I learned many years ago that Jonah was only the co-star of the Old Testament book that goes by his name: The big fish (a/k/a "whale") was also a key player. God had not only placed the big fish's big mouth near Jonah, but had also willed all the movements of the big fish and his parents, so that spawning and swimming were all in His hands.
Curt Williams (38 years old, about 5-1/2 feet tall but strong, with black hair pulled back in a ponytail) is the big fish at a last chance home/ranch for teenage boys just east of Houston. The kids' bad attitudes and histories of assault or other misbehavior have left parents and guardians feeling that their charges are fit only to be jettisoned-and most of the teen wolves would make their high-school yearbooks only under the category, "most likely to drown."
Anybody willing to live with nine such predators is nuts, Mr. Williams notes-and that's how the question of God's preparing such fish becomes relevant. If the Youth-Reach Houston founder had grown up as expected within his Christian home, he would not now be ready to out-tough the tough guys. But Curt plunged into the depths: "My brother had a photographic memory and I had a pornographic memory"- along with a drug habit that ruled his life from 1979 through 1984.
Like most addicts, Curt set up lines he said he would not cross: "I'll do drugs but I won't sell them. Then, I'll sell them but I won't sell them to kids." Finally, he crossed that last line and "lived a life of misery and paranoia" with a best buddy named "Critter." Curt's only real friend was his mother, who would ask him how he was; when he said, "Fine," Mrs. Williams would reply, "'I'll see what I can do about that.' She would pray that I be miserable," because only then would a decision to change come.
In 1984 Curt followed a pretty girl into a church; there he was welcomed and there he kept visiting, although he repaid church members' kindness with insults and ingesting drugs, until "one day I was so fried I couldn't tell time or tie my shoes." Having hit bottom, he went to church and felt spiritually compelled to throw away all his drugs and pornography. He bought a Bible and study guides. He consumed them. The covenant child had returned to Christ- but now he was a fish with five years of rough experience that he could use in helping others.
Mr. Williams soon founded Youth-Reach Houston, which now runs a Texas-licensed foster family group home. Rules, penalties, and a willingness to expel kids to the streets are vital to the program. "Most of these kids had no dads and received no discipline," Mr. Williams says. "Kids who have grown up lazy need practice doing chores." Behavior results in reward points, with residents allowed to advance through three levels. To teens who make no progress, Mr. Williams insists: "Change your attitude or change your address."
But counselors also show compassion, in the literal meaning of "suffering with." One dreaded punishment involves picking up logs from a huge pile and moving them 250 feet into the field, for no purpose except discipline. Kids get angry but are impressed to find a staff member coming alongside them and lifting as well: That sometimes destroys the anger.
Other work also teaches lessons. Each boy learns responsibility from being assigned a horse. (City kids also have to learn to approach the horse from the side so as not to be bitten or kicked. They first avoid stepping on horse droppings, but are soon throwing them at each other.) Joint projects, such as rebuilding boats, teach cooperation. Bible study and worship teach underlying purpose.
Needing the freedom to teach and discipline in a way both scriptural and streetwise, Mr. Williams accepts no government funds. Twelve churches and many individual contributors supply the $250,000 annual budget; staff members, including the Williamses, work long hours with little appreciation, and in return receive room and board plus $200 each and every month. That's not much, unless you count the satisfaction of knowing that God has made you a big fish for just such a time.
A television commercial about taking kids to a ballgame includes the running tab but ends with a father-son moment and the exclamation, "Priceless!" How much more so for a God-prepared big fish and boys who were drowning.