Tony Frazier would have you believe that the services and support he received from the Community Action Agency are what saved him from becoming an all too familiar statistic. But when you are lucky enough to hear him share his story of overcoming innumerable hardships and extol the virtues of his unwavering faith, it becomes clear that it is his fierce determination and unwavering commitment to building a better life that have turned his story from tragedy to triumph. He not only survived a life that most of us cannot even imagine; he overthrew the reigning dark forces and established his own, inspiringly prosperous realm.
Tony describes the Chicago neighborhood in which he grew up as “where mostly all the crime is at,” and there as a young child he persistently encountered drugs, guns, and violence. With a father who dealt drugs and a mother who was addicted to them, he lost his parents to prison very early in life. And while he was blessed to be taken in by his great grandmother, Willie Mae - a strong Christian woman who always impressed upon him the importance of seeking guidance from God - his luck turned significantly when she passed away and Tony and his siblings became wards of the state. After enduring a series of foster homes in which he suffered abuse, Tony and his sisters were forced to move in with their grandmother, June - a woman who was significantly less kind than her mother and who created a fearful living environment, in stark contrast to the sanctuary of Willie Mae’s home. There, Tony was regularly abused, both physically and verbally.
“You’re not going to be #@%#!” June would tell Tony as she repeatedly “put her hands on” him. Yet he never challenged her. He had been taught to always respect his elders, so Tony endured a home life that was unbearably tumultuous. “My uncles always stole my stuff, and I got in fights with them,” Tony recalls. One uncle in particular would regularly beat him up, and it was when that uncle hit him, causing him to fall down the stairs, that Tony realized just how little his life meant to his grandmother June. When he told her what his uncle had done, “she didn’t give a damn,” he confesses. It occurred to him then that no matter how often he told her that his uncle had hurt him or stolen from him, she never gave a damn. She defended her son and dismissed her grandson.
One day it became too much for Tony. When his grown uncle had stolen from him yet again, and June physically assaulted Tony as she defended the thief, Tony finally pushed her; then, he ran away.
That is when Tony says he “went back to the streets.” In retrospect, Tony realizes that the people with whom he was living were manipulating him, using him. But he didn’t care; the only thing that mattered at that point was being free of the trauma inflicted upon him time after time in June’s house. He had to escape.
And for young men on the streets of “K-Town” in Chicago, selling drugs was one of the only ways they could survive, so Tony did. He professes that he was living the “thug life” during that time, “running with bad friends,” technically homeless,“just trying to get a roof over my head - trying to survive.” And to hear him describe being shot at multiple times, then tied up and held at gunpoint during a robbery, it is miraculous that he did.
In the midst of this dark lifestyle, about two years after he had fled from his grandmother June’s house, Tony received notice that she was in the hospital, in a coma. When he went to see her, he felt compelled to apologize to her for what he felt had been unconscionable behavior. He needed her to know that he was sorry for what he had done, but because she was not able to hear him, he was wracked with guilt as he left that day. For a long time, Tony agonized over his inability to gain closure before June passed a month later. His guilt over having pushed her - and not having been able to make amends - fueled a fiery anger within him that would take a special man at the Rockford Rescue Mission to snuff out.
Tony had lived in Rockford briefly before, having been brought here by a friend. For a couple of years he went back and forth between Rockford and Chicago, until that moment he sat tied up with a gun to his head. On that day, he realized, “I don’t want to die this young; I don’t want my life to end this way.” He thought back to all the times his great grandma Willie Mae had taught him about making better choices, though until then he had not listened. At that moment, he says, “The only voice I could hear was my great grandma Willie Mae saying, ‘There’s a better life.’” So Tony realized, “If I had just one last choice to make a better life, I would.” God spared him that day, he says, and he considered it his one chance. “What I had to do to escape is to move out of the city itself and leave the thug life behind because I realized that after seeing my friends being killed left and right, I had to think about what I wanted to do with my life - end up in prison or the graveyard? So I came to the realization that there is something greater for me out there. But first I had to escape this life and go to a place where I can start all over again.” (Click on "read more," below, to read the rest of Tony's story.)
Thus Tony arrived at the Rockford Rescue Mission. “It was very hard for me,” Tony recalls, “because I had family and friends in Chicago, but I came to a city where I wasn’t known by anybody. That’s a scary place to live.” And after the distressing life he had been leading for two decades, the anger Tony harbored made his transition that much more challenging. “Living in a shelter caused me to be in fight or flight mode,” he explains. “I was always aggressive and angry because I was always wanting to protect myself.” This attitude, however, ran counter to the ideals of the Rockford Rescue Mission. “I knew it was a Christian shelter, but my anger was strong, and I wasn’t a believer yet at the time. So much had happened to me in my life that I was angry about my life, causing me to not embrace faith.” And so Tony struggled. Deep inside of him were the seeds his great grandma had planted, but they had not yet germinated. He still thought of himself as a “bad kid,” knowing that his great grandmother had loved him, but still thinking it was her Christian faith that made her do so, not his own worth.
