2023 · Sermon

From Pavement to Pulpit by Vernon Hammond

“God is ALWAYS in control”

A Short Story of my journey from addiction to the priesthood which I pray will inspire you and let you come to know that God is ALWAYS in control.

Luke 7: 44 – 50

44 Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48 Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50 And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised: (NRSVA)

“From Pavement to Pulpit”

The Vernon Hammond Short Story: October 2023

My name is Vernon Hammond and I am a recovering drug addict. I make no excuses for my addiction and take responsibility for all that has impacted my life and the life of my family in a negative way. This story, I intend to keep as short as possible in order to make for quick reading and hopefully add some inspiration on your own life’s journey.

I cannot begin to share my story without saying a special thank you to those who have played a role in me becoming the man that I am today. To my mum, who was tough and needed to be. For your ever faithful love for God which came through in your constant prayers for me. I love you and maybe do not say it enough. My sisters who had to live with me as their brother and who had to deal with so much because of me. Thank you for putting up with me. To Natasha and my children, I love you very much and am so grateful to God for allowing me to share life with you. You make me proud every day and give me so many reasons to keep on keeping on.

To Caleb, my child whom I do not have a right to call my son. I will always regret missing out on your life. I will forever be sorry for that and pray that both you and your mum would find a place in your hearts for forgiveness as much as I may not deserve it. Lizzy and Zuma, for taking me in when I was homeless and to Lorelle and Jerome for providing Natasha and I a place to stay while we got back on our feet. There is also a special lady that I went to school with called Komla. Thank you for all your efforts in trying to get me to stop drugging when we were in standard eight (grade 10) together. You, Reon (Noddy) and Ravin (Ears) will forever be a part of my story. There are so many people, but I thought that these should be mentioned in particular.

The last person I want to thank is no longer around to receive the thank you. Reynold, Brazzo, Dad, friend and someone who just refused to give up on me. I miss you and wish you could have seen me in a collar. Love you, my friend.

So now that I have got the thank you part of my story done, let me get into it.

My story of addiction began as a 14‐year‐old living in Durban where drugs were easily available. I experimented for the first time in a place we called “Cigarette Valley” and yes for those of us old enough, it was named after the TV program “Secret Valley”. This was a little hideout that we had built in the middle of a bush next to where we lived.

Being poor and not having things that my friends often always seemed to have had, was an easy enough excuse to try my hand at delivering drugs for a local drug dealer in my area (now deceased). It was quick, easy money and something that I thought that I needed more than anything else in the world. These delivery trips soon took place during school hours and I had lost interest in swimming as well as soccer (I loved these two sports). I was focused on always having money and nice things at that time.

I then one day bought myself some dagga (sloop as we knew it back then). I had spent enough time around smokers to know what to do. I smoked for the first time and I was hooked. It became a daily thing for me which then escalated to mandrax (buttons as we called it then). For some reason, I was able to get away with it and do it without anyone suspecting that I was doing drugs. Later I came to understand that I was a functioning addict. Meaning that I was able to use drugs and yet still carry out things as normal as possible. I began to experiment with many other drugs and used whatever I could get at the time.

By the time I was I standard 8 (grade 10) I had been involved in so many fights, not attended school, been arrested and began to steal whenever I needed more money for drugs because the dealer had realised that I was using and did not want me to carry anymore. You could say that I was fired.

The one thing that I remember my mum saying to me at some stage during this time of my life was that no matter how big a gangster I thought I was and no matter what I did outside on the streets, that she will always be older than me and my mother and that she would beat me up in front of all my friends to teach me. She also said that she did not care about where I went and how late I came home, nor did it matter how tired I was and that if I ever missed Church on Sunday, that she would deal with me. Now I thank God for that and as God is my witness, even when I moved out from home, I always found myself in church on a Sunday. Yes, I would be either high or very drunk.

I remember sleeping in the choir sections of Christ Church Overport during Sunday services, but I was in church and that was that.

