Araka survived the loss of her mother when she was just three years old. She also survived being raised by a father who disregarded God, drank heavily, and repeatedly brought into her childhood home one new girlfriend or stepmother after another. Throughout her childhood, Araka had been invited to various denominations, and although she was baptized in several of these churches, every one of them left her with the nagging feeling that God was not truly being honored. More than anything else, she deeply desired an intimate relationship with God but was saddened when she was told that unless she was speaking in tongues or hearing the audible voice of God, He had not yet saved her. Over time, Araka stopped visiting these man-made churches and by the age of sixteen was becoming more and more wild, grabbing at every experience she could find to fill up her heart. Even still, in her quieter moments, deep down knew she was missing what she wanted most: the nearness of her Heavenly Father.
Of course, Jesus was longing for Araka, just as Araka was longing for Jesus. So, He did what He often does when a soul is asking, seeking, and knocking: He opened an opportunity for Araka, not by miraculously setting aside His laws of nature, but rather as He has done countless times before, including in the amazing stories of Providence within the lives of Joseph, Esther, and Ruth, and perhaps all of us.
As Araka entered her junior year of high school, she was assigned the wrong locker for her grade level — a locker she now regards as a gifted pivotal point in her life, hinges and all! Though she only lingered at the locker long enough to change out her books, such was just long enough to become acquainted with a friendly, well-mannered young man who somehow seemed to carry himself very much differently than the others.
As Jesus would have it, another fortunate “accident” occurred the next semester, when Araka’s class schedule was so haywire, the only solution was that she’d not only have a locker among the students who were a year older, but the only way to take the classes that she needed, would require her also to lunch with the seniors as well.
When the first lunch hour came, Araka scanned the hundreds and hundreds of students' faces looking for someone — anyone she knew. Her eyes landed on Brian Aiken, her locker neighbor, who was eating lunch with his friends Keith Wise, Amber (Cunningham) Finley, and Jesse LaRue. Upon her request, they happily obliged this wild child’s desire to join them.
Those lunches in this tight little circle were life-changing. Rather than stories of drinking parties, they talked about a myriad of other fun things including what they were learning in the scriptures. They welcomed all Araka’s Bible questions and for the first time in Araka’s life, they offered Bible answers to Bible questions. Eventually, lunchtime evolved into Bible study time: feeding Araka’s hungry soul with what she’d longed for, for so many years.
These young people were different in all the right ways, and Araka appreciated that, including when her friend Amber taught her to dress in a way that reflected a godly mindset that would also benefit others. What mattered most to Araka was that her new circle of friends lived up to what they said and taught — not only avoiding such things as profanity, but caring enough about Araka that they challenged her to do the same. Before long, Brian began providing a ride for Araka to Bible class and worship at the Pruitt & Lobit Church of Christ in Baytown, Texas. There she met more dear friends: Larry Hafley, Jesse Flowers, and David Halbrook, and was thrilled to find that what was being stated from the pulpit was, finally, very much congruent with what Araka was reading in her Bible. On February 2, 2003, Araka was born again. Still just as much a free spirit, she retained in her life all the high school activities that she loved and dropped those that had her compromising what she now knew to be right.
Araka’s sister, Brittney, had been attending a non-denominational church, but when Araka was baptized, Brittney was full of so many questions that sometimes their conversations would continue into all hours of the night. She soon joined in on Araka’s Bible studies, and she, too, was able to put all the pieces together and also obeyed the gospel. This common faith opened up the opportunity for these two sisters, who had been through so much together, to grow spiritually alongside one another.
In 2005, when Araka stumbled for a while, it was Brittney, Brian, and her church family who lovingly and patiently continued to reach out, telling her the hard truths she knew she needed to hear. At the age of nineteen, while she was in Sigonella, Sicily, she fell in love with an atheist named Brandon and married him the following year. One day it occurred to her that if she did not return to the Lord, this husband she loved so much would also miss out on a relationship with God. She also knew the Lord would receive her back with open arms, and this reality softened Araka’s heart so that she was able to also forgive those within the church who had contributed to the discouragement that, in part, had led to her choosing to wander from God for a while. She told me, “I had to learn that it’s God who we trust in. Not men. Because I, too, had failed God.”
When this prodigal ran back into the Heavenly Father’s arms (Luke 15), she was all in and more zealous for the cause of Christ than ever. When her husband Brandon began to join her for worship, David Halbrook and Archie Proctor offered to study with him beginning with the vast pieces of evidence for God’s existence as well as the scripture’s validity as His word. At that humble dining room table, a Light like none other began to dawn, and on October 9, 2007, Brandon Smith became a child of God, promising to live faithfully to the Lord and lead their family in godliness. This was one of the brightest, most joyous moments of Araka’s life because she knew the family they would create together would be gifted with the beautiful, priceless experiences that she did not have in her own upbringing.