The fire of Tony’s anger raged on. It resulted in an “altercation” during which, Tony confesses, he could have killed the guy, and he was kicked out of the shelter.
It is important to note that Tony is a man who thinks deeply. So while the rest of this story illustrates the significant roles several advocates played in his metamorphosis, Tony deserves considerable credit for what he calls the “changed attitude” that lead him back to the Rockford Rescue Mission to ask them for help. And to that organization’s credit, they conceded to give him another chance.
Each morning thereafter, Tony would get up around 4:30 to shower before spending time in devotion with a minister, talking about what it means to forgive. “If we truly accept Christ as our lord and savior, he’d forgive us for what we’ve done,” Tony says he learned. “That way we can truly experience the power of God.” But he wasn’t quite ready to embrace this belief. He even describes being mean to one of the ministers, Reverend Al, but he paid close attention to Rev. Al's responses to his behavior. “One time I disrespected him,” Tony confesses, “but he didn’t bash at me. He said, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been through, but I’m here to help you. You have so much potential! You’re talented. God’s got something for you - he’s going to use you one day. What you’re going through is going to make you strong and God’s going to use you to help others.’”
“I didn’t understand that,” Tony says, “But Rev. Al told me, ‘In time you’ll understand.’”
Numerous thoughts bombarded Tony: How can I trust? I’ve been abused, homeless, brought into a miserable world where chaos resides - people don’t love me. How can God love me but me in these situation? It was Rev. Al who helped quell his confusion. “He opened his Bible and read Romans 8:28 to me: For we know all these things work together for the good of those who love God according to his purpose. He explained that means you’re going to go through some things, but there’s a reason you’re still here. Then he asked about my back story, and I told him how I had lost a lot of friends, victims of the streets and how I had told myself I needed to get away from that. I told him I wanted something better. He said, ‘I commend you on that because most young men wouldn’t have the strength to walk away from that street life.’ And he told me that he was here for me if I wanted to talk to him.”
Still, Tony was not ready to really open up to Rev. Al. He walked away from that conversation mad, in fact. He had expected the minister to react to his behavior angrily, as that was the response Tony was used to. “I realized this man didn’t treat me like other people had… It made me wonder why, like what’s so good about me? Someone with issues, anger, always conflicted, guilt,” Tony confides. It confused him, but - more importantly - he realized that he respected Rev. Al. He was so used to being treated badly that he had never felt bad for disrespecting someone else. But this time he was driven to apologize, so he went back to see the minister, who immediately forgave him. “He said, ‘We all have our moments. All I’m trying to do is show you the same love that God has shown me. God is not what you think he is. He cares, but he can’t control you. He gave you free will to make your own chioces. It’s up to you to seek him.’” Tony thought deeply about this. Finally he realized, “I want peace - that’s all I want. I want someone to understand me. I want God to tell me why I have to go through what I go through.” And he told Rev. Al, “I want what you have. How do I get that? How do I get that peace and be calm and collected?” to which the minister responded, “You’ve got to have Christ in your heart.”
Willie Mae had always told Tony the same thing, and its importance was finally becoming clear. “Rev. Al pointed out that I had seen my great grandma go through bad things like I have, and I realized that even when people mistreated her, she responded the same way this minister did, with forgiveness,” Tony recollects. He finally wanted to rid himself of the anger and become more like these faithful Christians - but he didn’t know how.
“Rev. Al told me just repent - pray,” Tony reports, to which he responded, “How??”
This is one of the key strategies Tony utilizes in his quest for change. He consistently asks, “How?” And he does not give up until he finds the answers.
“At first Jesus was just a myth or this invisible man,” Tony explains, “but I was at the point in my life where I had no choice but to seek Him. And Rev. Al told me, ‘Pour out your heart to Him.’ So for the first time, I got on my knees and asked God to help me become a better person - help me to understand my flaws and be better - to be more like this minister.” After he did that, Tony “felt a little different.”
Rev. Al recommended that Tony find a church home. At first this was uncomfortable for Tony as he had heard “bad things” about church, but he conceded and began his search. Even after feeling uncomfortable at several churches in which Tony felt empty, as though the spirit of God was absent, he persisted. And while he felt that too many of the churches he visited were motivated only to make money, he was determined. Finally Tony visited the church the minister had recommended to him: St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church. There he felt welcomed from the moment he arrived. “Everyone hugged me; they offered me coffee. We hadn’t even gotten to the sermon part of the service, and I already liked it,” Tony recalls. What especially impressed him was that children were leading devotions, seeming to know more about the Bible than he did. “Something about this church was incredible,” Tony enthuses. “I could sense the spirit of God, sense the love.” So when Pastor Malone delivered an enlightening sermon that day titled “Let It Go,” in which he “talked about how Christ was crucified for our sins and asked God to forgive us,” Tony was inspired to answer the altar call. “I gave my life to Christ that day,” he professes. “I got baptised that same day.”
