My Story of Resilience

My name is David Dickinson. I have been a Pastor for over 40 years and have spent the last 15 years working with low income families in a variety of settings including a mission church, homeless shelter and jail ministry. We all get knocked down from time to time, the difference between despair and victory is often in how we get back up.

My Dad Disappears

My own story of resilience began on November 28th, 1959,  when I was only six years old.  My family lived in Chicago and my father worked at the Santa Fe railroad while also studying at Northern Baptist Seminary to be a pastor.  My father worked the overnight shift and one morning as we awoke for breakfast, I could read a real concern from my mother.  Dad was usually home by this time, but today he wasn’t.  As the day went on the concern grew greater until finally the police came to the door.  My father was a “missing person.”  In the ensuing days, the concern and the questions just grew deeper.  My dad’s picture appeared on the front page of the Chicago papers and numerous church families and friends began dropping in.  To a six year old the only question that mattered was the one no one could answer, “Where’s my daddy?”

As the days stretched into weeks, the visits from friends and police officers with questions slowed.  There were no more news stories and the concerns became “What do we do now?”  My mother had been a stay at home mother and I had three younger siblings.  With four children, six and under, she had no choice but to go on welfare.  We soon moved to a cheaper basement apartment in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.  Life had changed dramatically!

The apartment had cracked and peeling paint and plaster.  The neighborhood definitely was more dangerous.  The one good thing about our new home was that we were just one block from our new church, Salem Evangelical Free Church.  It was at Salem over the ensuing years, that I would find strength and support from people who genuinely loved our family and reached out to help.

Growing Up

The years that followed brought many new challenges.  My brothers and sister had very limited memories of dad and my own memories were quickly fading.  My mother was consumed with providing for four children on welfare and food stamps.  My brother and I took on several paper routes when we were in elementary school, although, we were eventually forced to give them up due to the danger of being robbed frequently while collecting from customers.

I often wondered how life would have been different if my dad hadn’t disappeared on that fateful day.  I yearned for someone to teach me to play baseball and God brought a crippled boy named Mike into my life who had an endless knowledge of baseball despite the braces on his legs.  I desired men I could look up to and God provided several Awana leaders through our church who sought to include me in their activities.  I discovered quickly that I needed to be strong for my mother and younger siblings.  I was the “man of the house.”

During this time, my spiritual life was a source of strength.  My mother frequently read the Bible with us had us in church every time there was an activity we could attend.  But this was more than religion, this was a relationship with God that provided hope in the midst of discouraging circumstances.  One Bible verse that was especially important during this time was John 1:12 “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”  While my earthly father was gone, I had a Heavenly Father who wanted me to be a part of His family, and He would never leave me.

After seven long years in the inner city, 17 robbery attempts (including the same bicycle three times), and growing to be a teenager on the verge of starting high school, my mother went to court to have my father declared legally dead.  This legal action would allow us to receive survivor’s benefits and enable us to move out of the city of Chicago.  After another year, due to an insurance company’s fight to avoid paying a small life insurance policy, my father was declared legally dead.  In my own mind, I had long ago come to that conclusion.  Somehow, my father must be dead.  It was the only explanation that accounted for his being gone so long.

A Major Move

We immediately moved to western Nebraska to serve as winter caretakers of the Maranatha Bible Camp at Maxwell, Nebraska.  Maxwell had a population at the time of 320, a far cry from the city of Chicago.  To say this experience was culture shock is a gross understatement.  There was the beauty of the camp and the great opportunities to learn and grow in the ministry of the camp.  But there was also the feeling of being alone among a class of students who had been together since kindergarten, the alienation of living in a culture I didn’t understand or really fit into.

As I had done in Chicago, I soaked up information, sought out mentors and tried new things I wasn’t sure I could accomplish.  Although I had started woefully behind my class academically, I finally managed to get on the honor roll as a senior.  Although I was very small I played football, basketball and ran the mile in track, none with much success, but all a new experience and an opportunity to discover myself and my abilities.

After four years of high school, I returned to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute and prepare for the pastoral ministry.  After graduating from Moody, I met and married my wife and once again confronted the impact of not having a father.  I didn’t know how to be a husband or father and many of the models around me were deeply flawed.  Once again, I turned to my Bible and the advice of godly men I could trust as I stumbled and searched for how to lead a family.

The Story Changes

As I began to raise my own family, I thought that the final chapter of the story of my father had been written.  The full story, however, was just beginning.

One afternoon, I received a phone call from my mother.  She had been contacted by a representative of the Social Security Administration.  She explained that my father had been living under another identity for over 35 years and had been exposed only when he attempted to collect Social Security benefits under his assumed name.

Over the coming months I would learn that my father intentionally choose to disappear that day in Chicago, created a new identity complete with a new Social Security number, met another woman and married her, and had three children, the oldest of whom is also named David.  In the years since he disappeared, he had held jobs for which he was overqualified so he wouldn’t risk someone checking out his college education or background.  He even used his theological education as he rose to leadership within his church.

The emotions that accompanied this revelation were overwhelming.  I felt betrayed, abandoned and rejected amidst many other confusing feelings.  As the days passed these feelings developed into deep feelings of anger and resentment about what my father had done to me.

Every aspect of my life was soon impacted by this revelation.  I was distracted at my job, my work as a volunteer youth minister was suffering and I was becoming more distant with my own wife and children.  I discovered that anger was a poison working from within, eating away at me with every passing day.

A few months after the revelation, I led a youth trip of approximately 60 teenagers to a youth conference conducted by Dawson McAllister.  His theme for the two day conference was family conflict.  In one session he discussed how to deal with hurts and anger over past wrongs.  He talked about how anger repeatedly victimizes us even after the original hurt.  He also warned that this anger usually results in our anger hurting those closest to us.

My wife and my three daughters were all in the audience that day and I knew that I could not hold on to my anger at the risk of hurting them.  I had to do what I did not want to do, forgive my father.  There were initially no feelings of forgiveness or compassion.  It was simply a choice to release the anger building up inside of me.  Making this choice didn’t bring immediate results either.  Over the next days and weeks, I found myself repeatedly affirming my decision to release my anger and choose not to dwell on what my dad had done.  Gradually, those around me began to see the change and more importantly, I began to see the change in myself.

There were still some tough times, such as the first thanksgiving, which had always marked the time that my father had disappeared.  The memories and feelings would come rushing back and just as I was sinking into self pity and bitterness, I would be reminded of my decision to forgive.  My only recourse in those times has been to ask God to give me the strength to once again walk away from the anger. Gradually, those episodes have become less frequent and anger has been replaced with pity for a man who lived in hiding and missed a great relationship with my mother, brothers and sister.

The years have passed and my father and his second wife have both passed away.  Although I did write to my father, I never had a relationship with my dad again.  I have met and become good friends with my half brothers and sister.  My own children are grown and have families of their own.  I am so grateful that God caught me as I was slipping into anger and bitterness and that he provided for me the means of being resilient even in my darkest moments.

There have also been other challenges and times when I have had to go back again to these important principles and the timeless truths of God’s Word, the Bible.  These principles have brought me through financial setbacks and health challenges, the trauma of raising three daughters and the counseling of others in times of crisis over nearly 40 years of ministry.

The contents of this site on resilience are really a documentation of my own journey.  Our lives never have to be defined by our past.  The future is what we choose to make it today.  My prayer for you is that you will join me on this exciting, life changing journey of resilience.