By Tammy L. Bicket
Sept. 9, 2012
“Get back here, now!”
Fifteen-year-old Barbara ignored the warden’s sharp warning. A mysterious car was slowly circling the grounds at Mitchellville (Iowa) Training School for girls. Inexplicably drawn to discover who was driving, she moved toward it — away from the group cottage preparing for nightly lockdown. Suddenly the door of the car flew open and, impulsively, Barbara jumped in.
“Hold on!” Barbara recognized her father’s voice, although the women’s clothing he wore as a disguise added to her surreal feeling. A car blocked their escape. Barbara felt each jarring bump as her dad drove over the garden and away. Her alcoholic, abusive father had broken her out of reform school.
But their movie-plot escapades were not over yet. The duo drove 12 miles to Des Moines and checked into a hotel; but Barbara’s father worried they’d be caught, so they headed to the airport. With no luggage and Barbara’s institution-issued clothing, it was obvious that something was amiss. But Barbara’s dad dramatically told the ticket agent that the mafia was after him and he needed two tickets to Chicago — fast.
They arrived in Chicago to learn an all-points bulletin had been issued for their arrest. They laid low for a few days, then drove to Florida, where they rented an apartment and Barbara started attending night school.
“For the first few years, we were cautious,” Barbara explains. “We seldom used my actual name. When I turned 18, I wrote the state [of Iowa] and supplied them with character references from my job, night school, and other community organizations. Some time later they sent me an official letter of release.”
A free young woman for the first time in many years, Barbara pushed herself to excel in the travel industry. Still just 19, she moved to New York City to manage a travel agency on Madison Avenue.
“I lived life in the fast lane, attending parties and accumulating money and material possessions, believing those things would make me happy,” Barbara remembers. “I dated men of power and wealth and, on one occasion, dated a politician whom I accompanied to President Nixon’s inaugural ball. But the more stuff I accumulated, the more empty I became and the more I used chemicals to numb my pain.”
Heroin stole away every success Barbara managed to achieve. “I went to New York thinking I would take it by storm,” she admits. “I ended up jobless, homeless and shooting up on the scuzzy streets of New York City.”1
As her life spiraled out of control, she found herself waking up in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Reprising Barbara’s escape from reform school, an actress friend once broke her out of a state mental hospital by posing as a psychiatrist.
Another time, Barbara woke up to find herself locked in a Harlem hospital drug ward. Not remembering who had dumped her on the hospital’s lawn, she told God, “If You will get me out of this one, I promise I will clean up my act and follow You.”
But months later Barbara had been diagnosed with hepatitis — and she still wasn’t clean. She was referred to Teen Challenge’s Walter Hoving Home in Garrison, N.Y., where she slept and detoxed for 72 hours. When she awoke, she had no idea where she was.
“I saw all these women and this minister, and I thought, Is this some kind of harem?”2 Barbara again told the Lord that she’d clean up her act if He would help her. “He told me I could not clean up my act, but if I would let Him be part of my life, He would clean it up for me.” God wanted to break her out of her prison of addiction.
Barbara soon found herself in her first Pentecostal prayer meeting.
“I was so frightened that I hid in a phone booth, thinking they might offer me up as a sacrifice of some kind,” she remembers. “But God’s mercy and grace kept me and gave me the insight and understanding of the Scriptures and of the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The program was highly structured, which she needed. She attended classes about God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and living the Christian life.
Life changed dramatically for Barbara during her year at the Walter Hoving Home. She graduated from the program and flew home to Florida. God was working in Barbara’s life even on that flight. She met a Jewish woman named Lorraine who was going to open an office for her husband, a podiatrist on Park Avenue. Barbara shared her testimony of God’s transforming power and love, and then said goodbye to Lorraine.
Barbara had heard of Evangel College (Assemblies of God) in Springfield, Mo., and thought it might be a good next step. But the spring semester would be starting in just four days. Barbara prayed about the situation. Unexpectedly, she got a phone call from Lorraine, asking to see her.
