By John W. Kennedy
Apr. 8, 2012
Russ Cockrum sought solace at the noncommissioned officers club while stationed on the tense demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during the Vietnam War. Nickel beers and shots of whiskey for a dime led to a lot of drinking.
“In the military in a hostile situation you’re either scared to death or bored to death,” Cockrum says. “Both can lead to alcohol abuse.”
As Cockrum returned stateside, in addition to alcohol he began using illegal drugs before being discharged from the U.S. Army.
“He came home a totally different person,” recalls wife Judy, who had given birth to the couple’s first son, Jim, the day after Russ left for South Korea. Judy, who married the 20-year-old Russ when she was 19, says she had no scruples when it came to drinking alcohol. Soon she began joining her husband in using various mind-altering psychedelic drugs.
“He got excited about trying new drugs,” Judy says. “We’d get a babysitter and go to parties.”
The potpourri started with marijuana and graduated to acid, peyote and mescaline. The couple became disillusioned hippies.
Drug use escalated as Russ worked as a photographer for the Bloomington, Ind., newspaper and Judy gave birth to a second son, Ken. Along the way, Russ explored Hinduism, Buddhism and Native American religions.
“I was searching for God in all the wrong ways and all the wrong places,” Russ says.
Meanwhile, Judy struggled with depression and took to drinking tequila every day. When not getting stoned or drunk, Russ and Judy lived separate lives. They drifted apart, often letting their young sons fend for themselves.
In third grade, at a say-no-to-drugs event at school, Jim was the only student able to identify every illegal substance on display.
Judy made plans to leave Russ and even enlisted the support of his parents to care for the couple’s sons.
Then a mutual friend named Max, who owned 10 acres next to the Cockrums’ farm, announced that he planned to build a cabin on the property and move back to Indiana from Texas. In a letter, Max announced that he had become a “born-again Christian filled with the Holy Ghost.”
“I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded bad,” Russ remembers. Russ agreed to allow Max to live in their house while building his own — provided he didn’t do any preaching. Max asked permission to read his Bible; Russ didn’t figure there would be any harm in that.
“Max didn’t tell me he meant reading the Bible out loud,” Russ says.
Judy wept as she heard Max reading from the Book of Ruth.
Russ responded by cranking up the volume of the hard rock music he played on the radio.
Nevertheless, the Word of God doesn’t return void. Without telling anyone, Russ visited a local Christian bookstore and asked a clerk if she knew what being a Holy Ghost Christian meant. The saleslady didn’t, but said customers?who attended Assemblies of God churches used such terminology. She gave him the address of First Assembly of God in Bloomington.
Russ stopped by the church office on a Tuesday morning and found youth pastor Tom Rakoczy — manning the phones after an all-night youth activity — dozing on a couch in his office.
Rakoczy awakened to see a burly Charles Manson look-alike hovering over him. Russ had long, frizzy hair that flowed past his shoulders, a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes.
“Man, you look like you could use a cup of coffee,” Rakoczy told his visitor. The men moved into the sanctuary, where Russ poured out his troubles: He couldn’t think straight anymore because of his drug use; his marriage appeared to be over; his friends were in jail or dead. At age 30, Russ felt like a failure. Rakoczy listened patiently and gently offered words of encouragement.
“He helped me understand that my yesterdays don’t have to control my tomorrows if I put Jesus Christ in my life today,” Russ says.
Rakoczy returned to his office to answer a ringing phone.
“It was an act of faith on his part to leave somebody alone in the sanctuary who looked like he could have walked off with the drum set, amplifiers and guitars,” Russ says. Instead, Russ wandered up to the empty balcony. There he sensed a rush of comfort and love, which he later realized was a tug from the Holy Spirit.
The following night, Russ — alcohol on his breath — brought his family to church. Afterwards, his sons told him they enjoyed Royal Rangers so much they planned to return whether he did or not.
The family did return Sunday morning and night. That evening, Pastor Herb Hull made an altar call.
