There was a time in my life when I literally hated the sound of my name. Somewhere, in the dark corridors of my mind, I created a story of shame. The story of shame included the sound of my name.
As a child, my parents often took me to visit small country churches in neighboring towns. On one occasion, they took me to visit a small church in Socorro, New Mexico, that one of their friends was pastoring. It was a Spanish church and at the time I didn’t speak Spanish well.
The church service was held in a make-shift addition to the pastor’s home. It wasn’t a large room, so even though there weren’t many people there, it seemed to bust at the seams with congregants.
In the middle of the service, the pastor announced that the children were going to sing a song. I watched as one-by-one they marched down the center aisle, between the metal fold-up chairs, up to the front to sing. I was looking forward to hearing them, until the pastor called me by name and asked me to join them. “How bad could this be?”, I thought to myself as I walked up to the front and positioned myself against the wall. Although I had no desire to, I put on a smile and prepared to join the other children in song. Much to my surprise, the song that they had prepared was in Spanish. Left with no other option, I lip-synced with a level of excellence that would have made Britney Spears proud. I continued to smile, pressed my little body against the wall and waited and waited, with great anticipation for the song to end. Once the song was over, the pastor stood up and made an additional request that turned into a breaking point for me. He asked each of the children to share a memory verse. Keep in mind, I didn’t speak Spanish.
One by one each child recited a memory verse in Spanish with joy and fervor. I on the other hand, began to prepare my escape. I was already against the wall, so in my little mind I began to imagine that I had the power to become invisible. As quick as my imagination could take me there, I imagined that no one could see me, and began to slither against the wall all the way to the back of the church. When I finally felt safe enough, I sat down, and pretended that no one could see me. For the remainder of my time at church, I hung my head down. I did not dare pick it back up until we were back in the car and headed home to safety.
That day I learned a coping skill that I would use for years to come. When uncomfortable with a situation, pretend to be invisible. Don’t speak up. Don’t admit weakness. Hide to the best of your ability. Hold your breath and soon the storm will pass.
Unfortunately, this coping skill kept me from truly living life. As time passed, I became a prisoner of my own thoughts and imaginations.
In 2010, after experiencing an unexpected bureaucratic flogging at my local church, I chose to move our family from New Mexico to Arizona. Truth be told, I was hurt. I felt betrayed, and instead of working through my pain, I ran as far and as quickly as I could. Although I tried to justify my actions, I couldn’t run from the fact that I slammed the door of my calling shut. Not only that, but I bought several padlocks, sealed the doorway, and threw away every single key without even thinking twice about it.
Shortly after moving to Arizona, I experienced a realization that caused me to run into hiding even more. One day I was out running errands with my daughter, who was 11 at the time. While we were in the car she became very quiet and she looked like she wanted to cry. It looked like she was hurting and it broke my heart. As any father would, I asked her to tell me what was wrong. She looked at me with her sad eyes and asked me a question that I will never forget, “I used to be a PK (Christianese for pastor’s kid). Now what am I?” At that moment, I was not prepared to answer that question. My heart began to pound as I realized that I was unable to answer it. In fact, her question caused me to realize, that I too, had lost my identity. And in a matter of millisecond, I regressed to a child-like state. Instantly I became like that little kid in the country church so many years earlier. I stood there with my back against the wall, and I began to slither back to a place that I considered to be safe. A place where no one knew me, no one knew my name, no one knew my past, there were no expectations, no let-downs…. Once again, I was invisible.
For years I was proud of my name and what it represented. My name was associated with being a pastor, a husband, a father, a foster-parent, and a community leader. I had taken pride in the fact that I was loved by many. However, in that moment, I felt like a complete failure and I wanted to hide from everyone. I wanted to hide who I was. I wanted to hide who I had been. I wanted to strip myself of my name. The John Garay that once was could no longer exist. He was a thing of the past. He was dead and never to be brought to life again.
The funny thing about pretending to be invisible is that you soon start believing that you really are. In my instance I found myself straying away from my values, my dreams, my vision, and my purpose. My life felt a lot like the time that I got lost in K-Mart when I was a kid. It felt like the world wanted to swallow me whole. All I wanted was my mother’s arms, but I couldn’t find her. I was scared, paralyzed, and didn’t have a clue as to what I should do.
I ran and ran until I couldn’t run no more. Little by little people started to confront me. Friends and family that knew me previously would question me and try to remind me of who I was. However, in my mind, John Garay no longer existed. I wish I would have known that my choices were an open invitation for an alien intrusion. My heart soon became the home to depression, self-loathing, risky-behavior, and hate…… But God…..
Despite abandoning my calling, God, in His grace, took the time to show me that that I can’t play pretend in an imaginary world forever. He showed me that His grace is greater than my assumptions, ineffective coping skills, and failures. He gracefully let me taste the depth of His love, a love that loves me for who I am… the good bad and ugly. He showed me that I don’t have to run from who I am. My name is still mine.
I once asked my mom why she named me John Eli. Her response seemed almost insignificant. She named me John Eli because she wanted me to have a simple name. John was four letters and Eli is three. I laugh when I remember this conversation. I laugh because there was really nothing profound about her choice. However, in hindsight I believe that her naming process was prophetically guided. John means “God is gracious”. My life is living proof that God is gracious. As for Eli…. Eli means, “ascension.” By God’s grace, that is the path that I’m currently on. A path where God leads me from glory to glory. I recognize that the best is yet to come. My life is not over. I was created to be above and not beneath. I am John Eli Garay, a child of the King, the son of grace, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.
John Eli Garay
John Eli has spent over 15 years mentoring and coaching individuals in life skills, career transitions, and through organizational change. His resume includes pastoral care, behavioral health, and higher-education advising. From an early age, John recognized that God created him to bring hope, healing and encouragement to others. He is currently walking out his purpose by helping others confront, and work through, self-inflicted trauma. His ministry includes blogging, speaking, and personal development coaching. He currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his wife, mini-schnauzer and an antique piano whom he calls, “Betty.”