Tony was finally ready to pursue real change in his life.
Rev. Al introduced Tony to a case manager who ultimately connected him with Angie Walker, housing advocate with the City of Rockford Human Services Department (our local community action agency), who put several wheels in motion that have lead to Tony’s subsequent success. As a result, Tony raves about the support he received, describing the people of the Rockford Human Services Department with awe: “They take the time out of their busy schedule to explain things to you, to connect you with others, to get everything you need taken care of. They’re very loving people. The City of Rockford embraced me! Even if you’re a nerve-wracking person,” Tony declares, “they still love you.”
One thing the Rockford Human Services department does not tolerate, however, is laziness, Tony claims. “They want to help you get back on your feet so you can be strong on your own,” he explains. So while Angie provided Tony with information regarding how to get bus tokens, from whom he could receive clothing and food, and how the Youth Build program could help him, Tony had to pursue these services on his own. With the support of his case manager and his newfound faith, Tony persevered. Youth Build required a test for admission to its program, which Tony says he failed two or three times. “My determination to become better was so strong because ever since I had achieved that faith - the church had taught me how to persevere through my trials. It’s not easy to be a Christian. Trials and tribulations are going to test your faith. I learned to say, ‘Ok, God, maybe it’s not the right time, but I’m going to try again.’ So I would pray - study - try again. And finally I hit the right score high enough to get me in the program.”
While he was enrolled in the Youth Build, Tony was living in an apartment near the corner of Rockton and Riverside which Angie had helped him to secure. This was rather far from the Youth Build location on South Main Street, but even when Tony ran out of money for bus tokens, his unwavering determination to succeed motivated him to walk all the way to school, about two hours each way, regardless of the weather. “It was hectic,” he says. “I was tired.” But Angie recognized his commitment and helped him to move to an apartment that was closer: “only forty-five minutes to an hour walk.”
Not surprisingly, Tony excelled in his training, earning him stipends for the work he did. He used that money to pay for GED testing - and once again was unable to pass many of the tests. “I just couldn’t get it,” he explains without even a hint of resentment. So even after he graduated from the Youth Build program, he was unable to secure a steady job and instead spent his time giving back to the community that had given him so much, building houses for the homeless and serving at the shelter. Despite continuing challenges in his own life, Tony remained committed to bettering himself. “I was still driven to achieve my mission,” he asserts.
The community action agency helped him to maintain that drive. “It became not just a program to me; it became like a family,” Tony proclaims. “The times I felt down on myself, they told me, ‘I believe in you. You can do this. Keep thinking about what’s best for you. We’re here to help you.’ They supported me, always saying, ‘We know you’re going to be somebody.’ They’re so amazing; they believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.”
So when Tony failed GED test multiple times, they encouraged him to keep trying. His minister said, “Have faith and it’s going to happen at the right time.” Tony had already won a leadership award, which further motivated him to keep trying. And he prayed.
A major deadline loomed: on December 20th of 2013, the GED program was becoming computerized, and students would have to start all over again if they had not yet passed all of the tests. Tony asserts that tests were to become more challenging as well, so the stakes were incredibly high. But all of that work paid off as Tony passed his final GED test on December 8th of that year. From them on, he says, he was working.
Of course having his GED on top of having completed the Youth Build program did not guarantee that life would be easy. He held multiple jobs before finally being hired at Chrysler, where he currently works. There were times he even donated plasma “just to keep the lights on.”
At one time, Tony had wanted to become a firefighter, and he achieved that goal as a volunteer firefighter with the Northwest Fire Protection District for a year. Lately, however, he realizes that God has a different plan for him. His greater talent is creating art through airbrushing, he claims, and pursuing it as a career has become his latest goal. Of course he needs a bigger place than his current apartment in order to have enough space to do his airbrushing, so Tony is trying to save up for a house. He prides himself on having become good at managing his money and having built up his credit. He even drives his dream car, a 2007 Dodge Charger. (“I wanted an ‘06,” he confides, “but it’s all I could find.”) The seeds his great grandmother planted decades ago are now a thriving garden that Tony nurtures meticulously.
Now he wants to help others to see the same light that guides him to continued success, to actually “be their beacon of hope to light their way.”
It only takes a couple hours spent with Tony to recognize that he is already achieving this goal. Tony’s humble, grateful spirit is a wonderful example of the uplifting power of humanity. He certainly gave this writer hope for a better future!
Barb Chidley is the chair of the communications committee for the Community Action Agency Advisory Board. A former teacher at Auburn High School, Barb is passionate about alleviating poverty and uplifting members of our community.
You’ve got to understand your moral responsibility - then you’ll understand why it’s important to seek knowledge and wisdom.
My pastor taught me not to be a doormat, but that if you’re in a situation that’s going to compromise your integrity, don’t respond to it - walk away. Maybe if we learned to walk away, there’d be a lot less killing.