John Barham gives his heritage away the second he decides to open his mouth and a slow, thick Southern drawl fills the air.
“I often say in my stories that I came on the heels of slavery. ... Cuz you know, the way I grew up, my grandparents was born in 1902. I sort of grasped what their thought process was like, which was to work and fear God,” Barham said.
Barham’s deep accent hugs syllables as he speaks. His steady words smooth out tangled life stories.
“When you go to the field and you have to get up early, the wagon is a rough ride — there was no shocks,” Barham said as if reliving the experience. “Those roads had rows of erosion and they had a lot of bumps. Those roads were like a metaphor for my life. I had a lot of bumps — no [shock absorbers].”
Barham’s bumps began at an early age. As a 4-year-old he can remember hiding out beside the house as his father beat his mother. On his hands and knees he would pray incessantly.
“God, please make him leave. Please make him leave. Make him leave,” Barham would pray again and again.
When Barham was 8, his prayers were answered. His father walked out on his family, leaving Barham’s mother with three children. Barham said his brother was sickly as a child and his sister, Daisy, had cerebral palsy.
“... I had to kind of depend on my mama. One of the things I love about my mama is she kept us together,” Barham said. “She had a strong faith and it came to a time where I had to depend on her faith because I did not know what it was.”
Barham developed his own faith in time. First, he grew up in Small Town, USA, and learned the simple truths of life. A penchant for basketball skyrocketed him to high school fame before painful cysts took him out of the game.
“My little hometown was like Mayberry,” Barham said. “Little, small town — one red light. That’s how I grew up. Simple.”
Simple truths governed Barham’s life: his father was gone, his sister and brother needed treatments, and the cotton needed picking.
“My mama plowed like a man and worked like a man. Where I came from, cotton was the crop,” Barham said. “Everyone plowed cotton. Everyone picked cotton and chopped cotton. Cotton was the main thing. ... It was a slow life.”
Heartbreak at 18 years of age led Barham to begin writing. A pencil and paper were Barham’s tools for dealing with his feelings. Relatives surrounded him, but this was not the sort of thing he could openly discuss.
“At that age, you really don’t got anyone to talk to and people laugh at you. So, I would do like you are doing [taking notes] and would write on a piece of paper what I was feeling. I sort of vent my frustrations.”
Writing would remain a constant part of Barham’s life. He has authored several books since, picking up a pencil at 18. These writings include “Little Joe,” a fictionalized version of his family’s life with an abusive father.
According to Barham, the book has caused tempers to flare on behalf of Little Joe’s mother more than once.
“You know, God has always heard my prayer. ... As a small child I didn’t know what to do cuz I couldn’t whoop him and he was beating her brains out. He was beating her brains out,” Barham said, remembering the horror. “God heard my prayer to save my mother. We went through some hard times, some hard times.”
Several other books include “Ghosts of River Creek Bottom” and “Country Preacher.” According to Barham, he writes in “old Negro dialect.” He said where he comes from people have a different jargon. The computer cannot spellcheck his work because it does not understand his writing.
Barham speaks his mind. A long life, sometimes on the wrong side, has left him with many opinions. He looks at the world and sometimes wonders what has happened.
“... The family has been broken down,” Barham said. “People are raised by single parents, you know what I mean? And there is no father in the family. Then the family structure is broken down because I believe the male has not taken his rightful place. Where is he? Is he under the table? Most of them are in prison.”
Words like “prison,” and “jail,” slip easily off of Barham’s tongue. He has been to both and has come to terms with the decisions he made. An early addiction to cocaine led him to a couple stints in both.
“A lot of times, people don’t get arrested, they get rescued,” Barham said.
Barham routinely visits men in prison with his life lessons and faith in hand. He originally began through the program Life After Lock-up and now continues through St. James Prison Ministry. The new ministry is based out of St. James Presbyterian Church in Cleveland.
Barham said he has been where they are sitting and he understands what they are going through. He talks to them straight.
“If you get out and you see someone in jail you were with and you all aren’t going in the same direction, then depart. Birds of a feather flock together. You gotta really stay in what you believe in if you don’t want to be pulled back in,” Barham said.
According to Barham, he never wanted to be a “shoulda, coulda, woulda” type of person. He wants to help the men in prison in the same way.
“I tell the guys in prison to make a list. Make a list of what you want. A plan ain’t a plan until you write it down on paper,” Barham said. “You can have it in your head for 10 years, but if you don’t put it on paper then its just going to be something in your head and you are going to procrastinate.”
He expects straight answers from the men.
“I tell them their family needs them. Your wife and kids need you,” Barham said. “And I ask them hard questions because I am not playing any games with what I am doing. This is serious. I tell them, ‘While you in here, if something were to happen to your child, who do you blame cuz you aren’t there?”
According to Barham, the Bible talks about the Keepers of the Gates. He believes the father of the family is the Keeper of the Gate.
“The enemy will try to shred the family,” Barham said. “I ain’t trying to make this no God thing, but that’s who I am. See, I came from the ashes. I came from a place I thought it was all over for me.”
People like Barham’s mother, wife, and his pastor, Rhonda Westfield, always saw who he was.
“She [Westfield] has an intricate part in who I am,” Barham said. “Sometimes people see things in you that you can’t see and she did see it in me.”
Today, Barham sees his purpose as “to help assist.”
“My purpose is to manifest Christ and to show the love, cuz how are they supposed to know? I show them love, treat others as human beings,” Barham said.
Barham has taught vacation Bible school for three years. He finds great delight in teaching a younger generation about God’s grace and love.
“I’ve lived such a — man, I’ve lived such a bad life. A rough life. People hated to see me coming ... When you go to jail, people don’t really want to be around you because they have this thing about you,” Barham said.
Today, Barham is a friendly and welcomed sight. He walks a slow gait with his cane and readily offers a “go with the flow” smile. He has found his focus in life and is eager to live each day to the glory of God.
Barham can be reached at email@example.com.