Everyone I meet has a story to tell. Each of us has an unique background; no two journeys are alike. Some of our stories rival a fairytale. If that’s your experience, rejoice. If your story involves a closely-knit extended family, the kind which, like a scene out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, gets together and has a great time over the holidays, you are indeed blessed.
If you’ve read my memoir, FINDING HOME, you know about the disappointments and hardships which defined my childhood—from a murder outside of my bedroom window when I was eight, to the death of my mother when I was nine, only to be orphaned a few years later—not to mention much of my family tree remains shrouded in mystery. I’m the guy with no known grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. You might say my bonsai-sized family tree stopped with Dad and Mom.
Which might explain why my siblings and I were quick to adopt “grandpa” and “grandma” Hope. While not blood relatives, the Hopes were our neighbors and became best friends of my parents. They, in turn, treated me as if I were one of their grandkids. The Hopes and their daughter Penny—we affectionately referred to her as “Aunt” Penny—were instrumental in introducing my mother to Jesus just before she died.
Years later, Aunt Penny married Lenny Mitchell, a well known saxophonist during the Big Band era. With her marriage to Lenny, my artificial “family tree” grew a new branch. Lenny and Penny. Cute. (I’ve always thought God seemed to have a playful thing with names in my life.) When I graduated from college in 1984, I needed a place to stay and Penny and Lenny opened their home to me.
What’s more, Lenny’s heart was on fire for the Lord and the Lord used Lenny to help cement my love of studying the Bible. You might say living with Lenny offered me a crash course in growing up as a Christian young man. In that respect, he mentored me by instilling in me the importance of living as a person of integrity, honor, and faithfulness. Understandably, I have always had a special place in my heart for Lenny, Penny, and the Hope family.
I share that bit of history as background for an unexpected treat I received a couple of months ago. I was speaking to a group of about 300 friends of Focus on the family on a Tuesday evening in Orange County, California. After highlighting the current activities of the ministry—especially our Orphan Care initiative, Option Ultrasound, and our new marriage and parenting curriculum—I spent time mingling with those in attendance.
That’s when I had the pleasure of seeing Bobby Nixon, son of Penny and her first husband, and the grandson of Grandma and Grandpa Hope. Bobby walked up and hugged me with a smile that even his bushy beard couldn’t hide. Aside from the fact that Bobby’s a Harley rider—an instant point of connection between us!—seeing him had an interesting effect on me.
For a split second, it was as if I had been transported back to those wonderful days studying the Bible and praying for hours with Lenny. In a way seeing Bobby was a reminder for me of the importance and value of mentoring. All I ever saw in my father was the opposite of the traits Lenny modeled. Indeed, I had much to learn and yet Lenny was a patient mentor. Lenny is now much older and living in assisted care, but his fingerprints on my life remain. I am eternally grateful for the spiritual investment he made in my life.