Father and son share story of faith, family and forgiveness
Sunday, June 16, 2019
BJ Emerson’s life is wrapped up in stories — some he writes for his marketing clients and some he creates as a screenwriter, director and producer. But the one he tells today is different from all of those.
The story of how the prayers of an ex-convict changed a family for generations is not a fictional script for his next film. It is a true account that has been unfolding over the last 35 years. It is his story, and that ex-con is his father.
Founder of the Greenville advertising agency Buzzadelic, Emerson is producer and co-writer for “Stuck,” an award-winning short film that tells the story of a teenage boy’s angst as his father is about to be released from prison.
BJ experienced a similar crisis in his teen years. He was 14 when his dad, Allen Emerson, made national headlines for a string of crimes that had him facing more than 75 years in prison. Allen’s alcoholism and gambling addiction, coupled with a $2,000-a-week cocaine habit, had led the former supermarket manager to commit extortion crimes that had made him the subject of an FBI investigation in three states in the early 1980s.
BJ, whose parents had divorced when he was a baby, had never enjoyed a close relationship with his father during his childhood in Pennsylvania. But now their visits would need to take place at a federal penitentiary four states away.
Distant fathers had seemed to be part of the DNA for the Emerson family. Allen’s dad had abandoned him as a child, leaving him to be cared for by a grandmother who was already working to raise 11 children.
“For us, our legacy, the word father had probably a different meaning,” BJ, 50, said in a recent interview as he prepared to speak today at GCF Church. “... It seemed that side of our family tree was hopeless.”
But a few weeks into Allen’s four-year sentence, new seeds were being planted. Fellow inmates had invited him to go with them to the prison chapel, where students from a nearby college in Springfield, Mo., had a church service on Wednesday nights.
“I went down there and I heard the gospel for the first time,” Allen recalled. “I guess all my life I just steered away from that stuff because I didn’t want to show any weakness or anything.
“I heard the gospel and it got through to me; I realized that I really had a need. I accepted Jesus Christ that day and everything has changed.”
The difference was evident in Allen’s correspondence with his two sons. Allen began writing letters to BJ and Scott that made Jesus sound like someone Allen knew. Their father quoted from the Bible and told them that he was praying for them.
“The last verse of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:6) says ‘He will turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children and the hearts of the children back to the fathers,’ and it was that verse that I was really standing on,” Allen said.
Allen also prayed for his father, Allen Emerson Sr., whom he had not seen in decades. He didn’t even know if his father was still alive, but he wanted a chance to tell him that he had forgiven him.
“I really was desperate in the prayer,” Allen recalled. “(I asked) How can I do it? How can I get through to these guys, especially my father?’ I didn’t have any clue where he was. I even said to God in prayer, ‘If he’s still alive, send somebody to preach the gospel to him.’”
It would be years before Allen would receive an answer, and it was not the one he had expected.
Meanwhile, BJ was not eager to adopt the faith of his father. He and his brother made some visits after their dad was transferred to a prison in Danbury, Conn. But BJ spent most of his teen years playing in two rock bands and doing his own thing, giving little thought to his father’s prison conversion.
“I thought good for him,” BJ recalled. “That’s good to hear, but he’s not here and he’s missing a lot.”
There was bitterness on BJ’s part for his father’s absence. Allen wasn’t there for some of the milestones in his son’s life, like helping him learn how to drive a car or watching him graduate from high school. Prison and subsequent parole requirements kept Allen from seeing BJ graduate from boot camp, get married or even welcome his first child.
While Allen and BJ kept in contact, it was not until BJ returned from a tour of duty with the Navy that the two would forge the father-son bond that had eluded them for decades.
BJ’s marriage had begun to unravel during his deployment. As he returned from the Gulf War, there was little to come home to; the couple would soon divorce.
“I was just really broken,” BJ recalled. “My dad shows up … he was on the pier when I got back.
“Graduating high school and all these other things, I thought I needed him,” he said. “God knew when I would need him the most, and he was there to help me through that time.”
Allen, who had remarried after getting out of prison, left his home in New Hampshire and spent weeks staying with his son in South Carolina. As he helped BJ get back on his feet, Allen encouraged his son to go with him to church, where BJ came to embrace the Christian faith and to forgive his father.
“I saw a tangible transformation in the life of this individual,” BJ said of his father. “(He was) a very different person now with this love and joy and peace and patience and kindness, goodness, all these things that I started to see come out that I didn’t see before.
“When I realized the depth of my own depravity and I was forgiven, forgiving my father was not an issue at all,” he said. “It was easy.”
Forgiving his father didn’t seem hard to Allen either, but finding him was another matter. Allen Jr. had not seen his dad since 1959. BJ tried to help find his grandfather, requesting Navy records in an effort to locate him, but the family didn’t have any idea where to start.
Then in 1993, while attending a church conference in Florida, Allen opened a phone book in his hotel room and glanced down to find his own name, Allen M. Emerson. The next morning, he dialed the number, and his father, who lived about 10 miles from the hotel, answered the phone. That conversation was the beginning of a nine-year relationship that spanned the three generations. When Allen Sr. died, his son was sitting by his bed, reading to his father from the Gospel of John.
“My father, who had really little hope of reaching his sons and his father with the gospel, with this forgiveness and love that God had shown him, had asked God to send someone else,” BJ said. “Ultimately, God would use him to reach us directly and in person.”
The Emerson family’s story of the transformation from fatherlessness to forgiveness has been told numerous times through the years, mainly in prisons, where Allen has been volunteering in ministry for decades. Allen, who now lives in Charlotte with his wife, Doreen, and two teenage sons the couple adopted through the foster care system, has often addressed inmates with BJ by his side.
“We would have guys come up to us weeping,” BJ said. “Big buys, mean-looking guys with tattoos everywhere and saying, ‘I hope my daughter forgives me the way you forgave your dad ‘”
Allen, 71, who has faced some health challenges in recent years, has not been able to schedule as many prison visits as he once did. But father and son continue to say yes to opportunities to tell their story to others who are not behind bars but may feel imprisoned by unforgiveness.
“I think a lot of people perhaps struggle with bitterness as a result of relationships with their father,” BJ said. “But in this story you really see a full picture of a resolution after three decades and three generations. We like to share it as something that’s just a testimony to what God can do.
“We want to see others reconciled, set free and reunited, to choose forgiveness because bitterness is a legacy killer,” he said. “It’s not something that you want to live with.”