The Teen Years
About the Guest
Being a teen is rough, but doubly so when you're an orphan. So it was with Rob Mitchell, who shares how he spent his teen years doing drugs and alcohol and trying to make sense of his life in an orphanage. Rob remembers the men who tried to mentor him, the estranged relationship he had with his mother, and the day he finally repented and gave his heart and life to the Lord.
Being a teen is rough, but doubly so when you’re an orphan.
The Teen Years
Rob: One of the things He said was, “You need to repent of your sins”—of the things you thought, said, and done that offend God. I got pretty angry. I said, “No! God owes me an apology. Why should I apologize to a God who would leave me in an orphanage for 14 years?” No, and I walked away from it for a while.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, August 13th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Today we will hear from Rob Mitchell about the relentless pursuit of Jesus and about how he was finally adopted.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today; thanks for joining us. As I heard you reading James 1 about pure and undefiled religion—visiting the orphans in their distress—I was captured by that word “distress” because I don’t know that I ever stopped—I’ve focused on the need to visit the orphans; but I don’t know that I ever stopped to ponder the distress that is associated with not having the foundation of a family to grow up in.
Dennis: Not having anyone to protect you, being bullied, picked-on, having to fend for yourself. Having to make sense out of a world, that to a child without a family, how do you make sense out of it? How do you piece it together to know how to have normal relationships?
I am grateful to God that Rob Mitchell joins us as a guest again here on FamilyLife Today. Rob, I am grateful that you took the time to write your story in the book Castaway Kid. Thanks for joining us again.
Rob: Thanks for having me as a guest.
Dennis: Rob is a senior vice president investment counselor. He lives in North Carolina with his wife. He has two children.
As we heard earlier was—I hate to say this in such a casual term but this is really what happened—you were dropped off at an orphanage at the age of 3 by your mother without her saying, “Goodbye.”
Dennis: You grew up in that orphanage into your teen years. Back to Bob’s statement, distress would describe those years up until your teenage years, wouldn’t you say?
Bob: As you look back on that period of time do you look back with any fond memories? Do you look back with any warmth and go, “Well, this part of my life was good.”
Rob: There are some and they are limited. One of the things that institutional childcare does is that it protects you from the abuse on the streets. The orphanage—the Children’s Home was a ministry; and strangers whose names and faces I will never know contributed $1, $10, $100 to keep kids like us with food, clothing, and shelter. I know that that was sometimes a monthly battle to pay the bills. I appreciate that I was protected from the abuse of the streets of Chicago that I could have been subject to.
I appreciate Nola and her love. I appreciated eventually some of the men who tried to mentor me. I say “tried” because they tried; but I didn’t buy into it. That wasn’t their fault.
Bob: What did that look like?
Rob: By my junior year in high school, my anger had blown me out of sports. I was doing drugs and alcohol. The Home realized that they were losing their teenage boys especially. It wasn’t a formal mentoring program; but it was, “Maybe we can get some guys from the community.” I know they did something for the girls; I just don’t remember.
For me, it was four ordinary men. I absolutely celebrate ordinary people. I have the joy of speaking around the nation to see, not celebrities looking for photo opportunities, but diesel mechanics out there just showing up and doing it. I am absolutely persuaded that love is a four-letter word spelled “time.” Kids like us don’t want to know how much you know. We want to know how much you care. You have to keep showing up, and then maybe we will listen.
There is a guy named Jim who taught me to lift weights and ham radio. A guy named Bob who taught me to hunt, to walk in the woods in the dark and not trip, to tell time by the sun and stars. I still don’t wear a watch, and it still drives my wife of 30 years crazy.
A guy named Swannee. I had breakfast with Swannee about a year and a half ago. He signed off on this. Swannee is one of the goofiest-looking human beings on the face of the planet. Imagine a bowling pin with thin red hair.
Seriously. He said, “Couldn’t you just say I had a mature waistline?”
Dennis: I wish our listeners could see your face right now because you have been telling your story; and you have had a pretty somber expression on your face. But when you started talking about these mentors—all of a sudden—you have dimples.