After visiting, Lorraine gave Barbara a check that was more than sufficient to cover her airfare to Springfield, Mo. (Barbara stayed in contact with Lorraine, and four years later prayed with her to become a believer.) But Barbara still had no money for tuition and books, and had not even applied for admission.
Still, if it were the Lord’s will … “I prayed that if the Lord wanted me at Evangel, I needed the OK to come from the school.” She called George Crawford (currently vice president for business and finance) at home early one morning and told him that she had no money but asked if she could still come. He gave her the OK she had asked the Lord for.
“That was the beginning of a life-altering experience,” Barbara states. She chuckles when remembering her first weeks at Evangel as a new Christian. She thought Sodom and Gomorrah were sisters and had no idea what humanities classes were. But her hunger for the Lord and love for God’s Word developed in her a pastor’s heart for the lost and hurting.
Barbara earned a B.A. degree in biblical studies from Evangel in 1982, and graduated summa cum laude. “Evangel was an incubator for my development spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and socially. I thank God for the staff and professors who believed in me and the love and power of God to transform people.”
Evangel was also the place where Barbara met her future husband, Rick Gilliam. They would marry in 1985. But God had still more work to do in her life before she would be whole, and able to become the wife, minister and person God wanted her to be.
After a year of working to develop a crisis center in Times Square, Barbara began a master’s program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
“After my first year, the Lord showed me how driven I was in performing for Him. It was a method of avoiding my own pain and feelings of inadequacy. He made numerous attempts to get my attention so He could heal my soul and emotions. When I didn’t respond, He allowed me to experience deep depression in order to reveal internal wounds inflicted early in my life by men.
“Part of my healing included living with Dr. Gordon Fee and his wife, Maudine. Dr. Fee became a surrogate father to me. The Lord used other respected, godly men and women to support me. My experiences at Gordon-Conwell brought a healing and acceptance that allowed me to get married the following year.”
God was breaking Barbara out of the pain and dysfunction of her broken past.
After working as a therapist in the areas of addiction and counseling, and as a hospice chaplain, Barbara earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Trinity College of Graduate Studies in Anaheim, Calif. In 1995, Barbara Gilliam started pastoring her first church. The church met in a small storefront in North Long Beach, Calif.
The following year, the church merged with an older congregation, Glad Tidings Tabernacle Assembly of God in Long Beach, that could no longer afford its large building.
“The area is high poverty and is home to a variety of people groups,” Barbara explains. “Though it is difficult to rebuild a church in this community, I have seen God use the resources we have to reach people both locally and internationally.”
Next door to the church is an apartment complex that resembles a Cambodian village. Most residents are Buddhist, but some have converted to Christianity and attend the church.
In spite of her many degrees, skills, experiences and areas of expertise — as well as a busy schedule — Barbara still wants to learn and grow through additional education. She is currently enrolled at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., in the D.Min. program.
“Being in the D.Min. program at AGTS has breathed new life into my personal life and the life of the church,” Barbara reports.
Barbara is aware that her drug-addicted, troubled past is not only something God has delivered her from; it’s a part of her life that has qualified her to be an example and prepared her for the effective ministry to which He has called her. She has a message of hope and deliverance for those who desperately need God to break them out of their prisons of sin and addiction.
“Life has plenty of seemingly impossible challenges and sorrows, but God gives us the faith, hope and love to face whatever circumstances He allows. The process continues, and even when I fail to live up to what God has asked of me, His faithfulness and mercy make it possible for me to try again. I am never abandoned or rejected.
“When someone comes to my door and asks, ‘Pastor, I’m in trouble — do you know anything about drug and alcohol addiction?’ I smile as I invite them into my office. The wonder and beauty of the gospel is the privilege of passing on the hope that only Jesus Christ brings.”
1Lola Smallwood, “Hard Life Redeemed Through Teen Challenge,” Pentecostal Evangel, October 13, 2008.
From Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’s Rapport, Winter 2012. Excerpted with permission.
TAMMY L. BICKET lives in Springfield, Mo.
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