That word summarizes the first 11 years of the life of Dawson Ray. Chaos was a life never lived too long under the same roof.
“I’ve been adopted twice, basically,” Dawson says with a chuckle, leaving that line awkwardly hanging in the air begging for clarification. When you read his story, you understand it may have multiple meanings.
Dawson has never met his biological father. His mother is homeless, having lived a life dominated by drugs. His nomadic childhood was lived in the homes of an aunt, the cousin of his biological mom, and his grandmother, Sandra. She was the primary Christian influence in his life and made a simple decision that would set into motion a chain of events that would change his life for eternity.
Her decision was made out of necessity. Tight times had forced Sandra to seek help for the most basic of needs, food. That search for food led to a Shades Mountain Baptist Church ministry, Love in Action. The search for physical food helped her find a home for spiritual food. She began attending services at Shades on occasion and alongside her was her now 12-year-old grandson, Dawson.
Church felt like a complete waste of time for Dawson. After all, he had already reconciled his eternal destination.
“At the age of 11, I had already accepted that I would never go to Heaven,” he said.
In Dawson’s mind it was being a good person that allowed entry to eternal life with God and nobody would have bestowed such a title on him. It was a situation Dawson didn’t see changing, so why concern oneself with reaching for a rung of the ladder much too high to grasp?
It was a stranger’s story of two trains that would make Ray realize that ladder can never be climbed. But that’s getting ahead of the story. Before Ray heard anything of the two trains, a life-changing series of events unfolded, a series of events only God could orchestrate.
Jordy and Kim Henson are active in Shades’ student ministry; having all four of your kids involved in that ministry has a funny way of putting you in that position. As such, it would not be out of the ordinary for them to be involved in the annual Crave Weekend.
The Henson home had hosted these events before, but always for girls. This made sense. Three of the four Henson children - Heather, Holli, and Hope - are girls. The Henson’s would ship their only son, Jordan, off to another house and host a new group of girls. At least that’s the way it had always been. But God had different plans.
Kim had worked the fall of 2014 as a volunteer in Shades Student Minister Steve Browning’s office helping plan for the upcoming Crave Weekend. The Hensons had renovated their basement with events like this in mind and were excited to use it again.
It was a phone call from the Student Discipleship Associate at the time, Heather Bishop, asking the Henson family to consider a change of course. The biggest need for a host home was not for girls, but rather for seventh grade boys. Jordy and Kim gladly agreed to the change.
Former Middle School Ministry Associate Clay Wyatt had noticed Dawson in 7th grade Sunday School and invited him to Crave Weekend, but Crave isn’t free and Dawson’s family was already strapped for cash. When Dawson’s Sunday School teachers learned money would be an issue, they quietly paid Dawson’s way. God had already set in motion the series of events that would change his life.
Wednesday night is Crave registration night when all the students meet their “family for the weekend.” For Dawson, any change in a family arrangement, even for just a weekend, would be welcomed.
Kim was working the seventh grade sign-up table where she met Sandra and her troubled grandson. When Kim told Sandra that Dawson would be staying at their home, her eyes filled with tears. She offered Kim her phone number, fearful Dawson wouldn’t make it the entire weekend. Kim assured Sandra everything would be fine but she wanted to prepare the Hensons for the challenge.
“She looks at me and says ‘He needs Jesus,’ Kim said. "'He doesn’t have any friends and he needs Jesus.’”
The small group responses that night would show Jordy and Kim the depth of this challenge. Each student was asked two questions:
What do you like best about yourself?
Dawson’s answer: “I’m not good at anything”
Rate your life 1-10.
Dawson’s rating? Zero.
“He broke my heart,” Kim said. “We knew he was going to be a challenge for the weekend.”
Jordy encouraged the other students to show kindness to Dawson, a kid they did not know.
“When we found out he was in our house,” Jordan’s voice trailed off, “nobody really knew his name, couldn’t really put his name to his face.”
But Dawson wasn’t completely unknown to Jordy. “Everyone knew Dawson for all the wrong reasons,” he said.
It was that knowledge that led Jordy to pull Dawson aside and explain that the Henson home operates on Biblical principles, sharing these words:
“…Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
“James 1:19,” Dawson quickly says today. That he now knows that verse and reference by heart, and tries to live by its words, is nothing short of a miracle of God. A miracle made clear by a story Dawson was about to hear, a story of two trains.
One of the most memorable parts of that Crave weekend will strike most as very odd: shoes. Dawson’s shoes specifically. He admits he wasn’t particularly aware of some of the basic rules of personal hygiene, or the benefits of socks.
“I didn’t have a lot of hygiene or much common sense,” he said, “and I didn’t wear socks with my shoes.” The odor that created became a bit of an issue, one Jordan tried to remedy himself.
“When Dawson was away we actually sprayed Febreze in his shoes,” Jordan says, laughing.
It wasn’t the odor of the shoes that most alarmed Jordy and Kim however. It was the size.
“He was in shoes with no laces,” Kim remembers. “The shoes were worn, stretched out and nasty.”
Jordy threw the stinky shoes in the garbage while Kim bought two new pairs for Dawson. Unfortunately, the new shoes were two sizes too small. Thankful for the kind gift, Dawson assured Jordy and Kim he would make the shoes fit and begged them not to return them.
“He was actually afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep the shoes,” Jordy recalls, “and he wouldn’t get new shoes.”
Jordy and Kim eventually solved the issue of Dawson’s soles but it was the issue of his soul that had begun to weigh heavier.
