Deneen Penny-Rymes said she was “through with a life of destruction,” and declared herself to be a finisher. (Courtesy Photo)

By Deneen Penny-Rymes

The following passage is an excerpt from the book “Life Happens…But You Can Finish: The Trials, Triumphs and Truths of 12 Amazing Finishers,” by Frances “Toni” Draper and Pam Love. 

But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)

I am a finisher! 

I may not have looked like a Finisher in the summer of my life (my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s) but now that I’m in early autumn (my 50’s) I can look back and declare without a shadow of a doubt, “I am a finisher!”

My summer was sizzling, steamy and stormy. Some of my intense summer heat resulted from a traumatic experience I suffered in my springtime —at the tender age of 8— at the hands of a supposed friend of the family. Mr. Joe was hired to paint our new house. However, Mr. Joe did more than paint. He repeatedly raped me, a young innocent baby, and forced me to perform oral sex every school day for more than a month. I was too scared to tell my parents; thinking that somehow it must have been my fault. To this day, the third grade is a big blur. I don’t even remember my teacher’s name or many of my friends’ names. All I remember are the horrible afternoons with Mr. Joe.

Later on, around age 13 or 14, I began hooking school, smoking cigarettes, experimenting with drugs and hanging out with the roughest kids I could find. I had an abortion at 16. Needless to say, my late spring season, (my late teen years), was full of rebellion. I was an emotional wreck!

In the spring, my parents divorced. For me, this was a good thing because my father was a functional alcoholic and my parents’ constant arguing really got on my nerves. However, the spring paled in comparison to the summer of my life—especially the first decade — my 20’s. So much happened that I don’t even know where to begin.

My drug use escalated and life continued to happen. I had a daughter by my high school sweetheart. We finally married and had another child – this time a one pound, one- ounce boy who was born when I was only six months pregnant. His lungs were so underdeveloped that he stayed in the hospital for several weeks. Finally, he reached four pounds and was able to come home.

A few days later, the unimaginable happened. Our house had a gas leak and caught fire in the middle of the night. I screamed at my husband to get my daughter, while I grabbed the baby and ran out of the door to a neighbor’s house. Then I turned around and saw my house explode in a ball of fire. For 20 minutes, I did not know if my husband and daughter had made it out. I went into shock. But thanks be to God, they were safe.

We lost everything — every piece of furniture, every stitch of clothing. We were homeless, but eventually moved into an apartment. Two years later, my husband was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. So, here I was with two young children, an incarcerated husband, an on and off again drug addiction and a need to work two, sometimes three jobs, just to survive.

I was forced to drop out of Johns Hopkins University a couple of years earlier and wasn’t quite sure what direction my life would take. To make matters worse, my paternal grandfather, who I adored, died. I was so naïve. I didn’t know these kinds of things could happen to a young woman like me – a young woman who was raised in church by a mother who only wanted the best for her two daughters.

My mother always did nice things for my children, but I never asked her for too much help once I was on my own. She was so disappointed in me and in my tendency to make poor decisions. My survival skills were shaky at best. I thought I knew something, but I really didn’t know “jack.” I thank God for my godmothers, my mother’s girlfriends who stuck by me through it all. They told me, over and over again, how special I was and that God did indeed have a wonderful plan for my life. In retrospect, I thank my mother for not always rescuing me but helping me to take responsibility for my actions.

Although I continued to go to church, I was still extremely substance abuse dependent. My grandmother said I was just “BAD.” I even had ‘hits’ put on me three times because I stole from drug dealers—once from a Chicago bank robber. My father, a city cop, got me out of trouble so many times. I had no idea what I was doing. I had seen one too many black and white movies.

I experienced all of this in the summer of my life, and for me, the summer was 110 degrees and scorching hot! I finally got clean at the ripe old age of 29. My summer wasn’t over yet, but my drug-dealing, drug-using days were. It wasn’t easy, but with the help of a methodical, effective 12-step program, and caring friends and church members (including my pastor), I made up my mind to leave drugs behind and pursue my true destiny. I was finished with a life of destruction. I am a Finisher!

When I look back at my drug-using days, I realize that self-medication may have actually saved my life. I’m not extolling the virtues of mind-altering drugs, but I might have lost my mind totally if I had not been sedated. I was also finished with my first marriage.

My summer season wasn’t all hot and humid. In my 30’s, I accepted my call to ministry and began preaching the gospel. This in itself was amazing because, although I stayed in church, I had pursued so many religions in the past. You name it, I probably tried it. But my true calling was as a follower of Jesus Christ. In pursuit of my calling, I planted and pastored a church that is still meeting (although I am no longer the pastor).

I remarried and divorced in my late summer season (in my 40’s). I also wrote my first book, “What the Devil Meant for Evil, God Meant for Good.” Since that time, I have written three other books. In addition, I completed my training as a mental health therapist and traveled the country as a motivational speaker and leadership trainer. I am a Finisher.

Now, I am in the first decade of my autumn. I thank God that I am wiser and emotionally stronger because seven years ago I was given six months to live. I had to stop working. I had no energy, no strength, received weekly blood transfusions, and regular chemotherapy because the doctors thought I had liver cancer. Thank God I do not have cancer, but I have been diagnosed with a rare liver disease. I was given antidepressants that made me feel even worse. My friends and church members were supportive and my mother was there for me in so many ways. My mother died in 2013 and I honor her memory. Because of her, I’m able to interact with people from Yale to jail. She helped me become the woman that I am today. It may have taken me a while, but I finally learned how to have value and self-worth. Because I am a Finisher, I am purposeful in everything that I do.

My view has always been more global. I believe in justice, in doing what’s right, fairness, and in being of help when the need arises. My goal is to become one with God — everything else is incidental.

Each season of my life caused me to run closer to God, not away from Him. In another decade or two, I will enter the winter of my life. In the meantime, I am writing my fifth book, The Truth Will Make You Free, and I am determined to live every day to the fullest. I am a Finisher!

Lessons Learned:
• Every season of life is valuable.
• I am called to be a living epistle. Being is more important than doing.
• Life has many seasons, but God is in charge of them all.
View life with an open mind, recognizing that life is a series of commas, not periods.
Truth is not revealed through one source, but through a journey of experiences accompanied by spiritual awakenings.

Each chapter of “Life Happens…” ends with poetry written by Andrea Jamel Evans

The Seasoned Finisher
By Andrea Jamel Evans

There is nothing new under the sun. There is a season for everything.
There was a season of child abuse, God was there to repair the brokenness.
There was a season of rebellion, God was there to restore.
There was a season of abortion,
God was there to heal the seen and unseen scars.
There was a season of drug addiction, God was there to fill that void.
There was a season of single parenting, God was there to protect and provide.
There was a season of illness and depression, God was there to regulate.
There is a season of preaching, God is there to speak.
There is a season of writing,
God is there to spread His message.
There is a season of testifying,
God is there so that others can be blessed.
There are season changes throughout life, God is always there He is the constant.

Reprinted with permission from “Life Happens…But You Can Finish: The Trials, Triumphs and Truths of 12 Amazing Finishers,” by Frances “Toni” Draper and Pam Love.

Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members!  Join here!