You are grinning. Your face is lit up. These men gave their time to you as a boy. It met a profound need in your life, didn’t it?
Rob: It did. I haven’t forgotten them. Swannee loved the outdoors and wilderness and whitewater. Because of Swannee, I lived in the jungles of Congo, drove a pick-up truck 2,500 miles across Africa, back-packed the Swiss and German Alps, many of the American Alps and whitewater because a goofy-looking human being showed me I could.
A guy named Marv who taught me to drive a car with a push-button transmission. If your listeners know what that is, they are old.
Old Chryslers and Plymouths. My face lights up because so many people are overwhelmed by the needs of society of the distressed orphan. Yet I would come back to them and say, “Look, just show up.” You don’t have to have a PhD in child psychology. You can be a diesel engine mechanic who will never get grease out of your fingers. We just want, especially the guys, a male to keep showing up.
If I can add to that, I am going to pick on Bob because he obviously deserves it.
Here is what happens. Okay? It is a Friday. One of the guys at the Home says, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I say, “Oh, some Do-gooder is going to show up and take me fishing.” “What’s his name?” “I don’t care.” A month later one of the guys says, “What are you doing tomorrow?” “Oh, this Goof-bucket Bob is coming to take me fishing.” “Good luck with that.”
A couple of months later a guy says, “What are you doing Saturday?” “I’m going fishing with Bob.” A couple of months later, “What are you doing Saturday?” “My buddy Bob and I are going fishing.” Bob doesn’t need to be good-looking. He doesn’t need to be brilliant. He just has to show up.
Bob: You had a diagnosis from a doctor during your teen years that was significant, right?
Rob: Yes. My mother kidnapped me for three months. We scurried about Chicago like cockroaches. When they finally got us, they put me through a battery of psychiatric tests. This document—as well as others—is on my website because I wanted to have them there so people couldn’t challenge the authenticity of the hope within my story.
I was eight years old, and the doctor, the psychiatrist, diagnosed me as being able to intellectualize my emotions. That is a nice phrase. I don’t quite know how I could do it. It’s like putting them in a box and locking them down. In some ways, it was a survivor’s skill.
Bob: That sounds sociopathic. That sounds like the kind of thing where that guy could grow up and be very dangerous.
Rob: I had sociopathic tendencies. I got a chemistry set—loved my chemistry set. I had it taken away because I started blowing up frogs. I was blowing the frogs up because I put names on those frogs and those were people I was killing. They realized it and took my chemistry set away.
Bob: Was it while you were still in the Home that the transformation in your life took place?
Rob: It began. The summer before my senior year in high school I got invited to be a life guard and swim instructor at Covenant Harbor Bible Camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I thought they were nuts to hire a punk like me; but now this is great because I don’t have to be Robbie from the orphanage. I can just be Rob.
I got to engage in my favorite sport which is hunting and catching silly girls. I loved that sport. They wanted to be caught; I wanted to catch them. What’s the problem? The problem was all these goody-two-shoe Christian girls on staff. One literally got in my face with a frying pan and said, “You get out of line, and I’m smacking you.” I remember wondering, “Where do you breed females like this?”
Dennis: You hadn’t met any of those?
Rob: No. They were hampering my agenda. One week a blonde-haired, blue-eyed minister’s daughter showed up. I looked at her and said, “Woof! This hound is going to hunt!”
“Forget the frying pan; she’s cute!”
She should have been afraid of a wolf like me, and she had this incredible calm. She knew who she was. I didn’t frighten her. We were on date 2, we’re on the canoe and I’m trying to impress her. She goes, “Tell me about your relationship with Jesus.” I said, “I don’t have one. I don’t buy this whole loving heavenly Father image.”
Dennis: Had you ever been to church?
Rob: Oh, yes. We got dragged to church all the time. We had Noah’s Bible stories. I’ve heard testimonies where people say, “Jesus was never preached in my church.” At least for myself, I would have to say, “I never heard it.” There is a difference. The Jesus I heard walked three feet above the ground and never got His feet dirty. He seemed like a limp-wristed woos to me.