Knowing now what I understand as the work of God, I am grateful for that threat as I know that God was working in me during my addiction.

There was a period in my late teens when I had gone completely off the rails and a young Matt Redman had come to South Africa and was part of a mission at our “Mother Church”, St Martin’s in the Fields, Durban North. Matt Redman was coming to my home parish in Phoenix as part of that mission because St Martin’s was responsible to a large extent in planting my home Parish and I remember my dad telling me that if I did not attend that Friday nights service that my bags would be left outside and that I would not have a place to live.

I went along and during that service Matt Redmon was sharing his life’s story. During prayer time he called me to come up and my dad gave me one of his looks and as high as I was, I went for prayer. Years later, I found out what he had spoken over my life (even though I am told that I laughed a bit when he said it).

He had said that “God was preparing me for a ministry that would be a full‐time ministry where I will work with my own people….”

Well, that happened and that story I cannot remember on my own. It was a story that was relayed to me years later.

So, onto my matric year and I confess that I do not know how I passed with a matric exemption. Between the fights, drugs, alcohol and bunking school, I can only attribute my passing matric to the plans that God had for my life. I wrote every single paper without even remembering writing them. Study period was a time that I used to be drunk and high.

Forward to post matric studies and things began to get even worse. I got married and that should not have happened because my life was a mess. I had become responsible for making someone whom I consider to be as decent as they came very miserable. I know that she suspected that something was not right and that it could be drugs. She questioned me about it and I always said it was alcohol. Three years after being married, she gave birth to a son and I wanted to turn my life around. I gave it my best shot many times and always fell back into addiction. This was now affecting my job (which I soon lost), my home life and I was now avoiding my mum, dad and sisters. I knew that they would see through me. I remember that when my son was two years old that I got very involved in church and had been clean for 3 months. It was the best time that I can remember while being married.

There were many setbacks on my journey to recovery and as almost every addict will tell you, it was difficult to stay clean. There were many factors that contributed to my “falling off the wagon”. During my setbacks, I was always finding Church to be my safe haven. Church was the one place that I could go to no matter how bad things had gotten. Sitting in Church was where I think God ministered to me. Many people look down on addicts when they are seen in Church. Some would even go as far as saying that I need to try and be sober when I come to Church so that I could hear God and give my life to God. I beg to differ here. God is able to speak to the Spirit through the Spirit and it did not matter how high I was. God was working in me even while I was not aware of it.

I attended a worship evening at the Church directly opposite where I lives in the Glenwood area. I had walked in because the worship music playing was what I was listening to while at home. When I arrived at Church, I took my place at the back. There was a visiting Pastor whom I only remember as Pastor Chris who had been doing a series of teachings at that particular Church. I remember the senior Pastor as Pastor Bill and Pastor Chappe. The youth leader whose name I can’t remember, but I remember his then Girlfriend whom he later married. Her name was “Moragg” (They called her Mooi Lappie at times)

Anyway, the youth leader noticed me walk in and he came and sat next to me. When it was time for prayer, he asked me if I would like to go up for prayer. I did and pastor Chris who I later found out was from America began to pray for me. While praying he stopped and said “that God was calling me into full time ministry and that God was preparing me for a special work that only someone like me would understand.” Now at this point, I did not recall what Matt Redman had spoken over my life because that story had not been told to me yet.

I remember crying and asking if he was sure because I was not a good person. I had done some terrible things in my life by then. He then continued to pray that God would always draw me back to this prophetic word over my live.

I must say that I was overwhelmed that God would want to use me for anything, let alone to minister to anyone. I stayed clean until my sons third birthday and went to that Church every time it was opened. I became part of the ministry team and was even having prayer meetings at my flat.

It was a glorious time that helped shape me during the early part of what I now look back on and call my time of training and testing.

I had one major test during this time and it was after my son’s third birthday. I had taken a job in Westville in a design studio and struggled to find transport to work. I was often late and often stranded at night. I remember walking home from Westville to Durban (about 15km) one night and passed a place that I would often score drugs from in the past. I met an old friend and the next thing I knew was that I was getting high.

