By Ryan S. Kozey, Phd.
My current position of employment situates me in a diverse spectrum of demographies and socio-economic statuses. I’m involved in trying to help churches work together through partnership and planting, seeking to give every man, woman, and child a repeated opportunity to hear, see, and experience the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, our desire is the saturation of the Gospel into every livable area of a designated geography.
For this particular article, I want to focus on the statement of the repeated opportunity to see the Gospel. The experience I’ll share next takes me to my hometown of Garfield Heights, Ohio also known as blue collar, Southeast Cleveland. Most men there, when I was young, worked in some form of manufacturing, most predominantly, the steel mills of Cleveland. It’s not exactly a pretty part of town anymore, unless you like smoke stacks and impoverished neighborhoods. In fact, socio-economically, to say that it has fallen on hard times is an understatement. A local talk-show host references that part of town and encourages people to be “packing” when they go, for protection of course.
Within Garfield Heights though, there is a family worth meeting. Dave and Carole are an unassuming couple. If one were to simply pass them on the street, you would be inclined to walk on without comment. But Dave and Carole aren’t simply a couple. They make up the Brunelle family, and I promise you, if you were to pass them on the street, it would merit a comment or two. Eight children. Three biological. Five adopted with high needs (and allow me to clarify high needs: two born addicted to either heroin or methadone; one born with another addiction, holes in their heart and hyperthyroid antibodies from mom; one born with severe in-utero brain trauma; one born profoundly retarded with cerebral palsy). Some Caucasian. Some African-American. The first time I saw a family photo of the Brunelles, I couldn’t help but ask the question, “Could someone tell me more about this family?” I saw the photo on the fridge of a friend of mine, when I was finishing up college in Bowling Green, OH. It would be years before I actually met them in person. Here’s what I’ve come to know…
Dave and Carole have a heart for kids. I have come to know that such a heart has been developed by their love for Christ. As Christ has developed their heart, bringing five, high needs children into the home strikes a chord similar to James 1:27 (“…caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you”; NLT). It is not perfect, and it certainly is not easy. About a year ago, Dave was up in Buffalo, visiting. As we sat in Pearl Street Grill and Brewery on a snowy, windy Buffalo evening, I asked him how life was going. He talked about some difficulty with one of their adopted sons. As he began telling the story, his heart was heavy, and his eyes welled up with tears as he shared the struggle associated with his son. The situation was taking a heavy toll on his family. As I reflected back on that time, I recall that physically, Dave looked beat, likely lacking in sleep. He was emotionally spent. His family was in counseling, trying to figure out what to do and how to do it best. I am blown away by something profound to me in all of this—in terms of options, they didn’t “have” to do this. The pain, the toil, the difficulty of bringing up a hybrid family of biological and adopted, high needs children—Dave and Carole didn’t have to approach child services and make a home for these children. But they did.
I’m not implying that everyone should simply run out and do what Dave and Carole have done. But there are some that will read this, whose heart is bent in this direction. And if you are one of these people, consider what Dave’s close friend Mike has challenged me with: “When I look at Dave and Carole’s kids, I can’t help but think of where these kids would be without this family.”
The Brunelle family is continually present with the Gospel. Wherever they go, the story of the willingness of a couple to love those without a home and without a family screams to all who are willing to see and listen. Their family is one that has been filled with trials throughout the years, due to their willingness to put their “YES” on the table. And as they have done that, they have envisioned a community with the representation of the Gospel message of Christ.
As I have been eye-witness to Dave and Carole’s life, I am moved to consider what the impact of communities would be, both spiritually and sociologically, if more of us were willing to do the hard things that this family does. Their story does demonstrate the harsh reality of the cost of following Christ, make no mistake about it. But with it, the story is fertile ground for the Gospel to any and all who will listen. You see, Dave and Carole make ready their opportunity for proclamation as the Holy Spirit moves in them to do so. The decision to bring these children into their family is one that wasn’t simply the cool thing to do. It is based on the doctrine of changed lives. God changed Dave and Carole’s life through Christ. That moment for each of them set the stage for what would happen, decision after decision, until they draw their last breath. It so happens that this was what God moved in their hearts to do. And what is so profoundly challenging to me is that they got off the sidelines, put skin in the game, and did one of the most unthinkable things to many—they decided to allow for their life to be inconvenienced by the Gospel. It is messy. It is organic. It is real. It is an active demonstration of seeing the Gospel in action on repeated occasions.
Ryan Kozey, PhD is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for The Renovation Network. In addition, he is an adjunct professor of Organizational Communication for Canisius College. He and his wife and children reside here in Buffalo, NY.