Stones at Oak Ridge’s cemetery mark the end of old lives—and celebrate the beginnings of new ones
In a field about forty-five minutes down a winding, bumpy road west of Georgetown, a man kneels to read a metal plaque on a cement block beneath scraggly oaks. The tombstone bears the man’s own name, cause of death, and when he died: “Joshua Harris. Cocaine. May 22, 2005.” When Joshua visits his tombstone today, he remembers how became the first of a long line of tombstones in this unusual graveyard, located in the middle of a former campground that is now part of a discipleship program for men with substance abuse: Oak Ridge Discipleship House.
At Oak Ridge, Joshua helps men overcome addiction. Through his work, he’s found that surrendering, rather than changing behavioral habits, often allows people to leave substance abuse behind.
Joshua’s own story of his death starts with a vicious fight during what he had thought was a normal childhood.
Ten-year-old Joshua hoisted himself up to look out his bedroom window. He’d heard a lot of yelling, and then the door slammed. He watched his father get in his car and drive down the road. Little did he know, as he watched the taillights disappear, that he would never see his father again. All he knew was that his hero had left and that he was alone with his abusive stepmother.
The “step-monster,” beat Joshua daily with “high heels and brushes and anything that was close.” His father, who had never touched him, was his source of comfort—until the worst night of Joshua’s life.
“Did you ever have a time in your life that was so chaotic and crazy that you just felt like everything was moving in slow motion?” Joshua asks. “This night felt like that.”
A few days after his father left, Joshua learned that his father had been sexually abusing Joshua’s fourteen-year-old sister for years, and she finally told her stepsisters, who told their mother about it. Soon after Joshua’s dad left, the stepmother, blaming the children in some way for the mess, kicked Joshua and his sister out. Joshua lived in an orphanage in Houston, estranged from his siblings, for the rest of his childhood. Years later, Joshua found out that his brother had also been a victim of his father’s abuse.
When he was nineteen years old, Joshua went out on his own “with a huge, gigantic hole in my heart and with a ‘poor me’ chip on my shoulder as big as could be,” Joshua said. “When you have a big sore on your heart, you’ll do whatever you can to make it feel better.”
And for Joshua, that looked like using cocaine.
Angry and Addicted
From the first time Joshua sniffed a line of white powder, when he was twenty-one, he felt numb and lost. He began drinking as well and frequently would drive under the influence. One day, he got set up and busted for dealing drugs.
When he got parole, Joshua returned to his old lifestyle. “For years, I rode that roller coaster of drugs and alcohol and stealing and all of the things that come along with that life,” he says. He tried to fake a drug test but didn’t pass and was given five years of jail time, so he ran to Florida. While he was there, he says, “God put this conviction in me to come back.” That feeling got stronger and stronger until he came back to Texas and turned himself in.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be a mess, I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ And I had said that lots of times throughout this process. But this was the first time I said, ‘Lord Jesus, I don’t want to live like this anymore,’” he recalls.
He found a Gideon New Testament and said, “If there’s really a God who loves me, help me!”
He also met Pastor Bob Davis, who helped Joshua understand the Bible and invited Joshua to live with him when he got out. Joshua was stunned, but he seized the opportunity and became a Christian two months after his release.
Everything looked better for many years. Joshua married and the couple had two children. But old wounds reopened. As a father himself, Joshua couldn’t understand why his father had abused his older siblings and left him. He hired a company to find his dad. The search was successful, but two weeks before Joshua could meet with him, his father vanished again.
Two weeks after that, Joshua was snorting cocaine again. For a year and a half, he returned to drug addiction, devastated by anger and a lack of closure. His wife left a voicemail saying he was not welcome at home nor in his children’s lives. Intensely ashamed, he took enough cocaine, doctors later told him, to have killed five men.
But instead of dying, he heard a voice asking him over and over, “Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Joshua shouted.
He felt the response: “Are you ready to change?”
Then, Joshua says, “I heard God say audibly, ‘Pick up the phone and call Pop,’ which is what I called Bob Davis.”
He called and Bob answered, saying, “Son, I’ve been waiting for you to call for three weeks.” He suggested that Joshua go to Denver City, Texas, to a six-month discipleship facility called Trinity Baptist Men’s Home.
“When a man has come to the end of himself, when he’s hit rock bottom and his spirit is broken—whether through drugs, alcohol, or other life hurts, habits, and hang-ups—he must be completely ready and willing to dedicate at least six months of his immediate future to burying his old former self and becoming a new creation through Christ Jesus,” Joshua says.
That’s exactly what happened at the discipleship home. Joshua attended chapel several times a day and memorized forty-five Bible verses. One of the passages stood out to him: John 15:5, in which Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” He believed that he needed to surrender to Christ in order to get free from addiction.
“At chapel one day, I literally said, ‘Jesus, I’m not getting up from here until you take all this pain in my heart,’” Joshua recalls.
For an hour, Joshua knelt in front of the chapel’s altar, “crying, snotting, and giving it up.” He forgave those who had hurt him and let go of his anger toward his father—and when he got up, it was all gone. With the pain went the desire to ever use cocaine again.
Oak Ridge Discipleship
The experience changed Joshua, who wanted to offer a safe place for men to undergo the same transformation and freedom he felt at the altar. In 2009, he started Oak Ridge Discipleship Home, a residential Christian character-building course designed to remove bad habits and develop good ones, to do just that. “We try to remove, not so much by behavior modification, but by getting in their hearts and getting all the bad roots out,” Joshua says. The ultimate goal is for participants to heal relationships: with God, themselves, and others. They hope to conquer substance abuse and reunite their family—just as Joshua was restored to his children and wife within a few months of leaving Trinity Baptist Discipleship Home.
Old Man Cemetery
Joshua was touched by another passage in scripture in which Paul uses an analogy of burying an old lifestyle and starting a new one, and Joshua uses this passage to describe the type of surrender he experienced. The Old Man Graveyard—what Joshua calls the “pride and joy” of the discipleship program—helps men encounter this mystical experience in a tangible way.
It is important for the participants and their families to see their tombstone to provide closure on the old patterns and to give the man a chance to be a new person. Many of the men, including Joshua, take time every year to go back to look at their old tombstone and remember what “God has done in their lives.”
Currently, there are fifty-seven engraved tombstones among the oak trees. Of the fifty-seven graduates of the discipleship program, seventy-five percent continue to live substance-free lives and fifty percent are involved in ministry.
Joshua’s goal is to see the “Old Man Cemetery” filled—not to have accomplished the goal, but because the accomplishment would represent more people given new chances at life.
If you have a loved one who would benefit from the services of Oak Ridge or if you would like to donate to the discipleship program, please visit oakridgedisciplehouse.com.