The guilt after that night was what actually killed me so to say. I went on binges after binges and soon lost that job as well. My then wife began to slowly distance herself from me and our relationship had reached a point where nothing but God could have fixed. I did not want God at that point. I was too high and too broke to even think about God. I was angry and had lost my faith. For the first time since my second prophetic word over my life was spoken, I had stopped reminding myself of it. It became a distant memory and yet when I look back on my life now, I see that God had never forgotten me.

I remember losing everything I had. I had become homeless and was now living on the streets and sleeping under the bridge outside St Paul’s Anglican Church. On rainy days, I would sleep at the Church doors where there was shelter. I had been stabbed and robbed and yet my life was always spared. There was a drug raid that took place outside one of the popular clubs in town and for some reason the detectives just left me sitting in the corner. Had they taken me in that night and processed me, they would have picked up a previous suspended sentence that I still had and would have definitely arrested me and maybe sent me away for a while. I can only say that for me, God had other plans and it did not include getting arrested that night.

You see that night I met a sex worker who was a working girl because of circumstances and not something she had chosen. We became friends and she would check up on me every night and bring me food (and a bit of a hit as well). She always said that it was so that I would not get caught up in the “drug seduced” criminal world of the city. She always said that she did not want me to end up on the streets forever and be tied to drug lords that held the homeless hostage by supplying them drugs and making them break into cars to pay for what they were given to smoke.

You see, that night, God put me in contact with the most spiritual person that I had ever met (besides my mum and Natasha of course). She spoke to me about God almost every night. I began to wait for her daily and she would pray with me outside St Paul’s Church. I had found the will to live and it was not because of anyone that one would expect to find God through. Joedene (Joe) and I would share many scriptures together at night. She would pull out a little Bible from her bag and read to me and explain to me that I need to find God in order to survive.

She would also share stories of her clients and how they would treat her. These stories made me start to feel that my life was not so bad after all. I think this is why it is important for recovering addicts to attend groups. This is where they hear other stories from people who have been in their shoes. Story telling has now become part of my life. It is the tool that I use to encourage others facing similar things that I had faced. God had taken me through this journey so that I could share my story to those who need to hear it the most.

One night Joe told me that no matter what she had been through and what she had survived, she was always grateful to have God in her life. Joedene (RIP) my friend. I will love you forever for what you did for me. Mostly because you brought me back to the feet of God in your special Joe kind of way. You were real and did not shy away from being who you were.

I pray that I am living up to your memory by trying to live my life in the same way that you did which was by being true to yourself and by being you. Not worrying to change who I am to fit in with others.

I know who I am because of you and I will always remain true to myself. That was the most important life lesson that I got from you. It is the way I minister today. I am me

Sadly, Joe had been raped one night by someone who was HIV positive and she died a few years after I became a priest. We met often before she died.

There are many instances when God places people in our lives for various reasons. One of the most difficult things to do as an addict is to work out who the people you come across are. More often than not, we miss these opportunities because we are so fixated on getting high rather than on trusting people. When I look back on my life as I often do, I have found many instances where there were people who would walk into my life that seemed genuinely interested in helping me. When I think about these moments, I often wonder if they were the people that God had placed before me for me to reach out too. I also no know that God’s timing is perfect and my meeting Joe was perfect timing as I was at my lowest and needed someone who was not considered, or rather who was considering themselves better than me.

She was the one person at that moment who just made perfect sense. She was my lifeline. I wonder if you are reading this and wondering when God is going to send you that lifeline? Maybe, just maybe, God has sent you many and you may just have been too busy searching for your next fix to see them. Maybe you were just focusing on how you can help your addicted child and that consumes your every moment and you could be missing the gifts from God that have been placed in your life from time to time.