Bob: When you tell this cute girl in the canoe that you really didn’t have any use for Jesus, what happened next?
Rob: She goes, “I don’t think you have examined the evidence.”
Now, I’m pretty sure written on the heart of every teenage boy is, “How to overcome the objection of silly girls.” Okay? I’m pretty sure it is on every boy’s heart. This is not in there. Okay? I don’t know if you have noticed, but teenage boys will do a lot of stupid stuff to impress a girl. Some of us do stupid at a really high level. She is cute. It is a book. I want to impress her. I’ll start reading it. I started reading the Jesus books.
Dennis: How old were you at this point?
Rob: I was 16, turning 17, going into my senior year in high school. My last year at the orphanage knowing that racing at me is a one-way bus ticket to where ever I want to go; and, “Good luck, kid.”
Dennis: You were going to be out of the orphanage.
Rob: At 18 or when you finish high school, you are out on your own. If you are in jail, don’t call; there is no bail. If you are in a hospital, don’t call; there is no money. If you die, they will give you a pauper’s funeral.
Bob: When you are 17 and facing your senior year knowing, “I don’t know what next year is, but I am on my own.” That has to be a frightening proposition.
Rob: It is very frightening. Most boys like us, girls too, we don’t know how to manage money. We don’t know what a checkbook is. We have no sense of differed gratification or long-term planning. It is pretty overwhelming.
Bob: So you are facing that. The cute girl says, “I don’t think you have examined the evidence.” You start reading the Jesus books. What’s next?
Rob: I got very troubled by this Jesus. This was a different Jesus than I had heard from the pulpit. He got hungry, He got thirsty, He got tired, He got his feet dirty. I really didn’t know that. He got betrayed by people He should have been able to trust. That one I understood. He got angry, but His anger was different. Mine was destructive. Mine was a punch-a-hole-in-the-wall kind of anger—smash a face in. He was frustrated because people were too hard-headed, stiff-necked, and heart-hearted to buy into this God that He kept talking about.
One of the things He said was, “You need to repent of your sins”—of the things you thought, said, and done that offend God. I got pretty angry. I said, “No! God owes me an apology. Why should I apologize to a God who would leave me in an orphanage for 14 years?”
My last great struggle with God was, “Why?” If God is all-knowing and God is all-powerful, God knows what I have thought, knows what I have said, God knows what I have done to myself and done to others. I cannot clean up good enough for this God, and I will not play the game of “The Cutest Puppy Dog in the Foster Care Window.” I am not playing that game.
So--why? Why would He want me? God was offering to adopt me, a kid wearing the ragged and social clothes of emotional poverty—just as I am. I don’t remember the day, but it was September of 1971 by myself in the orphanage. I prayed a very simple prayer. I said, “If you are real and you will forgive someone like me and you’ll come into my life and change me in a way that I can recognize, then I am yours; but if you don’t, you are a fraud.”
Not a typical sinner’s prayer. I didn’t hear angels sing, and I didn’t roll on the floor in spiritual ecstasy; but in a moment I absolutely knew that the holy God of the universe had reached out of heaven and touched the heart of an angry, bitter punk in an American orphanage and began to change my life. ( muffled sobbing) That was 1971, and I remain amazed—absolutely amazed.
Dennis: Rob, that forgiveness that you experienced from God and that redeeming love that adopted you into His family ultimately compelled you to forgive.
Dennis: Share that story of how God worked in your heart to forgive those who had abandoned you.
Rob: God started calling me to forgive several years after accepting Christ. I fought God hard, which is a bit of a theme of my life. (laughter) Part of my protest to God was, “Look, my Grandmother Mitchell is dead. She is not going to know she is forgiven. My father is a walking vegetable in a mental hospital. He doesn’t have the capacity to know he is forgiven.” I tried once a year out of guilt to try to find my mother, but she was usually chaotic so she may never know.
“What difference does it make, God? They will never know.” I have come to learn that God is sometimes terribly inconvenient. He wouldn’t let go. I began a process that I share in my book of naming the “it.” What was “it”? Sometimes there are multiple “its” that I needed to forgive.