That’s when the branches of their spiritual tree began to sprout. About a year later, Araka and Brandon welcomed Brandon’s 13-year-old brother to become a part of their household. Together, they learned and grew and soon Dustin also became their brother in the Lord. Brandon kept his promise to be the godly, spiritual leader of his household and to this day leads his three children in wise instruction, daily Bible readings, and songs of praise.
One very providential, misassigned locker has resulted in quite the spiritual family tree. Brandon’s father and mother have both come to the Lord and their daughter Jodi, has just begun her walk with God as well. In one surprise twist, Brian, the nice guy whose locker was next to Araka's, eventually married Araka’s sister, Brittney, and they, too, are raising their two sons in the light of God’s wisdom. And Brandon’s brother, Dustin, who had lived with Araka and Brandon for a while? He ended up blessed with a Christian home of his own as well, when he was adopted by Brian’s Uncle and Aunt, Weldon and Connie Butler.
Who knew so much good could come from a high school student showing a little kindness in a school cafeteria to a girl who was searching? What a lesson to remind us that when even the youngest believers among us are “… strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” and entrust the gospel to a faithful soul, those souls will often go on to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Araka was still busy with this work when we were invited to the Jere Whitson congregation so that Mark could speak for them, having invited a man she’d met at CVS to come and listen. He showed up, toting a fluffy, black and white puppy he had just adopted. The congregation did not lift an eyebrow at this unusual scene, but welcomed both man and puppy, which, among other good things, opened up for me the opportunity to gift this visitor a copy of my book Your Fresh Start, containing the same foundational principles that had long ago moved Brandon Smith from his atheistic mindset to becoming a man of faith.
I have reason to be quite optimistic about the beautiful future of not only Araka and Brandon’s family but also the other families that make up the Jere Whitson church of Christ. Jessie Flowers hosts a wonderful radio program called “Words of Exhortation” that are all archived on their website, and even interviewed Mark while we were in town about his conversion to Christ. Their hospitality is also first-rate: We were gifted a week’s lodging at “Gentry Ridge'' that included everything we needed, alongside the bonus experience of wonderful evening conversations with Clarissa and Jason and the robust screeches of their donkey who happily welcomed us every time we pulled into the driveway. We enjoyed meals throughout the week with various families, attended a heart-warming young people’s gathering at the Flower’s home, and experienced a lovely hike up and around the beautiful Burgess Falls in Sparta, Tennessee, with many of the members of this church family. These social experiences together certainly lend themselves to a tight-knit congregation, but I’d seen three things here that I thought were absolutely brilliant, and duplicable by other congregations who prioritize doing all they can to draw their youth toward Christ.
The first brilliant idea I observed was that the college-age students were gathering together to look into biblical authority; that is, how to apply Bible truths to our lives both personally and collectively by reading and using the Word as God intended so that we follow the holy patterns within it, and avoiding unnecessarily binding where God has not bound. How indispensable this foundational skill of thoughtfully wielding the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12) and “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) will be for this future generation.
The second bright idea was that they were inviting back to the congregation the former college students who had moved away after graduation so that they could share from the scriptures what they wish they had known during those earlier years, and what they would have said to themselves on various moral topics if they could go back in time. I love that.
Lastly, Jason Gentry had written and shared with me a wonderful, comprehensive curriculum used to train the young, up-and-coming generation of boys and young men in the congregation to be future leaders. I was relieved to see that this course was completely free of an element I’d heard of in similar curriculums in less conservative circles than our own, which includes competitive memorization work where young boys are rewarded for beating the others, thus potentially instilling an attitude that I believe may do more harm than good, as seen in how repulsed God was when the church in Corinth used the spiritual gifts He had granted them to also jockey for position and one-up each other (1 Corinthians 12;14). In contrast, Jason’s material includes lessons that are both thorough and practical and cover everything from how to lead an effective prayer, to putting together an inspirational, biblically sound message, and so much more. The element of this idea that I must confess I’m in love with most of all, is the underlying message during the coaching process that the older men are sending to this generation: “You belong here. We need you. We have confidence in you. We accept you. You are one of us.”
If you are looking for a safer corner of the country where “In God We Trust” is engraved in large letters on every side of the courthouse, and handmade signs are in the windows of many of the downtown businesses that say simply, “Pray”, then Cookeville, Tennessee is certainly a town to consider. Here you will find a conscientious, truth-abiding church that is so very easy to love.
Jere Whitson Rd church of Christ
329 E Jere Whitson Rd
Cookeville, TN 38501