photos by Letty Weeks
Everyone has a story. And in everyone’s story there seems to be one constant: God.
It’s easy to think we know how God works. It always seems like it would be crystal clear what He's doing in a person’s life, yet we seem to eventually find that God was actually working behind the scenes, writing the story and preparing the way ahead of us, way before we get there. That’s what Mickey Gilmer didn’t know until he came out on the other side—God’s redemption and restoration process in his life did not happen overnight, and Mickey didn’t have to know it was even happening.
When I sat down with Mickey and his wife, Margaret, I didn’t know his story. I knew I was there to interview them, and that was about it. The context of the conversation left me flabbergasted, because the man sitting in front of me didn’t look anything like the man he described himself to be before he met Jesus. He is unassuming and gentle; a story of drugs and two trips to jail was not on the list of possible things I expected to hear that night.
It’s a good thing God doesn’t operate based on our expectations.
Mickey began smoking weed his senior year of high school. He’d grown up in church and felt like he was a Christian, but his parents had divorced. He left the church in his sophomore year when he saw the pleasures of the world and decided that was what he wanted to follow. The weed eventually gave way to other drugs.
For almost a decade, he used and sold drugs. His mom cut off financial support for him after he graduated high school because their money was tight, so he paid for a couple of years of college before flunking out. Afterward, he got a job on a tugboat in the Gulf, but eventually, he came close to an overdose. He decided to go home, where his mom helped him to rehab. He decided to go back to school and came out with a degree this time, but, unfortunately, the rehab didn’t stick. He tried, but consistently fell back into the drug cycle.
Mickey got married in his mid-twenties and had a daughter, Nicole. When she was only 10 months old, he was arrested. Up to this point, Mickey had been living moment to moment. He didn’t want to change or feel like there was reason to. He knew how he was living was wrong, but he didn’t care because it was what he wanted. Spending that night in jail, knowing he had a daughter at home, he realized he needed something different. He called out to God for help, though he didn’t really understand what kind of help he needed. His mom and step-dad bailed him out the next day.
After he got out of jail, everything was not suddenly "Okay" as we like the stories to go. “Man calls out to God, wins lottery,” was not the headline of the newspaper the next day. Mickey is very clear that it's the process that is important to his story rather than the specific details of day-to-day. God pursued him, constantly.
As I listened to the next events in Mickey's life, I marveled at how much he could see, looking back, God working through a whirlwind of several years. His wife was not on board with going to church, and he didn’t really see it as a priority to force the issue. He was on probation for 36 months, and one thing he was serious about was quitting drugs. Along the way, he had another daughter, Kristin, and he worked very hard to provide for his young family. At his job, his work ethic was well known by his boss and co-workers, and Mickey excelled. What he didn’t realize, though, was that his wife was still living the life Mickey was attempting to leave behind. One night, their house was raided. Because he was still on probation, he was arrested again, even though he had no idea there had been any drugs in the house. He was confused and broken, but as he sat in a jail cell for the second time, he heard God say, “it’s time.”
Sometimes God's instructions to us feel vague — this was not one of those times.
Mickey knew it was time for him to seriously search for God, and that meant actually going to church. He spent three days in jail contemplating this. This time, it was his boss who bailed him out. What Mickey didn’t find out until later was that his boss had been paying attention, and he had heard how it was Mickey’s wife who was selling drugs throughout the day while Mickey was at work and couldn’t witness it. As he figured this out, he wanted to try to make his marriage work, but while he was adamant that they would be going to church, his wife wouldn’t and didn’t want to change her behavior or her mind. For several months this went on, until finally one day she left their house while he was at work. She didn’t come back.
Suddenly, he was a single parent with a record and very little outside help. As he attempted to make ends meet, searched for a babysitter, and filed for divorce, he finally made it to church.
He’d gone through a list of ten possible babysitters, and while some of them were just unavailable to help, in a small town everybody knew (or at least, they thought they knew) his story. He called out to God again, saying “God, You’ve put me here, You’ve gotta help.” The last person on the list not only agreed, but invited him to church. He became friends with her and her husband, and it gave him a connection with people who would build him up and truly care about him, which he so desperately needed.