Adam Robinson is the pastor of Double Oak Community Church and was the speaker that Crave Weekend. During his Friday night message about the good train and evil train, Dawson first realized that he, or nobody for that matter, would ever be able to be “good enough” to reach God.
Yet, he learned, it was God who reached down to man, through the death of Jesus Christ, to remove them from their path of death and give them a hope. Or, as Adam put it, there are two trains going in opposite directions, one evil and one good. God reaches down and pulls you from the evil train and places you on the good train.
The 12-year-old who had already accepted his place in eternal Hell, separated from God, who lived a life on that figurative evil train steaming away from the station, finally realized that he was not the one who had to do all the work. Christ had already done it for him.
On a weekend where he thought his best gift would be a pair of shoes that almost fit, he found much more. On February 6, 2015, the kid who was a self-described “zero” finally found the value he was missing. That night, Dawson was given a hope and a future.
Dawson prayed to receive Christ as his Savior and was baptized during the service the following Sunday. Twelve-year-old Dawson had proven 11-year-old Dawson dead wrong: he had secured an eternal relationship with Christ. Indeed, Dawson now had an eternal home.
But the earthly home was still an issue.
“Friday, February 13th, the day after my birthday, I’ll never forget it,” Heather said.
Friday the 13th often gets a bad name, with a reputation of being a day on which bad things happen.
That wasn’t the case for the Henson family and Dawson. It was on that day, in February of 2015, that two of Dawson’s family members delivered him and a cardboard box filled with ill-fitting clothes - “All the clothes I had,” he says - to the Henson’s home, the place he has called home every day since.
It was exactly one week, to the day, since Dawson had first spent the night with the Hensons, one week after receiving his new shoes, there at the Henson’s home. It was one week after nailing down his eternal home that Dawson’s earthly home would change once again.
The Henson’s decision to open their home to Dawson was made quickly, but not without much prayer. It all started the Monday following Dawson’s baptism. He had returned to his house in Pelham and immediately fell ill, a sickness he attributes to being thrown back into an unhealthy living arrangement, back into chaos.
While out of school that Monday, Dawson spent his day exchanging text messages with Jordy. Those texts led Jordy and Kim to a simple reality: something had to be done. But what?
At the same time, Shades Pastor Danny Wood was in a sermon series titled “Do Something." The Hensons couldn’t get that phrase out of their minds or spirit.
“It was as if God was handing us a chance to make a difference and do something for His precious child,” Kim remembers, “how could we not be obedient, but what could we really do?”
The initial plan was to have Dawson occasionally spend time at the Henson home and provide him with some financial support. After talking with him more, it became apparent that wouldn’t be enough.
“It was obvious,” Jordy says, “that one Friday night a month and all the money in the world wasn’t fixing this issue.”
Jordy and Kim Henson, already the parents of three daughters and a son, all in different stages of life, almost simultaneously came to the same conclusion: Dawson had to become their fifth child.
But how would the other four children feel about that?
Heather and Holli, off in college at the University of Alabama, both voted to have Dawson live in their home. Hope, still living at home, was on board as well. But it was a conversation between Jordy and Jordan that solidified the vision.
“I was riding with Jordan,” Jordy remembers. “Jordan and I are pretty tight, and he says, ‘The way I see it, Dawson is in a bad situation and we can help him. We’ve been blessed and we’re supposed to help people we can help. Aren’t we supposed to do that kind of thing?’”
So two of Dawson’s family members, the first time they ever met the Henson family, stood in the Henson’s living room trying to do what they felt was best for Dawson. They signed over guardianship to Jordy and Kim and just then, out of chaos, Dawson’s life found order.
At the time, Dawson was enrolled at Riverchase Middle School and had already missed 60 days of school. His grades reflected the absences
“I had a 16, an ‘F’ in math,” Dawson said. “I remember that.” Dawson also had an ‘F’ in P.E.
“How does he have an ‘F’ in P.E.?" Kim remembers asking the P.E. teacher. "He told me Dawson never dressed out because he couldn’t find his P.E. clothes.”
The P.E. clothes were in the bottom of the cardboard box, the last remaining vestiges of the life Dawson lived before God changed everything.
After moving in with the Hensons, Dawson managed to improve that 16 in math to a ‘C’. He’s now a student at Pizitz Middle School, an A and B student. It’s just one of the seemingly innumerable ways his life has changed. Being an A/B student is certainly a first for him, but just as certainly not his only first.
As a mom, Kim was shocked at the firsts they got to experience with Dawson.
“You can imagine adopting a child from China and all the firsts they get to experience in America,” she said. “This is a kid from Pelham who had his first Easter basket that April. His first personal Bible, and first participation in sports.”
Or his first birthday party and cookie cake.” Kim says. “Our kids have had that forever, this is a kid who lives 20 miles down the road, one of who knows how many in our town.”
Dawson’s new life with Christ, his new life in a loving home has changed many things about him, including his life goals.
“The men in my family either never stayed, or they were bad,” Dawson said. Then he proudly adds, “I’ll be one of the first guys in my immediate family to be there for my kids, be there for my family, go to college. I‘ll be the first guy to change. I’ll be the first one not to use drugs.”
The life of Dawson Ray is a living testament of the ability of God to make a new creation. He looks and acts nothing like the kid who first arrived at the Henson home in February of 2015, changed in so many ways. His grades are good, his outlook on life is far more positive, his clothes fit and his size 15 shoes actually have laces.
But most of all, Dawson Ray changed trains.
And his life is finally on the right track.