God is always walking towards the addicts and those affected by addiction. Jesus was a friend to tax collectors and sex workers. A friend to the grieving, a friend to the outcasts of his time. So, stop for a moment and seek those who God has placed in your life. They may be there right now. Pause… this is the moment when you cry out to the Lord to show you who this person or people are. Pray with me as you pause…

“Lord Jesus, I need you. I cannot do this on my own. Show me the angel/s that you have placed in my life so that I may see and hear you through them. Open my eyes Lord and help me to see more clearly. Help me to hear you especially when I am at my weakest. Amen”

Getting back to my story, and after being ministered to and cared for by the most unlikely of people, I gathered all the courage that I could and with many words of encouragements and prayers from Joe, I decided to go home the next morning and my sister Lizzy (as we call her) and her ex‐husband Kevin took me in. It was a constant struggle with my addiction while I lived with them. I was back at Church again on Sundays, but really struggling, really struggling. I knew that I had to be where God could guide me. Joe’s words echoed in my mind daily. Her favourite scripture became mine.

“S/He who is forgiven much, loves much.” (as Joe had translated Luke 7 vs 47)

I knew that God loved me and that I am forgiven. I began to trust and love again. Loving myself first and those around me as well.

I then got a job as a mechanic’s assistant and that did not last very long either. I was often off from work and one day got injured on duty and realised that I have to start pulling my life together. The one morning, my niece Tamara (who was very little at the time) woke me up to tell me that I was bleeding and she was very afraid and I overheard her ask her mom (Lizzy) “if I was going to die?”

The fear in her eyes is something that I will remember forever. She knelt down next to me and called her little brother Keown to come and pray for me. It broke my heart to see them that way. I got up and had a shower. It was at that moment that I saw what tamara had seen. I was bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth. I cannot recall how or what had happened the night before, but I do remember asking God that morning to save me from this “hell”. I remember asking God to see me as the “other guy” on the cross and that he needed to save me.

The words spoken over my life by Pastor Chris came flooding back at that moment in the shower. I had tapped into what was always there. I cried more that I had ever done in my life at that point. I had decided then that enough was enough.

I stayed clean for about 8 months and got a job at Pick n Pay and sadly, my first pay check went on a hand full of ecstasy. I had stayed clean but did not know how to deal with the many triggers that I had.

Money was one of the main triggers. It was money or the want of money that started me on this journey through addiction from the age of fourteen. I used on and off for about four months and again found myself at the feet of this ever‐forgiving God. I decided that I would strike a deal with God (as if that even makes any sense) and fulfil the prophetic words spoken over me. By this time, I had heard about what Matt Redman had spoken over my life. A month after that while still fighting my inner demons and my addiction, I ran away to Cape Town because I had heard that someone was wanting to kill me for something I could not remember doing. I reasoned that I was not going to die sober and I was determined to stay sober from that point.

I went to Cape Town and after my first month in Cape Town, I found a local Church in Kraaifontein that I attended and, on the 21st September 2001, (on my son Caleb’s birthday), I had decided that this was my last shot at staying clean. I asked God to help me stay clean because this day was special to me. I had not seen my son for almost 3 years by then. My focus had shifted. Now I was not relying on myself or anyone else to stay clean. I was for the first time in my life really putting my trust in Jesus to keep me clean. As they say at NA meetings, I had found my higher power. I also know that cutting all ties with my friends and my past in Durban was a great help. When on this journey, one must make a conscious choice to move away from friends and areas that draws one back to addiction. Fortunately for me, I was forced into that choice. I was in a new area, a new city and had no friends. They came later and almost all were from Church.

Praise God, I stayed clean and by the grace of God at the time of writing this story, I am twenty‐two years drug free.

I stayed on the path of sobriety and went to church regularly. There was no place that I would have preferred more than to be in Church. I found a job that I enjoyed and was good at. I made assistant manager and was set to open my own branch. In the process, I had met the most amazing woman that I have ever known. We both had stories to share about how tough life had been for us. For some reason, she stayed with me. I thank God every day for her. I married her you know. I love you for ever Natasha.

She gave me three amazing children in the process and has been holding my hand ever since. She became my rock. My “day one”. As an addict, living one day at a time was important and she is my one day at a time, my “day one.”