God’s timing is amazing. Mickey can look back now and say that with certainty. Even though he wasn’t saved (but at the time thought he was), God had surrounded him with people who would point Mickey to the Savior. For ten years God had been pursuing him, and He was relentless in putting signs and, at times, roadblocks in Mickey’s path to force him to notice. A journey of ten years led him to a single-again Sunday school class, and the college class met next door. Through a series of events that really can’t be taken as coincidence, a girl named Margaret managed to wedge herself into Mickey’s life, babysitting some and cleaning up around his house. For a reason Mickey couldn’t figure out, she wanted to spend time with both him and his daughters.
Around this time his divorce became final. Shortly after that, he was surprised by some news: his criminal record had been expunged. His boss had taken it upon himself to hire a lawyer and prove that Mickey had nothing to do with the most recent drug bust. When Mickey found out, he asked the lawyer how much he owed him, and the lawyer responded, "that's already been taken care of."
His slate had been wiped clean through no effort of his own. Mickey was stunned. He couldn’t figure out why all of this had happened, why all of these people were going out of their way to do so much for him when he felt he didn't deserve any of it. As he struggled to make sense of all of it and adjust to his new normal, he continued the shift from someone who didn’t care about how he lived to someone who saw his past for what it was and would not let that define him.
Through all of that, his friendship with Margaret morphed into more, and they married after two years of dating. God immediately began using their union to draw them closer to Himself — though they both thought they had put their trust in Christ when they were young, they had not. Just a year after they got married, both were saved one morning in Sunday school.
The restoration process wasn’t done yet, though. Even with all He'd done already, God had much more to do in the Gilmer's lives. They had another daughter, Lindsey, and Margaret officially adopted Nicole and Kristin. When she was 8, Lindsey was diagnosed with Leukemia, so they took her to St. Jude where she had two years of treatment. With children ages 15, 13, and 8, a lot of extra help was needed to ensure everything was taken care of, and between their extended family and St. Jude, they had that help. The community of people they were able to meet through St. Jude was incredible, but above all they had hope that God is the healer. There was never a doubt for Mickey and Margaret that Lindsey would be healed, and they were able to share this hope of Christ with other families at St. Jude and experience God's love in all new ways.
No matter what the outcome, the Gilmer's were committed to serving God. Several years after Lindsey was healed, the family moved to Starkville for Mickey's work. By this point, they'd invested twenty years in the Delta, and with all of Margaret's family there, it was difficult for them to move. It was out of their comfort zone, but Mickey knew this new job was where God wanted him, and they'd seen for themselves how God had worked through every situation on His own schedule. They knew they could trust Him. God had always worked through relationships with people, and the Gilmers knew God had already gone before them into this new chapter of their lives to prepare resources for their growth. They immediately rooted themselves in FBC and met more people God had put in their path, continuing to be a God who's all about relationships.
God had still more to teach them — "when you stop getting challenges God calls you to face, you're probably six feet under," Margaret said. In 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but God, in His wisdom, brought the Gilmers to Starkville to get out of their comfort zone and remind them to rely solely on Him, and allowed them enough time to begin learning how to do that again before she was even diagnosed. So, when the time came to face another very difficult season, she had a system of people around her within the church to help keep her eyes focused on Christ. Now, after a long battle, she is cancer free!
All of the trials this incredible family has faced have only served to draw them closer to God. The recurring theme for Mickey is that "salvation is not an overnight process, but God never gave up on me and continued molding and shaping me even when I had no idea God was there in the situation with me."
The Gilmer's story is a small part of a much bigger picture that God is painting. He desires and invites us to use our experiences to glorify Himself and to draw more people to Himself... It is up to us whether we choose to accept His invitation or not. The Gilmers have learned above all that God is good and is constantly working ahead of us for our good. They've learned what it is to find success — "seeking and following God's will for your life, and living that out."
It's easy to think we have everything figured out and that one 'big trial' is all anyone needs while we're in this life, but the Gilmers have already had several, and they know there will probably be many more to come. I asked them how they will prepare for any unseen upcoming trials, and I hope their response will encourage you as much as it has me: "We have no idea what we'll face going forward, but when we look back on what He has done, it gives hope that He'll give what we need to get through our challenges. It's our responsibility to line up behind and follow Him."