The story was told often—usually when us kids wanted to know why we couldn’t go on fancy vacations or eat at nice restaurants. “Dad, you had the same job at Ford’s for almost 35 years and never made a lot of money. Why didn’t you get promoted up to management and earn more money?” He always gave the same answer. But let’s start at the beginning.
Let me step back a bit first to show the love and mercy that flowed downhill. My parents were from the Chicago area. My mom was a city girl whose father left the family through divorce when she was only three years old. She attended thirteen different grade schools. My dad was a farm boy and the middle kid of thirteen children. They lived pretty rustically but they had a warm family, though not always a warm coat. They worked hard and loved even more.
My mom knew mercy and love from a young age even under the shadow of the family mess and poverty in the 1930s in a culture when divorce was almost unheard of. She had a grandfather who made sure she had stability and love in her life. He was merciful and patient and invested his time in his little granddaughter. It was a lifeline that kept my mom going with a sense of personal worth and a desire to end the dysfunctional cycle she was being raised in.
Dad saw mom playing baseball at school and fell head over heels for the pretty captain of the girls’ team. She was seventeen when she married, partly to escape the living situation she had been subject to all her early life. Dad knew a man who worked at the Naval Training Center in Chicago when Henry Ford II was young and in the service there. He told Henry about my dad saying, “When you get back to Detroit and need a good worker, you should consider Charlie Ray.” Henry remembered and I still have the original letter written by Henry Ford II personally hiring my father.
Steve on the top right
Dad and a brother moved to Detroit with their young wives in tow. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Ford Motor Company was the place to be with an outstanding daily salary of $5.00! Henry Ford stopped by one day to see my dad and ask how things were going. My father was grateful and said thanks for the opportunity. And an opportunity it was. Ford Motor Company was growing—people were being promoted and fortunes were being made.
During this time my parents found another kind of mercy, not just of family members or Henry Ford giving them much needed boosts along the way and compassionately helping when help was sorely needed. A new kind of mercy was ready to show itself—the mercy of another father—an invisible Father.
With purse and keys in hand and the radio playing in the background, my mom was finishing up some cleaning and ready to go shopping. But the radio caught her ear as she has told me so many times. The passionate and eloquent voice rising over the crackly airwaves delivered a message of urgency that caught her attention. For the first time she heard the most powerful story of mercy, the story of God who sent his Son to earth because of his personal love for my mother. He died for her sins even though she was ignorant of his existence and love. He did this due to no merit on her part but because he loved her. She was moved to tears, dropped her purse and fell to her knees on the kitchen floor.
The voice she heard that morning in 1953 was the voice of the Rev. Billy Graham. He told the story of a merciful God who filled with pity for sinful humans paid the ultimate price to save them. He was not obligated to do so. Nor was my mother worthy of this act of generous kindness. It was God’s infinite mercy pure and simple. My mother responded to the merciful and gracious love of God.
But not mom alone, also dad. He got sick and thought he was dying. Sitting on the front porch of their modest home on Marlowe Street in Detroit my dad looked up to Heaven and cried out to a God he did not know, nor was even sure if he really existed. Dad blurted out, “I am desperate! If you exist and are really up there, please reveal yourself to me.” He went to bed and the the next day at work a man walked up to my dad and said, “Charlie, I have to tell you something; you need Jesus Christ in your life.”
A miracle? An answer to prayer? You bet!
This was pure mercy on both counts. These were just little people in the big scheme of things. God did not make them pass a test, grovel in front of him, or pay a big entrance fee. Why did God condescend to touch these two small folks in their humble state of life and with no prior loyalty or obedience to this God? Why? There is only one answer—actually only one word—MERCY!
After twelve years of miscarriages my mom prayed and another wave of mercy flowed down from Heaven. Within a year I was born and my mom kept her promise to God and gave me a Biblical name—Stephen. Two more answers to prayer came along named David and Timothy.
Steve on the right with dad and brother Dave
Now back to where we started. We lived in a comfortable home and never lacked any of the essentials. But we were not wealthy even though Ford Motor Company was flourishing and her employees moving up the ladder of success. But not my dad. He basically had the same humble job for thirty years. Dad was always home from work at 5:00 PM sharp. You could set your watch. We used to climb a big oak tree waiting for him. We would see his car crest the hill and we’d jump down and rush up the road to meet him. He always acted surprised and excited to see us. He always had a small gift to press into our hands. Weekends were for family, fun, and church. Dad and mom gave their lives for us even when we were brats, disobedient and selfish.
When I was older with a family of my own I looked back on our childhood and asked him why he never moved up at Ford Motor Company. His answer was simple and certain and it brought tears to my eyes.
“Steve,” he said, “I was offered a lot of promotions and advancements at Ford’s. They brought me into the Human Resource office to give me more money and new titles after my name. But I always asked them the same question, ‘Will I have to work evenings and weekends?’ and they always said, ‘Yes, it comes with the added pay.’”
Then came the line that has always filled me with awe and appreciation. Dad said, “I always told the managers thanks but I always turned them down. I said, ‘I am sorry to say no, but I have three boys at home that need me more than Henry Ford does.’”
My mom also made her sacrifices of mercy. She could have sought a career, a job of her own. She could have been busying herself with things of the world and money and “personal fulfillment.” She was a smart and good woman. She could have been in charge of committees and social groups. But no, she said, “I had a horrible childhood in a dysfunctional home and I will not let that happen to my boys. They will never know a home without a loving mother there for them” And every day she was there for us. Every day we had our sandwiches cut into quarters with fresh vegetables she picked from her own garden and a frothy glass of cold milk.
And that is why I am who I am today.
Steve’s kids and grandkids
Mercy is like a gushing stream that flows from a giant pipeline from Heaven. It doesn’t just splash all over the first recipient, it keeps flowing through them if they are willing to share the wealth—to wash and nourish and heal and bless everyone else nearby. In our family it has continued to flow down through three more generations: mine, my children’s, and now my twelve grandchildren’s. It was the mercy of God the washed over my mother and father and then rushed over me and down to the next generations. It is good to stop and look back at the beautiful fountain. It is good to move forward and watch the wave go before me.
Once when we were fishing as kids my father said, “Throw a stone in the pond and tell me what happens.” I did as he asked and watched the ripples move steady toward the shores of the little pond. I said, “My stone made ripples and they are approaching us now.” Dad said, “What if the pond is eternity and your acts of love, mercy, and obedience are like a stone. What happens?” I thought for a moment and said, “The ripples of my choices will have no shoreline and will go on forever.”
And that is precisely what mercy does. And that is precisely why I thank God and my parents every day and why I try to pass that on to everyone else within reach of my ripples.