I recently had the privilege of sharing two meals with Marlon “Big Dog” Brown and hearing him tell his life story and describe his work in Memphis, Tennessee. At 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds, the former star basketball player is aptly named. Brown works as the construction director for SOS — Service Over Self — a Memphis ministry that seeks to proclaim “the gospel of Jesus Christ in underserved neighborhoods through home repair and leadership development.” Brown also personally ministers to the homeless, drug addicts, gang members, prostitutes, and the mentally ill in Memphis. His life experiences give him an entrée with these individuals and the ability to understand their problems and develop caring relationships with them.
Brown grew up in Millington, Tennessee, in a destitute, dysfunctional family. His mother died from cancer when he was nine, and he was “reared” by his physically and verbally abusive stepfather. His stepfather told Marlon that he despised the sight of him, that he had no value, and should never have been born. Brown was made fun of at school because of his ragged clothes. To try to gain his classmates’ acceptance, Brown strove to excel in both athletics and academics. Despite his success in both areas, his feelings of abandonment, self-loathing, and worthlessness contributed to his using drugs, drinking, and sexual promiscuity in his early teenage years.
The fall of his senior year Brown was elected the king of Millington Central High School. Racism was so rabid at his high school, however, that his selection produced a riot and prompted six white supremacists to attack him on the way home from school in mid-October. They beat him severely, breaking numerous bones and leaving him for dead. Because of his serious injuries he missed his entire senior year of basketball. The 22 basketball scholarships Brown had previously been offered dwindled to one from Christian Brothers College in Memphis. At Christian Brothers, Brown shone in basketball, but he started using and selling drugs and left the area to avoid drug dealers who threatened his life because of the money he owed them.
Brown transferred to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where he used and sold drugs and soon dropped out. Continuing this activity, one day Brown sold dope to an undercover agent. Criminal justice officials gave him a choice: go to jail or join the military. Brown understandably chose the military. While spending three years in the Army, he played basketball, smoked dope, and participated in a fight that led to a dishonorable discharge. Following his stint in the Army, he enjoyed great success on the basketball court at all-black Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. Again, however, Brown started selling drugs. When the police busted him, Brown had drugs, guns, and counterfeit money in his dorm room. This time he did go to jail. After his release, his life spiraled dramatically downward. Brown became a crack addict, committed crimes to fund his drug usage, and over the next decade was incarcerated six more times.
After being released from jail for the final time in 2002, Brown entered a rehab program at Memphis Union Mission primarily to avoid living on the streets during the winter. He began to read the Bible to prove that Christianity was false, but he also read Lee Stroebel’s “The Case for Christ” and took four Bible courses at a nearby seminary. His health improved significantly, a woman gave him a car, and SOS offered him a job. What he read and experienced convinced him that God was real and cared about him. At age 41, he committed his life to Christ.
Brown quickly concluded that God expected him to share the gospel with others. He realized that his previous experiences with homelessness, addiction, and prison had equipped him to minister to troubled men and women on the streets of Memphis. Brown started this ministry because he was convinced that Christians should sacrifice their lives to help others.
For the last 13 years, Brown has worked full time for SOS to arrange and direct crews of college and high school students to renovate and repair the houses of low-income Memphis residents during the students’ summer and spring breaks. In addition, he has spent countless hours befriending and aiding the city’s homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts, and mentally ill. By developing relationships with hundreds of burdened individuals, speaking in dozens of churches, and partnering with numerous agencies that provide food, shelter, medical care, counseling, spiritual guidance, and other services for the downtrodden, Brown has had a substantial impact on the lives of many men and women in his city. He insists that people can find the purpose, fulfillment, and joy they are wrongly seeking through drugs, sex, and crime by, instead, having a personal relationship with Jesus. God has transformed Brown to serve as an agent of His kingdom in Memphis and beyond.
A caring mentor, coach, teacher, or pastor could have made an enormous difference in Brown’s life as he was growing up. Such a person might have been able to compensate for Brown’s loss of his mother and ill-treatment by his cruel, alcoholic stepfather. A compassionate adult might have helped Brown develop better self-esteem, avoid drugs, and come to know Christ at an earlier age. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of children are growing up today in situations similar to the one in which Brown was raised. By serving as mentors, tutors, and foster parents and volunteering at organizations that aid troubled youth, we can make a significant difference in the lives of many of them.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values.