After a few years in cape town, I went on a church visit to find a spiritual home that I could begin to explore this ministry that God had been talking about for many years of my life.

I walked into a Church on Sunday morning and low and behold, the pastor said he had a special word for someone. He pointed me out and called me forward. I will never forget his words for as long as I live.

He said and I quote verbatim:

“God is calling you into full time ministry. God has been grooming you for many years and has spared your life (those who know me will attest to the fact that I should have been dead many times over) so that you can minister amongst your own… Then a pause and he said, but God is calling you home.”

After a year or so, I told Natasha about this. She immediately said that we must go home. We packed as little as we could and hopped on a bus to Durban. On the way, I called my dad to tell him that I was coming home. His voice was filled with excitement and then I told him that he would be a grandpa and that Natasha was pregnant with Tylor. He was even more excited and that’s how we got to Durban to be “home” as I thought.

Natasha and I visited many Churches in Durban for about eight months to find our spiritual home. We were never comfortable where we were. We went to Pentecostal, Charismatic, Full Gospel and so many more denominations.

We always found that something was not home about it. We lived near my home parish, Holy Trinity Phoenix (HTC) with my other sister Lorelle and her husband Jerome and yet we had not visited HTC. I was still a bit embarrassed because of how they knew me from my youth. We were invited to a Confirmation service at Holy Trinity and we decided to go. From the moment we walked in, it was as if Natasha, (who was not Anglican and had never been to an Anglican Church) and I knew that we were home. It felt as if that’s where God wanted us to be, For the first time, I really understood what God was saying to me through the people who had spoken over my life. It was as if God was telling me that I will be called into full time ministry within the Anglican Church and that is where home would be.

We have not looked back since. I began to get involved at HTC and soon found my name been put forward for testing of vocation within the Fellowship of Vocation (FOV) in the Diocese of Natal. After five years in FOV, I attended my first discernment conference. This was at a time that I had started my own business which was going very well.

I waited for a further 4 years after discernment before we were told as a family that we were heading to seminary in 2010. I was truly home. I was ordained in 2013 after I had completed my honours degree within 3 years which included my three‐year undergrad degree. The grace of God allowed me to finish my undergraduate in two years and complete my honours in my third year at UKZN Pietermaritzburg.

So began my journey into full time ministry, at home within the Anglican Church.

Now my story of God’s grace would not be complete without me talking about working “amongst my own.” During my ministry, I found myself drawn to young people suffering with drug addiction. This became a major focus in my ministry and still is to this day. I am “home” working with “my people”; the addicts.

To elaborate on the goodness of God and to map out how God has had a hand in my journey, I want to talk about the beginning to where I find myself now.

I grew up in a block of flats next to Milla Rosa in Overport and I had begun my journey of addiction there. I would also deliver drugs to the Greyville area opposite St Mary’s Anglican Church, Greyville on Saturday mornings. I had slept at the door of St Pauls Anglican Church next to the Workshop shopping Centre on many rainy nights while living on the street.

Now as God would have it, my journey would come full circle during my placements at different Parishes as either Deacon, Assistant Priest, Priest in Charge and Rector. My first placement was at St Pauls Durban. My ministry as an ordained Deacon in the Anglican Church began at the door that I had often slept at during rainy days. I would shake hands with parishioners at the very door that I had slept at. I had always chosen to greet people at that door during my time at St Pauls (there are two doors). I administered my first imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday at the bridge that I slept under and not just outside the door of the Church as was the custom of the Parish.

The day I went to meet the Rector and wardens of St Pauls, they had invited someone from India who had a prophetic ministry. They had prayers after Mass and I was seated in the Church. Not knowing who I was, he asked me if I wanted prayer. I went up (not being ordained at the time and so minus the dog collar), he prayed over me. He also said that God was calling me into full time ministry. I remember the Rector then telling him that I was being placed at St Pauls as the new Deacon soon. He went on to say that God is calling me into the restoration ministry and that I won’t see three years in a parish until God had settled me. I had no idea what that meant. Two years and eleven months later, I was moved to my next parish.