“Is there anybody here whose life needs to change?” Hull asked. “Is there anybody here who would like to pray to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”
Russ and Judy rushed toward the front of the sanctuary. Hull led them in a sinner’s prayer of confession and repentance.
“I felt as though I left two duffle bags of concrete blocks at the altar,” Russ says. He immediately sensed a call by God into the ministry, but prayed that the Lord wouldn’t let him forget his origins.
At salvation, both Russ and Judy say they experienced a complete deliverance from alcohol and illegal drugs. Russ also instantly stopped his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. In the next year and a half they began to learn the basics of the Christian faith.
“It wasn’t hard for Russ to turn his life around when he encountered the Holy Spirit in his life,” Rakoczy recalls. “No matter what drugs or cynical philosophies he had embraced, when he opened his heart and mind to be taught and discipled, it was transforming.”
Norma Hull, Herb’s wife, says the Cockrums showed quick maturity as new Christians.
“They have always been absolutely phenomenal people,” Norma says. “We love them like our own children.”
From Indiana, Russ headed off to Southeastern University (AG) in Lakeland, Fla., for ministerial training. Although he says drugs had impaired his ability to read comprehensively, or to even form comprehensive thoughts, Russ believes the Lord rewired his brain to enable him to study and to earn good grades.
Embarrassed by his past, Russ spent nearly the next two decades involved in traditional ministry, serving as a youth pastor and pastor in Indiana and Florida churches.
Since early in their marriage the Cockrums had been recreational motorcycle riders, and in 1997 embarked on a vacation ride. In Washington, D.C., on the second day of the journey, a car ran a red light and plowed into the couple on their Honda Gold Wing.
Judy, on the back of the bike, was thrown off and dislocated both hips. Russ hung on — until being propelled headfirst against the windshield of another car then flipping backwards onto the hood of yet another vehicle. Although he wore a helmet and full leathers, Russ lay near death, with a left shoulder broken in two places, all the ribs on the left side of his body broken, a punctured and collapsed lung, and a ruptured spleen. He spent the next five weeks hospitalized.
Although he gradually began to repair physically, psychological healing proved difficult. Usually Russ dealt with stress by riding a motorcycle or jogging, but in recovery he didn’t have those options. Sensations of wartime stress flooded his being. He sank into a depression, convinced he had lost his livelihood and purpose.
Yet one night in his hospital bed, Russ says God assured him in a vision that He still had work for him to do. Russ recovered and began pastoring again. He and Judy visited the Brownsville Revival in Pensacola, Fla., where they both sensed a calling to evangelism.
“The devil tried to kill us on a bike,” Russ says. “Now we set out to beat him with two bikes.”
Despite the initial trauma of getting back on motorcycles, the Cockrums accepted their new mission. In 2000, they became Assemblies of God U.S. Missions nationally appointed motorcycle chaplains based in Martinsville, Ind. Russ figures the Lord wanted to mature him in the faith before he returned to the lifestyle from which he came. Judy learned how to ride a motorcycle on her own at age 51, and the couple now average about 11,000 miles a year on their bikes.
They strive to show the unconditional love and servant evangelism that Rakoczy (now pastor at First Assembly of God in Chandler, Ariz.) demonstrated to a confused Russ that day back in 1978.
The Cockrums travel to big events such as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota and Daytona Beach Bike Week in Florida. They ride in the cross-country military veterans Run for the Wall each May. They volunteer to do menial tasks in various club activities and charity rides. They do everything from offering free motorcycle washes to providing free coffee to hungover bikers.
The couple started HonorBound Motorcycle Ministry, which has spawned 54 chapters and 385 members. That ministry is now administered by AG Motorcycle Chaplain Mark Rittermeyer.
The Cockrums have come full circle, from disillusioned rebels to conventional ministers to nontraditional chaplains ministering to those they used to be like.
“Russ looks pretty much like he did when he first walked into church, with his overalls and long hair,” Norma Hull says. “But he’s a different man on the inside.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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