On any given Sunday, Derwin L. Gray will be standing with his flock at the doors of Transformation Church. As a diverse crowd of young and old, black and white pours out the doors of the Indian Land sanctuary and congregates under the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby, a 5-foot-10 figure in a relaxed-fitting hoodie, a high wall of hair atop his head, moves through the crowd talking with the families that fill his pews, hugging small children and chatting with senior ladies.
In a few minutes, he will take the stage in front of hundreds of people without changing a thing except for the small microphone pinned behind his ear. Without a podium but with a slick video production that projects his image and relevant Bible verses onto screens on either side, Gray preaches one of three sermons that day, in between performances of a Christian rock group.
His message blends the ancient history of the church with a teaching on how Christians should live today. The Apostle Paul preached the gospel to Jew and Greek, slave and free, man and woman, breaking down the barriers that divided people then. Why, then, Gray argues, should Christians in America be so divided along racial lines in the 21st century?
“This would be like me writing ‘I am under obligation to reach rich people, trailer trash people, undocumented aliens,” he preached. “(Paul was) under obligation to form gospel communities that reflect everybody.”
Twenty years ago, Gray spent his Sundays very differently. Instead of going to church, much less leading one, Gray made his living as a defensive back in the National Football League, first for five seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, then finishing his career with the Carolina Panthers.
For a while, that was what Gray preferred. He’d never been particularly religious growing up in San Antonio, Texas. In fact, for roughly the first half of his life, “my religion was football,” he said.
“People loved me because I played football. Girls liked me. I stood out based on what I did,” Gray said, sitting in a small office just off Transformation’s main stage. “I had a mission to get out of the ghetto, and football temporarily met my needs.”
Until one day it didn’t. Then something else entirely took over.
Seeking a meaningful life
Growing up in a rough area of San Antonio, Gray, 43, remembers a life defined by an urge for love and the need to prove his worth – a need he would describe today as something “greater than humans can give.” But at the time, he would have taken approval from humans too. The future family man was primarily raised by his grandmother. His childhood left him seeking meaning in life, but without the spiritual tools he would later use to find it.
“I wasn’t a religious person. As a young man, I might have told you, ‘I believe in God,’ but I really didn’t know what that meant,” Gray said.
To add to his personal struggles, the man who would one day speak to more than a thousand people in any given week grew up fighting to overcome a speech impediment. “I was a compulsive stutterer, so the idea that now I’m invited all over the world to preach the gospel, that humbles me every time,” he said.
Like a lot of young boys, Gray found meaning on the playing field. He proved a breakout performer on his high school team in the late 1980s, so much so that he became a standout college defensive player at Brigham Young University. Off the field, Gray’s time on the Provo, Utah, campus was defined by the day he met his future wife, Vicki, a track athlete for the Cougars. They married two years later, and Vicki Gray has acted as her husband’s partner throughout their ministry together. As with a lot of things now, he sees a providential hand behind their meeting.
“We met on Jan. 15, 1990, which just happens to be Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s birthday,” he says now with a laugh. “So a black kid from the hood and a white girl from the mountains of Montana met on Dr. King’s birthday, and today we lead a multi-ethnic church.”
When he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1993, his dreams of football glory became a nightmare. In the NFL, the game he’d played for fun and built much of his self-identity around was now a cut-throat business, and some of his toughest competitors were on the same team. He remembers sitting in meetings with men 10 or 15 years older than him who saw the young kid as a threat to their livelihood. Veteran players would sometimes send him the wrong plays just to make him look like a screw-up.
Even as his star rose in the professional ranks, he knew his playing days would be short, and he didn’t know who Derwin Gray was if he wasn’t a football player.
“My whole identity was based on football, so that just caused more anxiety,” he said. “I felt like this is what I worked for my whole life. I was going to be famous. I was going to be on TV and make all this money. I thought, ‘It’s got to be better than this.’”
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SOURCE: Herald Online