part-time career as a musician, writing songs and performing them in hopes of inspiring young people to find a better life than one of crime, drugs and gangs.
The two met when Murray walked into Riddles barbershop to get a haircut. They started talking and before long they realized that the meeting probably wasn’t as much chance as divine destination.
The two have been working together since, batting around ideas and developing motivational programs to help youth.
They’ll be conducting one of those programs next Saturday night, Feb. 16, from 5 until 7 p.m., at Greater Six Run Church, 400 Six Run Road, Turkey during youth night.
During the “Renewing Your Mind Youth Ministry,” Riddles will perform a mixture of gospel music and gospel rap; Murray will give his testimony about life in a gang, and 22-year-old Tynesha Montague, a motivational speaker from Raleigh, will talk to youth and parents about “Making Bad Decisions.”
It’s an outreach opportunity Riddles and Murray hope many in the community will take advantage.
Admission is free and everyone, the pair said is invited to come out.
The pair are at ease talking about their past and the path that led them to each other and God, acknowledging that it is their testimony, they hope, that will inspire others to make better decisions and stop them from choosing lifestyles that will only lead to heartache for them and their families.
“The road we’ve been down, our testimony, we hope it’ll inspire teenagers, keep them out of jail and turn them onto a better way of life,” Riddles says.
Although Riddles never served time in prison, he did, he says, have a stint in the local Detention Center, something he says no one should ever want to do.
“Even in the local jail, your freedom is stripped from you. Everything you do is with someone else watching over you. No one’s goal should ever be prison, but if you’re choosing a life that involves drugs and crime, sooner or later that’s where you are going to end up.
“It’s my hope, that through my music, I can show young people there is a different way. Even if you come up in terrible circumstances, you still have the freedom of choice. You can choose a better life. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
Riddles, who has a CD coming out in the summer entitled “More than Music,” quickly saw he wanted to take a different road, and, like Murray, he returned to the upbringing that taught him God first.
“When you put God first in your life, everything else falls into place. It’s all about making the right decisions. Look anyone can make a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, but you’ve got to learn from them so you don’t bump your head on the same rock twice.”
Riddles and Murray hope they can reach young people before they turn down the wrong path or, at the very least, help them find a new and better direction.
“When I came out of my coma, the first thing I did was pick up my Bible and I read Ezekiel, the verses about the dry and rotten bones. It came over me right then that I had been part of the problem, now I needed to be part of the solution,” Murray interjects.
Being a part of the solution, he points out, means talking about his former life to others, opening it so they see his mistakes and, hopefully, learn from them.
“He’s good,” attests Riddles, pointing to Murray. “He’s very motivating. I heard him give his testimony at First Baptist Church (900 College St.), and it’s powerful. He had the attention of our youth, that’s for sure.”
And the pair hope to get the attention of other young people across the county, painting a true and often scary picture in hopes of waking them up to the realities of life.
“So many young people are looking for somewhere to belong. They think they want to be a part of gang, but they have no idea what they’re doing or what it means. They get involved in crime or drugs because they can’t see another way. We hope to show them that there is another way, a better way,” Murray says.
Riddles nods in agreement.
“My music is all about getting people off the street,” he says, breaking into the chorus of “Street Life,” a moving number that paints yet another picture of two lives, one removed from God, the other on the path of faith.
Murray points to Riddles talent as an example. “One of the greatest things is all the talent around here, among our young people. So much of it is untapped. We want to show them how to use that talent for God’s plan, as a way to help them so it won’t end up robbing them.”
With nothing constructive to do, often home alone and feeling uncared for, Murray said teens often find themselves trapped in a mental prison and the only way out seems to be a way that leads to destruction.
“I’ve been down that road and it’s a dead end. But the truth is, even if you head down that path, you can get off that road. But you’ve got to want to and you’ve got to make the decision. My goal, Lawrence’s goal is to help them find a better road.”
During the youth night Feb. 16, Murray will talk about his gang life, giving a soul-bearing testimony, all in an effort to reach young people and, truthfully, their parents.
Riddles’ goal is much the same.
“We are trying to save lives here,” Riddles stresses.
The pair say while their program is aimed at youth, they also are encouraging parents and other adults to attend as well, noting that it is everyone working together that makes a difference in a young life.
“A large part of steering a child in the right direction is their upbringing,” Riddles says. “Teaching really does start at home. Looking back, all those butt whoppings I got were deserved, and they taught me lessons, ones I came back to.”
Parents, Riddles notes, are getting younger and younger and often grandparents can be found in nightclubs with their children. “That’s not good. And it’s not good for children to be raising children. What you end up with is parents who don’t want or don’t know how to discipline their children. Instead they look to compromise. That’s not what’s needed. Parents need to be parents. They need to set rules and punish their children when those rules are broken. When they get out in the real world, that’s what happens.”
And then there’s love. It starts, Murray stresses, with family and extends outward. “My uncle John and my other aunts and uncles, they all made a difference in my life, along with my mother. I’m here because of them.”
It’s that love that they want to extend to today’s youth, opening their hearts and their arms to them while, at the same time, talking opening about their own mistakes and the path that led them to the Lord.
“We may not be able to reach them all, but if we can save them one at a time, we’re heading in the right direction,” Murray says. Anything I can do to keep one kid out of trouble, I believe it’s my job to do it. I believe that’s what God wants me to do.”