My next placement was at St Mary’s Greyville. The place where I use to deliver drugs to. I had transition from drug carrier to Gospel carrier in Greyville. I began a ministry with the sex‐workers around the Greyville area. This area was notorious for sex work. The area was known for its drugs and together with the taxi association in the offices opposite the Diocesan office, we soon got the dealers to close shop and move. This was the beginning of my ministry with drug addicts on a more serious and focused note. My placement at St Mary’s lasted two years and eleven months. I was now starting to take note.

My next placement had me very puzzled as I was moved to the Parish of St Aidan’s Durban. I had no previous life experience that involved either the Parish or the area around the Parish other than using the public transport from the bus terminals next to the parish when I had started college and work. I thought that God was done with showing me that the hand of God had been over my life for a very long time.

I thought that this was going to be the start of a ministry that exceeded three years. It was only when I went with the wardens to the Parish rectory that I realised that God was still showing me how planned my life had been. It gave me so much of encouragement to know that God was not done with me yet.

You see, the Parish rectory was directly behind Milla Rosa. The road behind Milla Rosa was in an area called Asherville and the front window of the rectory faced Milla Rosa. I would get up every day for the next two years and eleven months (yes two years and eleven months again), and see the flat where my journey into addiction had started. Milla Rosa would be my daily view of how God had turned my life around. I had started my journey with addiction at Milla Rosa.

Not only that, but God was showing me that my placements would remind me of where God had brought me from. I had come full circle. From where I ended up to where it had all started. To recap, I started taking drugs in Milla Rosa. I delivered drugs to the area outside St Mary’s Greyville and I had slept at the doors of St Pauls Church. I had ministered at St Pauls, St Marys and St Aidan’s. I had come full circle.

When my next placement came about, I thought that God was done with reminding me of who I was and how God was working through me. I had been moved to a Parish in Pietermaritzburg.

An area that I had only clubbed at from time to time. I did not see any connection with my past as an addict. The rectory and Church had no physical connection to my life prior to becoming a priest. This was until I realised that we were going to celebrate the Patronal Feast Day of the Parish of St Matthew’s Hayfields on the 21st September. I would be celebrating my *crown anniversary (*21 years on the 21st) of my sobriety on the 21st September 2022 at a Parish who’s feast day is the 21st September. Oh, how God had worked that out. Perfect in God’s timing. Nothing else could have been more fitting. Also, that I had named my second child Tylor Matthew because at the time of Tylor’s birth, I had been clean and had recognised the 21st September as the Feast Day of St Matthew. Hence Tylor’s second name.

I am currently at St Matthews and continue to work with addicts and young people. I recognise that God is always in control and would encourage anyone reading this short story which is a summary of my life to place their trust in God. To know that God has a plan for each one of us. It may not seem that way, but through my life and example, I pray that you will recognise God’s hand and direction in my life and come to realise that for your own life. That you will seek the Joedene’s in your life and find your way to Jesus who is always walking towards you.

This God is a faithful God. A God who is able to use your life experience to positively influence those whom you come into contact with. That if you would only put your trust in Jesus Christ, he will surprise you with the meticulous planning of your life. To know this God is a glorious thing. To trust in this God is even better. May my story bring hope to you wherever you may be in your life’s journey. May my story enable you to put your trust in God no matter how dark your days may seem. Knowing that God has a plan and the plan only needs you to trust in it even when you cannot see it nor know what it is. After all, Jesus Christ has taken me from the pavement and placed me at a pulpit. Not for my sake but for the Glory of God. “From pavement to Pulpit” is my story. “He/she who is forgiven much, loves much. Love and prayers to you as you read this short story of how God took me of the pavement and placed me before a pulpit. All because God can. If only you would give God a chance.

Blessings and much love

Recovering addict, saved by the Grace of God and your friend in Christ. Revd. Vernon Hammond