The Prodigals

By Tony Hudson

He’s not afraid. Saturday mornings are safe. The whole world, it seems, is sleeping off whatever sin it got into the night before.

He’s come carrying armloads of winter coats and baby diapers and microwave ovens. He came last month, he comes this month, he will come next month, bringing peace offerings to a place that knows no peace.

“There are hundreds of churches in this community,” he says. “And yet this is one of the most violent places you can be.”

“Pharaoh”—that’s what everybody in this North Memphis neighborhood used to call him. His real name is Barron Martin. In Frayser, a community where the main export was and still is prodigals, Barron, or “Pharaoh,” was once a famous man.

“But for all the wrong reasons,” he says. “My own mama was ashamed of me. I was wicked.”

This is a story about not one, but two prodigal sons, Barron Martin and Roderick Shaw. Barron came first. It had to be that way. He had to be ready when Roderick’s time came.

“You ever seen somebody that’s reduced down to nothing?” Barron asks. Barron Martin has. Twice. Once 30 years ago when he looked in the mirror. And then once again when he met Roderick Shaw.

Sometimes, it takes a prodigal to know a prodigal.

It Happened One Night

They tore down Henry Oates Manor a long time ago. But Barron Martin is pretty sure anyone who watched enough Memphis, Tennessee, TV news back in the day will remember the name. “There were gun shots, stabbings, crack cocaine,” he says. “And the strange thing about it is the community was close, but violent. It was just like, if you didn’t grow up there, you weren’t allowed there.”

Barron Martin, for better and for worse, did grow up there, and his mother did her best.

“She taught me about faith,” Barron says, “And she taught me about the Bible.” She also worked two
jobs to try and keep them one ladder rung above the poverty line. Barron’s mother did all the right things, except find a way to escape Henry Oates.

“The way the system was set up, she made too much money to get government assistance,” Barron remembers. “But she also didn’t make enough money to move us out of the projects. She was stuck in the middle. And she wasn’t the only one. Other people there were stuck, too. I think that’s why everybody turned to burglary or armed robbery or dealing drugs. That’s the only way they knew to get what they needed.”

Back then, that’s what Barron would tell himself— that his mother needed just a little extra money,
just enough to get them out of the projects. That’s why he started selling drugs, because he wanted to help his mom. That’s what he believed—that the road from “church kid” to “drug dealer” was paved with good intentions.

“I actually went to my mother when I was 16,” he remembers. “I told her, ‘Mom, I just want to let you know that I’m selling drugs.’ And she said, ‘Why would you do something like that?’ And I said, ‘Because I want to help you.’ And she told me, ‘That ain’t going to help me!’”

If it’s possible to become a prodigal in one night, that was Barron’s night.

“I told my mother, ‘But I’m good at it,’” he says. “And she told me, ‘Well, seeing as how you’re good at it, you go get your stuff and get out of here.’ And she put me out of the house.”

Barron Martin went prodigal one night in 1990. Sometimes it happens like that. But then other times, the distance between good kid and prodigal son is a 50-year-long slow fade.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It took Roderick Shaw a long time to lose his religion, and when you ask him how it happened, he’ll blame bad decisions, he’ll blame bad luck, but he’ll never, ever blame his mother. Roderick Shaw’s mother was a saint. If you don’t believe it, just ask him.

“She was always pushing me to be better,” he says. “She and my grandmother always took me to church. Every Sunday. And always, my mother would tell me, ‘You’re not going to be in any gang. You’re going to be somebody.’”

Roderick’s mother had to shoo him away from gangs because, as Roderick says, “She left one ghetto just to move to the next one.” Roderick spent half of his childhood in South Memphis and the other half in South Central Los Angeles.

“I wasn’t a bad kid,” he says. “But in South Central, I couldn’t help it. I was around gangs. You know the saying, ‘Whenever you’re in Rome, do as the Romans do’? To survive, you had to get along.”

Roderick joined the Army when he turned 18, and they shipped him off to Germany. Five thousand miles away from whatever positive influence his mother might have had, “getting along” became his new, go-to philosophy.

“We went out almost every night, partied a lot, did drugs a lot,” Roderick says. “And my religion fell off the shelf.”

That was when the back and forth began. The next 40 years for Roderick were filled with Sunday morning stops and starts.

“I actually got introduced to the Lord in ’85 or ’86,” he says. “And my life changed a little bit.” But after that “little bit” of change, there was a marriage, and then children, and then grandchildren, and then retirement. Then there was the murder of his grandson. Then there was divorce and drinking. He lost his home. He lost his health.

“I was devastated,” he says. “Whatever you can build up, I lost.” That’s when Roderick Shaw finally had enough. He went all-in prodigal. Or as he puts it, “Sometimes you fall in; sometimes you fall out.”

The Way Home

Barron Martin knew just what he was looking at when he saw Roderick Shaw.

“You ever seen a prodigal son?” he says. “That’s what he was. He was a broken man.”

Barron and Roderick ran into each other last year. They’re old friends and fellow prodigals. And that
made Roderick just the kind of person Barron was looking for, because Barron had become a prodigal pastor.

Shortly after his mom kicked him out of the house for selling drugs, Barron went to see a movie— The Passion of the Christ.

“When I saw that depiction of what happened to Jesus, something happened to me,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘look what He did for me.’ I couldn’t stop crying. And when I came out of that theater, I wasn’t Pharaoh anymore.”

One good thing led to another, and years later, he and some friends started a church for all the prodigals he once knew.

“People in Frayser know what kind of an animal I was before Christ,” he says. “And this blows their mind because my life was changed. I can say, ‘Jesus did it for me, He’s going to do it for you.’”

That’s how one Sunday earlier this year, Roderick the prodigal finally came home.

“This is the man who didn’t want to have anything to do with God,” Barron says. “And to see that man come to our church and fall on his knees and ask God for forgiveness, and repent and receive Jesus, and now he’s the first one to church and the last one to leave—that’s a success story to me.”

“We all want somebody to love us no matter what we do,” Roderick says. “And that’s God. He met me in all my dirt with the agape love that you don’t get from just anybody. And man, that was powerful.”

Prodigals Like Me

The fourth Saturday of every month is Barron’s favorite Saturday. That’s the day he and his church, One Faith Christian Center, go to the local elementary school and hand out donated food and clothes. More than 100 people normally show up, and almost all of them are prodigals, just like Barron and Roderick used to be. But these people are not prodigals because of where they live or what they’ve done. They’re prodigals because no one’s told them the truth.

“There are people here who don’t even know who Jesus is,” Barron says. “That means you’re talking to people who have no hope.”

Barron plans on spending the rest of his post-prodigal life changing that. “When you don’t believe in anything, that’s when you’re dangerous. But when you have Jesus, man, you have hope. We have got to communicate that to people here, that when they accept the gospel, their life is changed,” Barron says.

“Everything we do, we have to help people understand that. The blood of Jesus Christ changes everything.”

This is an excerpt from On Mission magazine. Click here to read more stories from On Mission about living on mission where you live, work and play.

There’s more to the story. Listen to the Stories of Hope podcast to hear more of Barron Martin and Roderick Shaw’s story.

Published February 5, 2020