My Grandmother Mitchell—I needed to forgive her for apathy. Apathy is somebody who could make a difference but doesn’t care. I had to forgive my father for abandonment because suicide is abandonment. I had to forgive my mother for her chaos. My mother wounded me the most, over and over again. My father was a ghost. She was the hardest.
What I finally learned in the very painful process of forgiving—and it was very painful—was forgiving didn’t free any of them. Forgiving freed me. It freed me to become the man God imagined I could become, not the man my past said I was doomed to become. I forgave them, honestly and genuinely. I have not been angry, and I have not been bitter. I certainly have not been hopeless since.
Dennis: How did you forgive them? You are talking about your life being altered at a most profound emotional dramatic level. I know you have been forgiven by God through Christ, but how did you forgive them as a young man in college?
Rob: When I talk to folks, I share that you have to name it in order to face it. What is the” it”? To say, “My dad was a lousy father—I forgive him.” Hog wash! I don’t buy that. “He did the best he could.” Hog wash! I don’t buy that. That is dismissing; that is justifying. That is not forgiving. My challenge to myself and to others is, “What is “it” that needs to be forgiven?”
It took a while to figure out that apathy was what I had to forgive for my Grandmother Mitchell. It took a while to figure out that suicide really had nothing to do with me. My father was running away from his own issues.
What is the “it” you have to forgive? Again, forgiving is certainly not justifying. I could come up with all the justifications in the world for my father. That is not forgiving. Forgiving is naming it and facing it. We are called to “cast our anxieties upon Him for He cares for you.” Forgiving is taking that up—whatever the “it” is or the multiple “its” and saying, “God, help me release this. As you have forgiven me as far as the east is from the west, help me honestly and genuinely forgive this.” It is a process. I encourage your listeners to start with the easiest one. List them all; but start with the easiest one because the further you go up that ladder, the harder it is.
Dennis: I think your challenge is a good one because in order to get to that point you mentioned a key word “release.” You have to release the punishment—to no longer punish your father because of his attempt at suicide and to give up the right to punish him. By releasing them, the end result is—you said—you were the one who was freed.
Rob: Exactly. Forgiving doesn’t free the other; it frees us.
Dennis: Rob, I want to thank you for your story, being willing to share God’s work in your life in an honest way. I think within the Christian community, we want to keep things on a level of veneer—we don’t want to get real about the harshness of life and the realities that people do disappoint us. There are some “its” that do need to be named. I appreciate your courage in doing that as a young man in college but also as a businessman now investing your life in the orphan-care movement across the nation, speaking out on their behalf as one of them, as only you can.
Rob: (muffled sobbing) Thank you. I am the voice from the inside out. This is just a story of an amazing God. I am one of the 500,000 kids in America, official kids, who are cast away—the 100,000 in America who are eligible for adoption and the 143 million around the world. Every day in every nation, in every culture, and every language is a kid like me who is praying, who is hoping, who is desperately hoping that somebody is listening and somebody will rescue them soon.
Bob: Rob, you are aware and I know that many of our listeners are aware of what we are trying to do here at FamilyLife to make that a reality through our Hope for Orphans outreach to equip individuals and churches to get involved, providing strategies and help to make that happen. Let me point our listeners to our website FamilyLifeToday.com. When you go there, you will find a link to the Hope for Orphans area of the website. There are all kinds of ideas, all kinds of ways you can get involved or you can lead an effort in your local church and get your whole church involved.
Again, FamilyLifeToday.com is our website. Online you will also find information about Rob’s book which is called Castaway Kid. We have that in our FamilyLife TodayResource Center. You can order online if you would like at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY and order over the phone. Again, it is FamilyLifeToday.com or 1-800-FL-TODAY.
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We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we are going to talk about some of the common challenges couples face in the marriage relationship around the issue of marital intimacy.
Dan Allender: Bottom line: God’s intention is for a marriage to reveal a picture of the kind of worship God intends for us to enjoy with him.
Bob: Dr. Dan Allender will join us Monday. Hope you can be back with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey; I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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